Thursday, June 2, 2011

This Gay Man's Fitting Tribute to Oprah

'"I won't say good-bye.  I'll just say...until we meet again."'

And then, her job done, she slowly walked stage left, touching hands with a few audience members, briefly hugging others.

When she got to Stedman Graham, her life partner since the same year her show went national, she embraced him the longest and the firmest. Then she touched, hugged, or kissed a few more people before she seemed to disappear for good.  A camera provided a bird's eye view of the studio, as the light followed her while everything else when black.

Finally, another camera showed her at the end of the ramp off stage, facing the audience, putting her hands together as though in prayer and bowing graciously. She opened her arms, symbolically embracing everyone at once and taking in all the love offered to her from the standing ovation.  Then, with dignity and grace, indicative of the way she conducted herself on her show, she smiled warmly, turned, and exited.

And that was it.

A full twenty-five years in front of our TV screens, watching arguably one of the best interviewers and most inspirational TV personalities and human beings of our time, had come and gone.  And the daily reality for millions of viewers around the world, including me, that was "The Oprah Winfrey Show," had ended.

I remember watching that first nationally-syndicated episode on September 8, 1986.  I was twenty-six and lived in Kelowna, a community of about 80,000 in the Interior of British Columbia.  I was a teller then, had been for five years, at a branch of the second largest financial institution in Canada.  I was single, lonely, and had been out of the closet less than a year.  Every second Saturday, I volunteered as a DJ at Club Amicus, the only local gay club in town.  In all the most important ways, I see now, my life had only just begun.

I didn't like that first episode, not because of anything Oprah did or didn't do--although I found her too excitable and I worried the topics she'd discuss would be trivial--but because, at the time, I was an avid viewer of "The Phil Donohue Show."  Had been for years.  I thought, when it came to talk show hosts, Donohue was the gold standard, and when it came to talk shows, none would ever handle more compelling subjects in a more compelling way.  In other words, I didn't like Oprah because she wasn't Donohue, and I was sure her show wouldn't last beyond a year.

Still, I kept watching.  My VCR set to record "Oprah" at 4:00 p.m. every afternoon, Monday to Friday, and no interest in deleting that command, I found myself tuning in nearly every evening, after dinner was over and the dishes were done, to see what Oprah had said that day.  Sometimes, I watched entire episodes; other times, after I found out what the topics were, I deleted episodes without watching them beyond a few minutes, deciding I had better things to do with the limited time I had outside of my demanding job.      

Sooner rather than later, I began to watch more episodes straight through than I deleted.  And, without realizing it at the time, I started a daily habit that would last twenty-five years--half my life.  If, for some reason, I couldn't watch "Oprah" on the days they recorded, I kept them for the weekend and watched one or more at a time.  Oprah fests.  At some point, my day didn't feel complete until I'd watched the current episode, and, like millions of other viewers, I began to lose interest in Donohue.

Even before Oprah officially changed the direction of her show in the mid-90s, there was still much to watch, much to ponder, and much to apply to my own life. I learned, for example, that issues experienced within your family would continue to repeat themselves in adult relationships as long as they remained unresolved. I learned the necessity of feeling the fear, and doing it anyway.  And I learned that, often, the only thing I needed to do to change my life was to change my mind about how I felt about something.

But when Oprah moved her show from a mostly-tabloid format--which hosts like Maury Povich and Jerry Springer would later take to a whole other regrettable level--to "Live Your Best Life" TV, then did she differentiate herself forever from all the many others who had entered the talk show ring.  No more, she told viewers, would she spend entire episodes on what I've come to call "ain't it awful" TV--people complaining about how badly their lives turned out and how everyone else is to blame.  Rather, Oprah said she'd focus on solutions, and teach people to take responsibility for themselves.

If ever someone needed to take responsibility for himself, it was me.  In my mid-twenties, I was miserable.  I lived alone, was lonely as hell, and doubted I'd ever find someone to love or to love me back  My job was just that--a job.  It wasn't a career, by any means, and I felt empty and lost.  One of the biggest questions on my mind was, what should I do with my life?  I didn't know.  Had no clue.  So I told myself I'd be a teller until I figured it out, or until something better came along. Briefly, I considered going back to school, but that wasn't really an option.  I had no interest and no money.    

But that was the least of it.  I was messed up inside, big time.  Raised by an embittered mother and an emotionally-absent, disciplinarian father, I was an over-sensitive kid, who felt disconnected from  everyone around him.  While I had the rare teacher who saw a spark in me, and encouraged me to excel in English, Drama, and Creative Writing, for example, I spent many years feeling alone and isolated.  Circumstances only got worse when some of my classmates suspected I was gay.  From that point on, despite living in two different communities, and attending several schools, the bullying never ended.

In "The Oprah Winfrey Show" Finale, Oprah said, "The show has taught me there is a common thread that runs through all of our pain and all of our suffering, and that is unworthiness."  And so it was for me.  But it took many years of watching "Oprah" to peel away the layers, and to realize that was the case.  How did I know that the emptiness I felt, the aimlessness, and the detachment from everyone, had to do with feeling unworthy?  Oprah gave what I felt a name, and, over a long time, and with a lot of patience, she taught me, "Your being here, your being alive makes worthiness your birthright.  You alone are enough."  Talk about an a-ha moment that changed my life forever.  Forever.

Some might well ask, what do an overweight, black, American woman and a gay, white, Canadian man have in common, and I'd answer...plenty.  True, I wasn't raised in racially-segregated, rural Mississippi in the 1950s.  True, I wasn't shuffled from one home to the next when I was a child.  True, I wasn't sexually abused at the hands of family members.  But however I got to where I was, I landed, more or less, in the same place as Oprah, and millions of her viewers, did, each of us taking his own route, yet ending up feeling inadequate, unworthy, and unloved.  Oprah's story, then, is my story, and our story, regardless of who we are.

Of course, I applaud "The Oprah Winfrey Show" for being one of the first places where I saw gay and lesbian people in the mid-1980s, portrayed in a positive and sympathetic way.  While the subjects of the shows--HIV and AIDS, for example--may have been difficult and negative, often causing audience members to get up in arms and portray gay people as unnatural and evil, never once did Oprah show them disrespect.  In that sense, she taught me, through her interactions with them, that gay people are like everyone else, that we're deserving of dignity and reverence, and that it's all right to be exactly who and what I am.

Without a doubt in my mind, I would not be the same person I am today were it not for "The Oprah Winfrey Show."  Did I watch every single episode over the years?  Of course not.  Did I agree with every movie Oprah endorsed, every product she recommended, every book she selected for her book club?  Of course not.  Did I lose all capacity to think and do for myself, because I spent literally thousands of hours sitting in front of the TV, listening to everything Oprah and her guests said?  Of course not.

But I paid attention.  I paid attention to the messages that were reinforced, over and over again:  Don't make your self-worth dependent upon anything or anyone; realize the power you have to change your own life; be responsible for your own happiness; know the positive difference you can make in other people's lives; what you get back is proportionate to what you give out; we all have a calling, and your job is to find out what that is; follow your passion; don't blame everyone else for your bad choices; take responsibility for the energy you bring into a space; love yourself.  The list goes on and on.  I listened.  And I learned.  

As I watched Oprah take her final bow on Wednesday, May 25th, and cried at the realization my good friend wouldn't be a part of my daily life ever again--not even from the platform of her network, OWN--one word popped into my head.  Mother. I'm not the first to recognize the mother that is Oprah.  In Part II of "Oprah's Farewell Spectacular," broadcast from Chicago's United Centre on May 24th, in a heartfelt comment, Jada Pinkett Smith told Oprah, '"I know you don't have children of your own, but you have mothered millions."'  I applauded that, along with the 8,000 audience members on hand, because no truer words had ever been spoken.

My own parents gave me life, and, for better or worse, saw me through to the age of twenty-five.  But, from there, Oprah took over, mothering me for the next twenty-five years, and providing me with the common sense, advice, and wisdom no one else ever had--not my parents or relatives, not teachers, nor any of the few friends I had.  In the process, Oprah played an undeniable role in helping me to heal the wounds from my past, and she opened me up to the endless possibilities of my life right now and in the future.

I never met Oprah in person, nor did I have the good fortune to sit in one of her audiences, but I feel I know her.  Many millions of us do.  In some respects, I know her better than I know my own parents, because she was present for me--even for just an hour a day, which was usually more time than my parents spent with me when I was growing up.  Oprah understood my pain, the pain common to most of us, because of the dysfunctional way we were raised, or how people in our lives treated us, and she cared enough to take my hand and to help me on the journey to myself.

Last weekend, just a few days after her sign off, I said to Chris, "I already miss Oprah," even though I still have a few unviewed episodes recorded on the DVR; even though, if I really wanted to, I could still watch repeat episodes until the 4:00 p.m. weekday time slot is handed over to someone else this September, whoever that will be (although I can't imagine who could fill it the way Oprah did for all those years).  And Chris said, "It's time to leave the nest."

And so it is.  He's right.  I've attended all the classes, I've heard all the lessons, and, now, it's time to use what I've learned and fly on my own.      

So there's just one final thing to say, although it's scarcely enough:  Thank-you, Oprah.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Thank you for being the human being you are.  And thank you for being such a light and inspiration in my life.    

You can't begin to imagine, while you focused on empowering women, how you empowered this gay man, too.  How much of a positive impact you had on my life, and the lives of countless other gay men, who, like me, needed to hear your message at exactly the time you delivered it.  And how much I try today to share on this blog some of what I learned from you, with other gay men and lesbian women to help them on their own journeys.

I care so much about them and what happens to them, as you cared about me for twenty-five years.  And I pray I say something, anything, that will let them know how truly worthy they are, how much they are loved, and how much they deserve to love themselves.

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