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Oprah Winfrey pays tribute at GLAAD Media Awards to gay brother who died from AIDS

Winfrey tearfully spoke about her brother, Jeffrey Lee, 29, who died at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Oprah Winfrey at the 35th annual GLAAD Media Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif. on March 14, 2024.
Oprah Winfrey at the 35th annual GLAAD Media Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif. on March 14, 2024. Richard Shotwell / Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
/ Source: NBC News

In an emotional speech during the GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles on Thursday night, Oprah Winfrey paid a tearful tribute to her late brother, Jeffrey Lee, who died from AIDS in 1989 when he was 29. 

“Growing up at the time we did, in the community that we did, we didn’t have the language to understand or to speak about sexuality and gender in the way that we do now,” said Winfrey, who was accepting the advocacy group’s Vanguard Award for LGBTQ allyship. “At the time, I really didn’t know how deeply my brother internalized the shame that he felt about being gay. I wish he could have lived to witness these liberated times and to be here with me tonight.”

Winfrey, one of the most famous and successful women in the world, then reflected on how she has used her platform over the past four decades — including her wildly popular daytime talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which ran from 1986 to 2011 — to amplify LGBTQ voices and dispel misinformation about HIV/AIDS, which disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men and transgender women.

She recalled taking her syndicated talk show to Williamson, West Virginia, in 1987 and holding a town hall after discovering that local officials there had shuttered a community pool because a man with AIDS had gone swimming there. 

“They shut the whole pool down and the town turned against him because he’d gone swimming with his sister, and it caused such an uproar that there was rampant misinformation and misguided fear,” she said. “We took our whole show there, and we brought a medical expert … we brought the facts and tried to erase some of the biases.”

Winfrey then recalled returning to Williamson more than two decades later, in 2010, to revisit that community and “help people confront their beliefs around homosexuality and saw both the personal growth and the lack of personal growth that had taken place.”

Almost a decade after her first trip to Williamson, Winfrey said, she decided to appear on a historic episode of Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom, “Ellen,” in 1997. 

“I got a call from Ellen asking me to play the role of a therapist on her show, as she came out and became the first gay lead character on a U.S. network television show,” she recalled. 

What surprised her at the time, she said, was the influx of hate mail she received afterward. 

“This was before social media, y’all” she added. “People were actually writing down and paying for a stamp and mailing in their hate and outrage.”

Since launching the Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, in 2011, Winfrey has brought documentaries centered on transgender people to her audience, including “Becoming Chaz” in 2011 and “I Am Jazz” in 2015. In 2021, on Apple TV’s “The Oprah Conversation,” she also noted, “Elliot Page entrusted me to share the joy of his transition, which helped open up the understanding of the challenges, fears and pressure facing our trans youth today.”

At the end of her almost 10-minute speech, Winfrey said she would continue to “support and produce projects centering LGBTQ storylines” and “hire queer and trans filmmakers to bring authentic characters to the screen.”

“When we can see one another, truly see one another, when we are open to supporting the truth of a fellow human, it makes for a full, rich, vibrant life for us all,” she said. “That’s what I wish my brother Jeffrey could have experienced — a world that could see him for who he was and appreciate him for what he brought to this world.”

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