Oprah Winfrey’s new OWN network launched last month with a variety of programming that appeals to a broad spectrum of viewers across the board. One of the latest offerings is Our America With Lisa Ling, which features the popular news journalist looking at a different topic in every episode and diving deep into that particular world in order to provide as many perspectives on the subject as possible. While her premiere episode last week focused on faith healers and future topics cover sex offenders and drug addiction, upcoming episodes (including this week’s show) take a look at two very different areas in the LGBT world.
In this week’s episode, Lisa talks to five different people – including six year old Haley, who was born Harry – at varying stages of being transgender and each story is more amazing and heartfelt than the next. As a gay man, even this critic hasn’t always understood what it means to be transgender but this week’s episode was an eye-opener. Also coming up on Ling’s show is an episode (airing March 8th) called ‘Pray The Gay Away?’ where Lisa looks at the always-sensitive relationship between being gay and religion. She visits the controversial Exodus group that ‘helps’ people who do not want to be gay as well as a camp where being gay and Christian go hand-in-hand.
I spoke with Lisa Ling recently about the new show and these LGBT-related episodes in particular and found that Ling was just as surprised at what she saw (and learned) as viewers will be when these episodes air.
Jim Halterman: Was it always a part of your plan with ‘Our America’ to show as many sides of a topic as you are able?
Lisa Ling: Definitely, especially in the case of ‘Pray The Gay Away.’ I really had to make an effort to really go into it as open-minded as possible because I didn’t want to pass judgment. I just wanted to go and understand why people believe what they believe. Now, it was very difficult for me [because] some of my best friends are gay and my husband and I are both severe gay rights activists but we really just wanted to understand. What I actually found in the case of the Exodus movement is while I don’t agree with them, the Exodus of today is not actively out trying to convert people. They’re basically saying if you don’t want to live a gay lifestyle, we can help you. Quite honestly, if that’s your prerogative if you fundamentally think being gay is wrong and you don’t want to live and be who you are, that’s your prerogative. My issue is when the church or anyone condemns people over what they think the Bible says or what they believe the Bible says.
JH: In the transgender episode, it was compelling for me to watch because I know the gay community has its own judgments but, speaking for myself, the episode truly opened my eyes up a lot and educated me in a way I hadn’t been before.
LL: By the way, that is frustrating for me as someone who has gay friends and transgender friends and why they’re always locked into the same category. To me that is completely unfair. Transgender people are not gay. I mean, maybe but just because someone is transgender does not mean they’re gay. In terms of Tan [who used to be Tanya]…wasn’t he amazing?
JH: Yes! I saw the clip of the show where he gives himself the shot in his backside and I thought it was going to be a story about steroids. I had no idea that he was a she!
LL: Right, right! Tan has a vagina! I just fell in love with all the people we profiled for this and I learned so much more than I ever anticipated and the struggles that people have who are transgender go beyond what we can even imagine. The fact that little six-year old Haley’s parents are supporting her to me is just so heartwarming. Haley’s father is this New England football watching, evangelical Sunday school teacher and he actually said ‘Growing up in this faith I was always taught that these people are wrong or there is something wrong with them or they’re sinners until my child turned out to be transgender.’ It just caused him to think differently and it made me just think that people really need to be exposed to more people who are different from themselves.
JH: What was the genesis of looking at the subject matter in ‘Pray The Gay Away?’
LL: I have so many gay friends and it hurts me to hear about the debate over who is more Christian and who would be accepted in the Kingdom of God. I really went on this journey to try and better understand and see if I could get closer to any conclusions and what I ended up recognizing is that ultimately – and Alan Chambers [President of Exodus and a ‘former’ gay man] said it at the very end, which really surprised me – God is about love, right? I was actually surprised at what Alan said but I admire him for going on a limb, probably against what a lot of members of his church would say, to say that he does believe that you will see some gay people in heaven. I think Exodus did take a much different tone years ago when they first started and I do think that in the beginning they were trying to convert and they were trying to convince people – well, they still are trying to convince people that something in their past compelled them to be gay, which I think is a little…I don’t believe that. I have too many gay friends in my life who have perfectly fine lives, they just love men or women.
JH: Watching the Exodus portion, I couldn’t help but think that it seemed like a lot of these men were basically changing one set of programming for another.
LL: It definitely was and everybody that I encountered at Exodus was very honest and I really appreciated that. It’s interesting, though, that the people there were so much more apprehensive about appearing on camera because it’s still really hard for them. On the same token, when I was at the Naming Project [a faith-based youth group located in Minnesota], I realized it’s hard for them because a lot of people in the gay community condemn Christians outright. Here are these gay Christians and the fact that they still love God as much as they do, the fact that they still believe in God and the fact that the Church condemns them to me shows me the levels of faith of other people.
JH: How do you turn off your own judgments and prejudice on a topic so you can be completely objective?
LL: I actually am very candid with people. I do my best to be open-minded but I told everyone at Exodus…everybody knew where I stood. When we first started trying to get an interview or trying to get into an Exodus conference we got rejected multiple of times. It wasn’t until I called and had a conversation with them a couple of times and I said ‘Look, I can’t promise anything obviously but you have to trust that I just want to understand and I’m not going to condemn you. That’s all I want to do.’ They trusted it enough to let us come in and I respect that.
JH: Not that I assume you have much free time but what is your guilty pleasure on television? Do you watch much?
LL: Because my husband monopolizes the TV at night, I generally have to watch what he watches which are Food Network shows but we both are now obsessed with Man Vs Food on the Travel Channel. I don’t cook but I somehow get coerced in watching every cooking show on TV! We watch a lot of Iron Chef. I love Bill Maher’s show…Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. I watch a lot of news, I love Glee when I get to watch it… Modern Family…Rachel Maddow.
Our America with Lisa Ling airs every Tuesday at 10 et/pt on OWN with re-airings throughout the week. To find out where OWN is on your cable system, check www.Oprah.com/OWN.
For more on Lisa Ling and Our America, check out my chat last week with Ling.