Singer Vanessa Carlton made headlines over the weekend by declaring to the crowd at the Nashville Pride concert that she is a proud bisexual woman. Carlton’s admission follows “True Blood” star Anna Paquin’s claim in a PSA that ran in April that she, too, is bisexual.
Is a bisexual confession simply a safe way for women to inch out of the closet? Is it a boon for the gay community? Or is it all a publicity stunt?
“Coming out as bisexual is a safe thing for a woman to do. For a woman to say she is bisexual today brings about as much stigma as saying she had braces as a child. Society has changed,” explains Michael Levine, Hollywood publicist and media expert. “In fact saying she is bisexual might even gain her some attention which will correlate to visibility for whatever she is working on.”
Bisexuality in Hollywood is a careful hedging of bets between appealing to a gay audience without alienating the heterosexual audience, say experts. Coming out as bisexual rather than gay may also be more palatable to an American male audience that finds something alluring about female bisexuality.
“Sometimes female celebrities say they are ‘bisexual’ as a way to get attention, not because they are really lesbians looking for a safe way to come out,” says psychiatrist Carole Lieberman. “Women know that men fantasize about seeing two women becoming sexual together, so claiming to be bisexual brings female celebs instant buzz.”
It could be why “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon joked when describing her lesbian partner in recent interviews. Nixon called her girlfriend, Christina Marinoni, "a short man with boobs," blurring the lines of what she finds attractive.
Nixon was promoting the release of “Sex and the City 2” when she gave her interview, and Paquin’s confession came as HBO was gearing up for the third season of “True Blood,” a sexually explicit show that plays off the bisexuality of its characters. Carlton's came as she premiered a new song, “Tall Tales for Spring,” Each woman made headlines and generated buzz for their projects for daring to discuss her sexuality.
But the positive brand building around female sexuality doesn’t hold true for male celebrities who come out of the closet, not as gay, but as bisexual.
“We do still have a culture that is a bit titillated by female and female sexuality and there is still a lot of cultural distrust that male bisexuality exists,” explains Dr. Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah psychology department. “If a man comes out as bisexual the heterosexual male community still thinks that it is a lily livered way of saying he is gay.”
While it is a buzz generator, admitting bisexuality can sometimes prove to be more difficult for a female celebrity than admitting they are gay, because the American public has created a mental narrative of what it means to be gay but bisexuality is still a gray area, says Denise Penn of the American Institute of Bisexuality.
“When you come out as bisexual there are many questions and misconceptions. People wonder if it means you will never be in a monogamous relationship or if it means you will always be dating both a man and a woman at the same time. It is more confusing for the public than coming out as simply gay,” Penn said.
Both Paquin and her fiancé, her “True Blood” co-star Stephen Moyer, have been busy for the past several months explaining what her bisexuality means to their relationship.
Moyer says he has known from the start about Paquin’s feelings towards women, telling Playboy in their July issue that it wasn’t “something that she kept from me.”
"I condone what she has done 100 percent," Moyer told the magazine. "It's her business to talk about it, not mine. It doesn't change anything. I'm proud of who she is."
And Paquin again addressed the issue in an interview with the July issue of Self magazine, admitting that she knows she may have blindsided some of her fans.
“I understand why it's a big deal to some people, but to me, it's not. I've probably always known I was bisexual,” she said. “I'm really lucky; I grew up in an open-minded, supportive family, so my sexuality was never stigmatized or scary or out of bounds.”
The bisexual confession is always a careful dance. Celebrities who purport to be supporters of the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities and opt to come out as bisexual should think before they make a public declaration, since their announcement, if not sincere, could do more harm than good. An example is troubled starlet Lindsay Lohan who said that she was bisexual when she dated celebrity DJ Samantha Ronson, but backtracked on that label when she and Samantha parted ways.
“I don’t know how helpful it is when some celebrities have come out as bisexual or changed their mind," Penn said. "Those of us who live in the Hollywood area know that there are managers and agents out here telling these people what they can and can’t do, and it is discouraging for the bisexual community because it reinforces the stereotype and the myth that bisexuality is just a phase."
Gay and lesbian activists say that at the end of the day, all honesty about a person’s sexuality advances the gay movement, whether that admission be about homosexuality or bisexuality.
“We’re seeing, more and more gay and bisexual people, including celebrities, living openly and honestly,” says Jarrett Barrios, President of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). “As fair-minded Americans are getting to know members of our community, acceptance is growing tremendously and it is so important that the public hear stories like these which represent the full diversity of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.”