Larry King likely gave birth, albeit unintentionally, to at least one fledgling punk band during a recent interview with Anna Paquin, when he asked her if she is a “non-practicing bisexual.”
The actress, who is married to her True Blood co-star Stephen Moyer, tried to set King straight by saying that she’s “monogamously married,” but this only served to confuse him more.
“But you were bisexual?” he asked, forcing Paquin to explain that it’s not a “past tense thing” and that if a straight person “were to break up” with their partner, their sexuality wouldn’t just stop existing. Which was about the most PC way you could possibly point out that just because you agree to stay faithful to one person doesn’t mean that you stop wanting to have sex with other people—something the many-times-married Larry King probably knew already.
Part of King’s line of inquiry is just old-fashioned sexism, which has long pushed the belief that women are “naturally” monogamous and only interested in their partners, and that only men have to stifle their interest in others in order to maintain a monogamous commitment.
But part of it really does point to a long-standing challenge when it comes to bisexual visibility: Your sexuality may exist inside your head, but most people are going to judge your orientation by who you’re partnered with. And so monogamous married people tend to “read” as gay or straight, but some may actually be bisexual. “When you’re bisexual or pansexual, but you’re in a long-term relationship, your bi/pansexuality can become invisible,” Greta Christina, the author of Coming Out Atheist and expert on all things coming out sexuality-related or not, explained to me. “People often assume that you’re gay or straight, based on who you’re involved with now—and it kind of eradicates your history and your identity.”
This is a problem because, as the gay rights movement has shown, visibility helps—a lot. There are many myths that proliferate about bisexuals, including the myth that they are oversexed and can’t be monogamous, a myth that King was pushing with this line of questioning whether he intended to or not. These myths exist in no small part because there aren’t a lot of visible bisexuals to act as a counterpoint. Many of the uglier myths about gay people have faded in recent years as more gay people have come out and forced people who believed in ugly myths to rethink their opinions. Having just one out gay friend or family member, for instance, doubles the chance a person supports the right to same-sex marriage.
Christina, who writes about these issues frequently at her website, says that the importance of visibility is a major concern. “I sometimes find myself working my bisexuality into my conversations and my writing, even in awkward and irrelevant ways, just to make it visible. ‘As a bisexual, I prefer roasted vegetables to steamed ones.’ That’s silly—but it’s better than entire swaths of my self and my life being eradicated.”
This is where celebrity culture can help make a major impact—often by working together. While it’s easy for people in the know to laugh at Anna Paquin’s very patient explanation to Larry King, who sounds about as out-of-touch as you can get, for people who have never considered this subject before, the idea that a bisexual person’s approach to monogamy isn’t markedly different than a straight person’s might actually be a revelation. Because of the nature of celebrity media coverage, where direct questions about who you are and what your history is like come up all the time, celebrities who are bisexual have more of an opportunity to express this part of their identity and raise awareness of how common it really is for people to be bisexual—and how normal bisexual people are.
Frenchie Davis, the Broadway and pop singer who has appeared on The Voice and American Idol, did her part by explaining that she not only does a lot of LGBT activism, but is also bisexual herself. “I dated men and women, though lesbians weren’t feeling the bisexual thing,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Now I’m in love with a woman I think I can be with forever.” Like with Paquin, putting together the concept of monogamy and bisexuality can help get people more familiar with the fact that these two concepts aren’t in opposition.
Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and the show Portlandia shared some interesting thoughts with Williamette Week in 2010 on the importance of being out about who you are and how that sometimes conflicts with people’s desire not to prod and ask a bunch of nosy questions. Brownstein had been reticent in the past to talk about her sexual orientation, but bluntly said, “I definitely identify as bisexual,” adding, “It’s weird, because no one’s actually ever asked me. People just always assume, like, you’re this or that. It’s like, ‘OK. I’m bisexual. Just ask.’”
Social media can also play a role. You might know someone for years and have lots of polite conversations with them at parties without having any idea that they are bisexual, because it’s just something that doesn’t tend to come up organically all that often. But social media is a place where we all get to act a little like celebrities, sharing photographs and opinions and biographical details about ourselves that might not come up in direct face-to-face conversation. On Facebook, you get a slot to write both who you’re in a relationship with (if you are in one) and who you are interested in—whether it’s men, women, or both. But it’s beyond that: Twitter and Facebook are places that practically encourage people to make claims about their identity that they might not otherwise. It would be weird in person to celebrate Pride Month by announcing, “Proud to be a happily married bisexual mother. Marriage is about love not gender,” but on Twitter, as Paquin herself has shown, that’s a normal and expected way to talk.
Evan Rachel Wood also showed how the convergence of social media and celebrity can do a lot to raise bisexual visibility, ribbing Miley Cyrus a bit on Twitter back in 2012 while coming out herself as bisexual. As an added bonus, she didn’t just let it hang there, but engaged people who had comments and questions, hopefully helping further their understanding. While it’s understandable that many bisexual people might not want to do that kind of hand-holding in public, Wood’s forthrightness and laid-back sense of humor about all this probably helped turn a few minds toward being more understanding of what it’s like to be bisexual.
Inevitably when you start having discussions about this, someone feels the need to pop in and say, “Why do we need labels at all?” But the problem of bisexual invisibility shows exactly why we need labels and how much good they really can do. Naming a phenomenon makes it visible. Populating that name with examples that people can relate to makes it understandable. People who are putting their face out there and declaring their bisexuality are helping demystify it. Though it would be nice if they could do it without being peppered by a bunch of rude questions from Larry King.