It would not be an exaggeration to say that Evan Rachel Wood is saving lives.
The 29-year-old Westworld star and increasingly outspoken bisexual advocate delivered a moving address at a Human Rights Campaign gala in North Carolina last weekend, where she was being honored with an HRC Visibility Award.
The speech has since spread widely online for good reason: Wood was powerfully honest about the bisexual community’s underreported struggles with shame, depression, fear, and suicide—and about how she can use her celebrity status to help fight those battles.
“I choose to use my voice because it would feel selfish to have acquired the platform to represent the underrepresented and to not use it,” she said near the end of her speech.
Wood, who said she “grew up a tomboy in North Carolina,” struggled to understand her own attraction to both men and women as a teenager. But when she heard an actress say the word “bisexual,” a light bulb went off. Having a recognizable term for her feelings, she said, “made [her] feel less crazy.”
“An actress just said a word but it made a world of difference in my life and in my identity,” Wood recalled.
So who knows how many bisexual people—the vast majority of whom are not yet out to “most of the important people in their life,” according to Pew—will have their own lives altered by hearing a popular young actress like Wood not just utter the word “bisexual,” but speak openly about her identity?
Granted, there is no shortage of bisexual celebrities—and that shouldn’t be a surprise seeing as bisexual people comprise more than half of the U.S. LGBT community. In the ’70s and ’80s, superstar David Bowie was a beacon of gender and sexual fluidity but ultimately defied labeling and categorization—a gesture that, as The Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman wrote, proved to be liberating. But there can also be a certain galvanizing power in embracing labels, too, and celebrities like Alan Cumming, Lady Gaga, Margaret Cho, Megan Fox, Amber Heard, and more have all since claimed the term “bisexual” more explicitly.
Still, as Wood herself recognized in an interview with The Daily Beast last summer, there is a need for public figures like her—equally at home both on HBO and at the HRC—who are willing to be outspoken about bisexual identity for a rising generation.
“[Ellen Page] has been so inspiring for me on every level,” Wood told The Daily Beast, referring to the Juno star’s dramatic 2014 coming out speech. “And I did think, there isn’t really a bisexual Ellen Page—you know what I mean? It did inspire me to want to speak out and also show that it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re affected by the way we perceive certain people in the world and the messages that we send out to society.”
There are bisexual celebrities who don’t want to talk about their orientation, as is their prerogative. And there are others who find the media’s relentless focus on their bisexuality to be wearying at times.
Good Wife star and celebrated LGBT humanitarian Alan Cumming, for example, told The Huffington Post last year that he’s getting “a little tired” of being asked to rehash his sexuality over and over again—and of being labeled a “bi actor” rather than just an “actor.”
Which is why there’s a need now more than ever for a young star who’s willing to call herself the “bisexual Ellen Page” and carry the banner for those who can’t—and those who prefer not to.
The HRC gala wasn’t the first time that Wood, who came out on Twitter in 2012, has been open about her sexual orientation. She’s discussed it in interviews—including with The Daily Beast—and last year, she posted a 20-minute confessional video about being “openly bisexual.”
In that video, released just days before the Pulse nightclub shooting, Wood rattled off disheartening statistics about bisexual people—particularly bisexual women—and located her own experiences within them.
Bisexual people are at an increased risk of suicide attempts; Wood said she attempted suicide when she was younger. Bisexual women are more likely to experience intimate partner abuse; Wood said that she had been in abusive relationship in which her bisexuality likely played a subconscious role. (She would later describe her experiences of rape and sexual assault in more detail.)
Bisexual people face discrimination inside the LGBT community as well as without; Wood said that she has been told both that she is not “gay enough” and “not straight enough.”
As Wood observed the HRC gala, scrolling through those statistics was “like reading an autobiography.” And part of why Wood suspects her own story was so tumultuous was because “she had no role model” in her life.
“No one I knew was talking about it,” she said in her HRC speech. “I wasn’t exposed. So the only thing that I knew was fear, and confusion, and loneliness. How can you be who you are when you don’t understand what you’re feeling?”
That’s not just armchair theorizing, either. One 2012 public health study found that LGBT youth whose loved ones aren’t willing to act as LGBT-affirming role models “showed increased psychological distress” compared to those with positive role models in their immediate circles. Those youth may end up being forced to “choose less accessible role models such as entertainers or public figures encountered largely through the media” instead.
Entertainers, as the study noted, might not be able to provide emotional support firsthand but they can “be important in the development of the youth’s identity as an LGBT individual.”LGBT celebrities can’t directly save kids from school bullying, for instance—they’ve got award-winning shows about android cowboys to shoot—but, like Ellen DeGeneres, they can fan the flames of cultural change and help their fans make breakthroughs about their own identities.
That was certainly true in Wood’s own childhood story of being mystified by her own sexuality until she heard the word “bisexual” not from a family member or a classmate—but from an actress. And until LGBT identities are no longer marginalized, it looks like she’s going to repay that good deed by flying the bi flag for anyone to see.
“I think we should live in a world where labels aren’t really a thing and we can all be one,” she said in her 2016 video. “That’s a great fucking idea. [But] we’re not there yet, unfortunately. And until we’re there, I felt a duty to… be a flare—especially for bisexuals.”