Dear Civilities: Recently, I was watching Larry King interview Anna Paquin, who has said repeatedly that she’s bisexual, and wondered what you thought of it. Now that she’s married to a man (“happily, monogamously,” she added), King asked if that means she’s a “non-practicing bisexual.” She answered, “I don’t think it’s a past-tense thing.” I’m a straight married guy and I think pretty broad-minded about this stuff, but I’m confused because I thought the definition of bisexual was someone who slept with partners of either sex. So what does that even mean, to be a monogamous, married bisexual? If she’s married to a man and never sleeps with women, doesn’t that make her straight?
— Confused straight man
A: No, that doesn’t make the “True Blood” star straight. And yes, my “confused” letter writer, it’s possible to be monogamous, married and bisexual. The actress’s acknowledgment that she’s bisexual is about how she defines herself, not whom she shares her heart or bed with. Flipping it around a bit: Let’s say you, a married straight man, become a widower, and you remain single after that. Your heterosexuality is not a past tense thing because your identity remains the same, with or without your spouse.
Still, you don’t appear to be alone in being perplexed by Larry King’s interview with Paquin. Last week I did a Google search for the phrase “Anna Paquin bisexual.” Autofill did the rest. Among the top results were “Anna Paquin bisexual but married” and “Anna Paquin bisexuality made up,” which underscored the bewilderment many feel — and showed that one of the most famous myths about bisexuality endures.
Perhaps people think there is some cachet about identifying as bisexual, even a certain trendiness that promotes Paquin’s career. I’d argue that she wouldn’t “choose” to tangle with a term that gets so much flak in today’s world. No surprise to me, the outspoken actress addressed the issue head-on, telling King: “I’m someone who believes being bisexual is actually a thing. It’s not made up. It’s not a lack of decision. It’s not being greedy or numerous other ignorant things I’ve heard at this point.”
Part of the problem surely lies in the attempts at defining the term. I asked Joe Kort, a therapist and author of “Is My Husband Gay, Straight or Bi?” for his definition of bisexuality. He replied: “Bisexuals have an enduring attraction romantically and/or sexually towards both genders. Sometimes it is more toward one gender over another.”
But your question (and the King interview) reflects common misunderstandings about bisexuality that go beyond its definition.
“It’s exhausting trying to explain, when it’s really so simple,” a bi friend of mine recently told me. “I just don’t restrict myself to the possibility of falling in love or having sex with one gender or the other. People still think bisexuality doesn’t exist. Or that it means you can’t fall in love with one person. I’m hoping it’s like all the ignorance about gay people that’s finally starting to chip away — just a matter of time and information.”
Apparently, there’s a lot of shame involved still. A 2013 Pew Research report concluded that bisexuals remain far more closeted than gays or lesbians (by a ratio of 3 to 1) and that only 28 percent of them are out, which is key for acceptance. Kort added, “Bisexual men are frequently closeted because often women won’t date them or marry them, believing they are really gay men — ‘Bi now, gay later.’ ” Remaining in the closet leads to lies, loneliness and less honest relationships — as well as higher rates of depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol use.
What seemed most instructive in the Paquin-King exchange was the actress’s deft handling of her host’s ignorance. Neither on the offense nor defensive, Paquin returned fire with grace in a star performance that the rest of us should strive to emulate the next time we are treated with disrespect cloaked in ignorance.
Do you agree or disagree with my answer to the letter writer? Let me (and everyone else know) below.
E-mail questions to Civilities at firstname.lastname@example.org (unfortunately, not all questions can be answered). You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on Sept. 2.