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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "American Idol" singer Clay Aiken tiptoed out of the closet this week into a world where American gay and lesbian celebrities are thriving, but still awaiting the company of an A-list star.
Aiken, 29, confirmed what most people in the music business have long believed when he told People magazine he was gay in an interview released on Wednesday.
The 2003 "Idol" runner-up joined popular television host and comedian Ellen DeGeneres, "Sex and the City" actress Cynthia Nixon, actor Neil Patrick Harris and others who have acknowledged their sexual orientation in recent years.
Hollywood has come a long way from the days when stars like Rock Hudson had to keep their sexuality a secret. But coming out can still be risky for a star even if it is no longer a career ender, Hollywood watchers said.
Actress Lindsay Lohan and British DJ Samantha Ronson have set tongues wagging for months about their friendship, but so far Lohan has dodged opportunities to clarify it. Lohan did acknowledge in a radio interview this week that the two had been "going out" for "a very long time," but did not provide details.
"Almost everyone who has come out has been happier because of it and in almost every case, it has helped their careers, " said Hollywood public relations expert Howard Bragman.
"However the fear is still there -- the fear of fans, and of studios. Coming out is easier in the music world and it is generally easier for women than men," said Bragman, founder of the Fifteen Minutes PR agency.
Concerns that openly gay and lesbian actors will be turned down for straight romantic screen roles or as action stars are fading, just as the number of gay characters on TV shows is on the rise.
Harris plays a skirt-chaser in the popular sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," and Nixon returned for the "Sex and the City" movie in May after acknowledging a four-year relationship with a woman.
A study by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) this week found that the number of gay and bisexual characters appearing in prime time series on U.S. broadcast TV this fall has more than doubled to 16 compared to a year ago.
In his interview with People magazine, Aiken expressed concern that his mostly female fans might desert him. But former 'N Sync singer Lance Bass, who came out as gay two years ago, said he doubts that would happen.
"I swear. When I came out, I had more female fans," Bass told the celebrity TV show Extra!
Still, what Bragman calls "the holy grail" -- the day when an A-list male Hollywood star declares himself gay -- is a ways off.
"To have a person who is truly at the top of their game disclose their true sexual orientation -- that remains a challenge in this country, because you can still be fired in over 30 U.S. states just for being openly gay or lesbian," said GLAAD president Neil Giuliano.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Xavier Briand