Pansexual, not bisexual

I originally wrote this back in Sept 2015 for an online magazine to which I submitted a few short pieces. I’ve spent some time thinking about whether it really belongs here. I’ve decided that, while it isn’t specifically about writing as such, it does make a point about the importance of a single word, a label, in self-identity. This matters, or should matter, to anyone whose writing involves character diversity, and not only in regards to orientation or gender. Reposted here with a few small corrections.


When I first realized, a bit over two decades ago, that I wasn’t straight, I took a look around me for an alternative description for myself. This being the early nineties, research was more complicated than looking online, and community and support more limited. I quickly concluded that “lesbian” wasn’t quite accurate, despite some lesbians occasionally choosing sex with men. When I stumbled over the idea of bisexuality, I seized on that: here was a term that wouldn’t try to force me to choose, and would allow me to acknowledge that I found people of many kinds attractive and desirable.

Life went on, and I ran into all the wonderful stereotypes that people have about bisexuality. Men I barely knew hit on me with descriptions of their wives. People assumed that I was non-monogamous because if I were monogamous, I would no longer be bisexual. I heard the bad jokes and the slurs and the put-downs: can’t make up their minds, sitting on the fence, want it both ways, in denial, too horny to care who they sleep with, and all the rest. I learned fast to stay away from lesbian events locally, because there was an unspoken rule that bi women were welcome only if they could be assumed to be lesbian–a kind of don’t ask, don’t tell. Having just come out of one closet, I refused to go back into another one.

Through all of this, the self-identification as bisexual never really fit comfortably. Being a writer, I experimented with words that more clearly fit my own internal reality: ambisensual, pansensual, and others I’ve since forgotten. The term “bisexual” includes “bi” which means “two,” and therefore implies that there is some sort of division: two sexes or two genders or simply like-me and not-like-me, I’ve seen all suggested. This, for me, is a problem, because that’s just not how I experience the world and my interactions with people. I continued for a long time to use the bisexual label for myself, for no better reason than that most people would recognize the word and I wouldn’t have to constantly explain to everyone what an unfamiliar word meant. It was, basically, close enough.

But it really isn’t. My relationships with women have been scant, since it’s harder to find same-sex partners outside of specific circles and I did not feel welcome in the local environment. On the other hand, my relationships with men, or at least those presenting as men, have a distinct pattern. So many have either come out to me as transgender before we got far, or have done so later, that an online friend, hearing about a new relationship, promptly asked me, “So, how trans is s/he?” This wasn’t the result of a conscious bias, just a reflection of an openness to people who don’t fit neatly into a category of gender expression, and I actually find the whole thing rather amusing. As it became more and more clear to me that my orientation label needed to be broader, the bisexual label chafed more and more.

“Bisexual” is often defined as “loves both men and women,” or some variation thereof (there are other definitions). That fits with the etymology, and that’s fine, but it leaves out those who do not fall into one category or another. I’ve encountered many arguments that it covers those alternatives by implication, but I’m not sure it does, and even if it does, I don’t think that’s adequate. It strikes me as erasing them, making them invisible or irrelevant, just “Oh yeah, them too.” To me, it fails to acknowledge their existence, or that there’s something special and unique about a lover who is transgender just as there is about a lover who is a cis man or a lover who is a cis woman.

There’s actually a reason a step beyond that, that was why I finally completely rejected the label of bisexual and claimed pansexuality as part of my personal definition, despite the need to explain often what that means.

The definitions given always do so in terms of gender and/or sexual identity: pansexuals have sexual or romantic relationships with people of all genders and sexes. Well, yes, but then again, no. I do not think I’m the only pansexual who feels like this (in fact, I’m quite sure I’m not).

This pansexual does NOT have sexual or romantic relationships with people of all genders and sexes. This pansexual has intimate relationships, with or without sex, with people. Period.

My attraction to someone has nothing to do with their gender expression or identity, because to me they are all on a complex spectrum: there is no such thing as absolute masculinity or absolute femininity, only varying degrees of elemental shades mingling into unique and often beautiful colours. What anatomy they have I don’t care about and certainly won’t ask about. Not even if sex is on the horizon, because I’m going to be just fine with either standard set or any variation thereof. In the interests of complete honesty, I have a learned caution about relationships with exclusively heterosexual cis men, because I’ve spent far too much time dealing with fragile egos and masculine identity, but even in that case, if I encountered one that otherwise attracted me and was sufficiently confident, I could have a relationship with him. Many (not all) of the traits that appeal to me the most strongly are more commonly considered “feminine,” but I’ve found them in people of all sorts; other traits that appeal to me are considered “masculine” or assumed to be neutral.

None of this means that I find every single person that I meet attractive on any level. I meet many people that I have no interest in a deeper connection with. It doesn’t mean that I’m oblivious to gender. I love seeing individualistic and creative ways that people express their gendered selves, whether cis or trans. It means that my personal criteria for attraction do not include gender or sex, and that my personal worldview does not include boxes or categories or hard boundaries. Labels are convenient, and I use them too, but they shade into each other at the edges, impossible to draw a line between one and the next.

To me, pansexuality isn’t just a sexual orientation. It’s not about who I have sex with, or who I feel erotic desire for. It’s a way of seeing the world and interacting with everyone within it.

This doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It doesn’t make me worse, either. This works for me. If people with similar approaches wish to call themselves bisexual or anything else, they’re welcome to do so, and I respect their right to find a word that they can identify with. If people have their own definitions of or approach to pansexuality, that’s also their right.

I find it infuriating, though, when people claim that pansexuality is identical to bisexuality and pansexuals are trying to somehow escape the stigma associated with bisexuality. (Think there’s no special stigma and non-monosexuals by any name get to have it both ways? Wrong – we get dumped on by both heterosexuals and homosexuals.) I don’t see any logic to this, since anyone biphobic is going to lump us all in together anyway. Or people claim that we’re trying to say that we’re better and more open than bisexuals are. No, you can be and love whoever you like and define yourself as you please, and there should not be a value judgement attached, but I demand the same right.

While reading through GLAAD’s website regarding BiWeek, and following a link or two from it, I found this same sort of nonsense, masquerading as positivity.

I can see needing a single term to use for their awareness month. That’s fine. Trying to be inclusive can turn into alphabet soup in a big hurry, and brevity is useful. The site includes this quote: “Some people who are attracted to people of any gender self-identify with words such as ‘bisexual,’ ‘pansexual,’ ‘polysexual,’ ‘omnisexual,’ ‘fluid,’ ‘queer,’ or other terminology.” So I’ll give them points for that.

However, the infographic on this page is insulting. On a page about pansexual celebrities, they include a graphic that essentially absorbs pansexuality and any other non-monosexual identity into bisexuality, under the “bisexual umbrella.” (Yes, there is a disclaimer in the corner… but if you don’t choose to be under that umbrella, then I can’t help but wonder whether your orientation is considered real at all?) Just above that, there’s a reference to the bi umbrella in the main text. Given that I deliberately and consciously rejected the label of bisexual, I consider this essentially the equivalent of telling me that pansexuality is nothing more than a subset of bisexuality, effectively erasing it as an independent identity. If you want to put all non-monosexuals under an umbrella, that’s fine by me: we do have something in common, after all. I object strenuously, however, to using a single subcategory within the broader spectrum of non-monosexuality as the defining term for the entire concept. The text below it includes this line, at least: “While being bisexual means being attracted to more than one gender, being pansexual means being attracted to all gender identities, or attracted to people regardless of gender.” That, I can live with. But the “bisexual umbrella”? Way to be inclusive and accepting while celebrating BiWeek, GLAAD…

That same page has a link to another site, with more info on pansexuality. I would not direct anyone to this page to explain pansexuality to them, and not because it needs a proofreader (although it does). About halfway down is this paragraph: “Recognition of the existence of different genders and sexualities is a major aspect of pansexual identity. Pansexual people are bisexual, in-fact; however, bisexuality does not place the same emphasis on sexual and gender identity awareness, but more simply indicates attraction to the two (generally accepted) biological sexes.”

In other words, pansexuality doesn’t exist as a separate thing, just a refinement in global (or possibly PC) awareness of bisexuality. From here on down, this page reads to me, being a writer, as though written by someone who has definite opinions about the existence and validity of pansexuality as opposed to bisexuality, and yet is trying to be politically correct. Possibly, it’s just too poorly written to express what was intended. In either case, it shouldn’t be promoted as unbiased info, especially during BiWeek. That one statement is inexcusable. I’m not normally all that easily offended, but I generally object to having core aspects of my identity dismissed, erased, or otherwise devalued.

This is the kind of thing that pansexuals face on a regular basis. If bisexuality is overlooked and made invisible by our culture (celebrities who are bi are typically described as gay or lesbian, something that recently and visibly occurred on Freddy Mercury’s birthday, for example), it’s even harder for pansexuals. In a culture that is obsessed with drawing lines and putting everyone into boxes, an identity that refuses to recognize the existence of those boxes as anything but temporary and voluntary is hard for many people to grasp and even harder for them to accept as real and valid–even within the broader LGBT community.

But for some of us, “bisexual” is simply not the right word. So please, don’t call me bi. Don’t tell me that pansexuality is a subset of bisexuality. I’ll acknowledge your right to identify yourself in whatever way works for you, and consider it valid and real. Do the same in return.

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3 Comments

  1. I’m not bisexual or pansexual, and don’t have a bone to pick, but… (Hmm, that’s probably the worst possible way to start a comment.)

    You can’t have a Bi Umbrella without including pansexuals, not without saying, “We represent people who are potentially attracted to people of two or more (but not all) genders.” And is a Bi Umbrella really such a bad thing when it is trying to pull together so many people with diverse identities yet shared experiences?

    • I don’t object to the existence of an umbrella that encompasses non-monosexual attraction. Sometimes umbrellas can be useful.

      What I object to is the labelling of that umbrella with the name of a sub-group within that umbrella. This reinforces the idea that only the term used as a label is valid, and the rest are variations or branches off that. This is, as I’ve tried to explain, not at all in line with my own experience or identity, and I’m not the only one.

      This is rather like looking at the family of big cats, and choosing to refer to them all as lions. Or referring to all doctors as gynecologists. Big cats and doctors are umbrella terms. Lions and gynecologists lie within those umbrellas, but they are not representative of the entire area covered by the umbrella. However, no one actually doubts that tigers and jaguars and leopards exist, or that general practitioners and psychiatrists and surgeons exist. That isn’t true for pansexuals. You did see that bit, right?

      Maybe, looking at your site, a better analogy would be this: calling it the “bi umbrella” is equivalent to referring to everyone who has a non-binary gender identity, everyone who has or wishes to transition full-time, everyone who occasionally cross-dresses, and everyone who wears the clothes of the opposite gender for performance, all as being under the “transsexual umbrella,” or, for short, “transsexual.” This implies that gender-fluid people, cross-dressers, and drag queens/kings, are less real than transsexuals are, or are variations or off-shoots. This is why we refer to the entire group as “transgender” instead.

      And, on top of that, what if some of the transsexuals were telling the gender-fluid people that they do not exist, that they’re actually transsexual but using a different name in order to avoid stigma? Under these conditions, would you expect all gender-fluid people to embrace the “transsexual umbrella”?

      Umbrella terms of any sort should not invalidate, even by implication, anyone beneath them. Using the name of one sub-group as the name of the entire umbrella does that. It is belittling and insulting to be told that you don’t exist, or that you’re just another kind of (or using a trendy name for) some completely different identity… or simply being the constant afterthought or footnote of, “Oh, yes, them too,” or left out entirely, sometimes deliberately. Many many people who are not familiar with the subject will not somehow intuitively read the footnote in when it’s left out. Being dismissed by our own greater community (such as it is) is not particularly affirming or supportive, and does not celebrate diversity despite its claims to do so. It’s difficult coming out as not-heterosexual. It’s worse when you are then ignored or insulted by other non-heterosexuals.

      So, yes, I do agree that an umbrella term is useful. While there are some distinct differences in the way various non-monosexuals function, it’s no greater than the difference between a cross-dresser and a transsexual.

      The trick is to find an umbrella term that is in fact inclusive and welcoming. Do I have one to offer? I would think “polysexual” might be good, although I believe there are people currently identifying as such. “Multisexual” sounds like an orgy. So, unfortunately, no. But that doesn’t mean we stop looking and just accept an easy solution that is a poor fit for many. Or that we force labels onto individuals who take exception to them.

      • Except, eight out of ten people think cats are a myth, and one of the other two is running around screaming that all cats are man-eating lions, drowning out the tenth person’s quiet attempts to educate people about the diverse natures of cats…

        But thank you for your explanation. I understand your point.

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