First Person: Pansexual, not bisexual

This series features first person narratives about personal LGBT-related issues and experiences.

The Pansexuality flag or Pansexual pride flag. The blue portion of the flag represents those who identify as male (regardless of biological sex), the rose or pink portion represents those who identify as female (regardless of biological sex), and the gold or yellow portion represents those who identify as both genders, neither gender or a third gender, such as genderqueer and agender. The gold/yellow also represents non-binary attraction between the male and female genders. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

By Steph Shangraw
LGBT Perspectives

KINGSTON, Ont. — 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. My relationships with men, on the other hand, 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 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 BiMonth, 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.” 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 idependent 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 BiMonth, 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. 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 BiMonth. 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.


2 thoughts on “First Person: Pansexual, not bisexual”

  1. *sigh* Why I prefer to write things and then look at them a couple of days later. My apologies: I referred to GLAAD’s BiMonth several times. That should be BiWeek, as in Jillian’s previous article. *thumps head on desk once for each occurence*


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