What’s confusing is the English language, especially where it curls around the edges of gender identity, sex and sexuality. I’m a little confused.
In general, I don’t sweat labels. I don’t need anyone to scan my bar code and read my sexuality; I’m hetero-married and monogamous. For my own personal sense of identity, that little thing I keep locked up in an imaginary box inside my mind, I’d like to settle the question: bisexual or pansexual? Is there a difference? If so, what is the difference?
Even though I don’t need a label, I don’t shy away from it, either, and since college, that label has been “bi.” I was comfortable with it. I truly do not care about other people’s sexual orientations. I get along fine with people who have sexual preference in addition to person preference, even though I only have person preference.
Yet, tell me that someone famous and beautiful self-identifies as bisexual, and some part of my mind thinks, “Victory!” I’m proud to be on – I’m no historian, but probably – Team Lord Byron, Team Tallulah Bankhead, Team Freddy Mercury.
Then came Twitter. Somehow, I started following a Twitter entity known as @BisexualFTW, as in “Bisexual For the Win.” It shares tweets that contain “bi” or “bisexual.” Some of them are positive and empowering. Others of them perpetuate stereotypes, such as “bisexuality doesn’t exist; you’re just confused,” “all bis cheat” and the old just-a-phase adage “bi now, gay later.” Often, these retweets provoke discussion.
Sometimes, @BisexualFTW retweets @Pansexual_FTW. These tweets tend to spark conversations about the whether or not “bi” and “pan” are equivalent terms. I began to wonder this myself. I posed the question on Twitter. In a much-shortened form, the question was this: If I’m attracted to men and women, but I haven’t excluded the possibility that I could be attracted to, say, an intersexed person who didn’t identify as either male or female, does that make me pansexual? I got back three answers: Yes. No. You decide.
The “yes” camp said, “Bi people can be attracted to intersexed, genderqueer, two-spirited, etc.” The “no” camp replied with, “Bi and pan aren’t the same thing. Bi means two, pan means all. There’s a difference.”
But where does that difference lie – in Greek root words, or in human behavior? What are we arguing about here: terminology, or an underlying belief about whether the human species can be divided into only two, or more than two, sexes? If you ask Nonbinary.org, the website gives you a variety of non-male and non-female gender choices, from agender to neutrois to third gender. Nonbinary.org also includes transgender, but notes that to be transgender one must accept the idea of binary gender and recognize that one has transitioned from gender #1 to gender #2.
One Tweeter told me (in a shortened, Twitter-style format), “You usually know if you’re pan, though.” It’s kind of like, “I may not know art, but I know what I like,” then. You’ll know pan when you see it.
Twitter wasn’t being much help, and Nonbinary.org just opened up a whole new can of sexes, so I put the question out there in an informal Facebook poll: Are bisexual and pansexual the same thing, or two different things? Again, answers varied. One person said, “I think pansexuality tries to differentiate itself from bisexuality by also focusing on gender identity issues.” Another person said, “Pansexual is a gender-confused term. Whereas bisexual refers to sexual attraction toward members of either sex, pansexuality includes people who are confused about their sexuality.” Confusion reigns again – but does it have to?
I consulted Pansexual FTW on Tumblr. The description spelled it out like this: "Pansexuality refers to the potential for attraction towards people of all gender identities and biological sexes; some pansexuals feel they are gender blind. This is us in a nut shell, but we are a diverse group of individuals, and not all identify exactly the same. Pansexual does not equal objectosexual - we are not attracted to objects; sorry to disappoint.”
It’s been a while since I studied psychology in college, but I think “objectosexuality” is what we’d call the various paraphilias, which can be considered abnormal if they interfere with activities of daily living. I suspect someone may have confused pansexual with pantheism, the spiritual belief that everything in the universe is animate.
Either that, or someone has been read The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe by Nicole Kristal and Mike Szymanski. If only this book had all the answers its sweeping title promises. In a section called “Labels That Really Mean Bi,” Kristal and Szymanski jokingly define “pansexual” as “one who is attracted to people of multiple genders, exhibiting a sexuality that has many different forms, objects and outlets – and perhaps kitchen utensils.”
The humorous volume can’t be taken as bisexual gospel, and its “Famous Fence Sitters” chapter confusingly lists heterosexual people who’ve only played queer characters on film, but a quote from famous fence-sitter Michael Stipe may actually be instructive. The R.E.M. frontman said of bisexuality, “It’s just another category. No one wants to use the b-word. I understand that things are getting a bit more fluid in the younger generation.”
I suspect that “not all identify exactly the same” and “things are getting a bit more fluid” are as close to the truth as I’d hit upon thus far. So, as I sometimes do when I need clarification on a sexuality-related topic, I turned to The Boston Women Health Collective’s iconic Our Bodies, Ourselves. It defines “bisexual” and “pansexual:”
“Bisexual: Describes people who are sexually attracted to men and women.” Check. I’m that.
“Pansexual: Describes someone who is attracted to people across the range of genders. Often used by those who identify as transgender or genderqueer of who attracted to people who are transgender or genderqueer.” In other words, pan is the “it’s complicated” of the sexual-preference-or-lack-thereof scale.
I’m not transgender, and I don’t identify as genderqueer, but I think it’s fair to say I’m attracted to people across a range of genders. Could I be attracted to someone transsexual, or intersexed, or who choose not to identify as either male or female? Check. Note that according to these definitions, bisexual and pansexual are not mutually exclusive; this suggests to me that bi/pan might work as a label.
The “curious” label can be just as problematic as “confused,” with its implication that one has to try something or “experiment” to know what he or she (or add your pronoun here if neither one applies) likes. But if, as The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe suggests, “the younger generation” doesn’t mind labels that are fluid and might peel off if you examine them closely, bi-but-pan-curious might work for me, and perhaps for you, too. Apparently, though, you already knew that.