Bi Is Enough: Parting With Pansexuality
In a 2018 article from Insider, Angela Johnson wrote, “bisexuality refers to a person who is attracted to people who are the same gender as themselves, as well as those of different genders. Pansexuality is an identity label used to describe a person who is attracted to all gender identities.” These terms’ definitions seem strikingly similar, but in the common language of young LGBTQ people today, these two terms have become widely recognized as overlapping, yet distinct sexualities. The question of the real meaning of these identities and their relationship to each other is one that I have been wrestling with for a couple of years now, since the very beginning of my coming out process. I told the first people that I came out to that I was bisexual and pansexual, and that I used the terms interchangeably. I continued to use both labels for myself, or to at least to consider them equally applicable descriptions of my sexuality. However, I always more strongly identified with bisexuality for some reason. Despite being attracted to men, women, and nonbinary people, I felt more comfortable with the term “bi” than “pan” when it came to my own identity. I used to struggle with guilt because of this: Did I have too binary an understanding of attraction? Was I transphobic, even as a nonbinary person myself? Was I less inclusive than people who identified exclusively as pansexual because I apparently wasn’t attracted to people regardless of gender? I felt the need to clarify when I told someone that I was bisexual by saying “but I’m attracted to all genders really. I really could call myself pan.”
Since then, I gradually grew to more exclusively identify as bisexual, with no caveats or apologies, and whenever I thought about that inner debate (that reflected many public debates in the LGBTQ community), I found that I was growing more and more dissatisfied with this division. Why did we need two labels for people who essentially experienced attraction in the same way? Why did there need to be two different communities? I couldn’t find a satisfying answer to this question beyond the fact that, of course, people were allowed to identify in the way that felt most comfortable to them. Slowly I began to find a more clarified position, after repeatedly processing my own identity and my relationship to the rest of the LGBTQ community, and after witnessing dozens of conversations about pansexuality and bisexuality online and in person. My position evolved into this: the LGBTQ community does not need pansexuality. Bisexuality is enough.
For those who identify as pansexual, this might seem like a particularly unnecessary and mean-spirited belief. I initially thought the same thing - was this really important enough of an issue to stir up conflict and division? But the longer I studied and thought about this issue, the more I realized the answer was yes. Pansexuality is fundamentally based in biphobic misconceptions and stereotypes and is causing significant harm to the LGBTQ community, particularly to youth. Bisexual people are often stereotyped as flaky, indecisive, lying cheaters and shallow, sex-obsessed freaks that cannot be trusted. These damaging stereotypes, and the rejection of them, have played an integral role in forming the pansexual identity. It is also widely believed that bisexuality means a 50% attraction to cisgender men and 50% attraction to cisgender women, with no room for attraction to transgender men and women, attraction to people of other genders, or fluid experiences of attraction. These ideas are largely the basis on which pansexuality is built.
People often point to the prefix “bi-” to prove that bisexuality is based on an outdated model that does not acknowledge that there are more than two genders. Some even go as far to say that bisexuality is about attraction to “both sexes,” not “both genders,” meaning that bisexual people are apparently only attracted to cis men and cis women, despite sex and gender both being socially constructed spectrums. Pansexuality is presented as the progressive, inclusive solution to this outdated, bigoted sexuality.
The problem with this logic is that it is based on historically inaccurate information about bisexuality. “The Bisexual Manifesto,” published in 1990 by the Bay Area Bisexual Network’s journal Anything That Moves, states:
“Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in nature: that we have “two” sides or that we must be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genders.”
While 1990 is far from distant history, this statement contradicts the idea that it is only the youngest generation of LGBTQ people that recognize that the Western binary system of gender is socially constructed and inadequate. Bisexuality has never needed to be defined as attraction to “only two genders,” and to suggest such is to ignore LGBTQ history. When it was commonly believed that there were only two genders, bisexuality still applied to “all genders” that were recognized at that time. As more people in the West have begun to realize that Western colonial patriarchy has fabricated a binary of sex and gender that is biologically inaccurate and far from universally accepted, bisexuality has continued to encompass “all genders.” Even before the spectrums of gender and sex were gaining popular acknowledgement, bisexual activists, such as those writing for Anything That Moves, recognized that bisexuality was attraction to the full variety of genders.
While the prefix “bi” may, as a result, sound like a misnomer, bisexual activists have pointed out that the meaning of “two” can encompass the two components of bisexuality: attraction to one’s own gender and other genders. Or, to put it a different way, the meaning of bisexuality’s prefix can indicate bisexual people’s attraction to genders like their own and genders unlike their own. “Bi” is understandably a misleading prefix to many people who aren’t familiar with bisexual history, but in the context of where this word has come from and the community that has formed around it, it makes more sense. The “two-ness” of bisexuality has always existed even as LGBTQ understandings of gender have shifted and expanded, and it is possible to acknowledge the complex and confusing power language possesses while not erasing the value the term “bisexual” has always had for the bisexual community.
Another argument that is used to promote pansexuality is that bisexuality is inherently transphobic. Many people assume that being bisexual means being attracted to “both” sexes, not even “both” genders. Following this logic, they assume bisexual people are not attracted to transgender people, but are exclusively attracted to cisgender women and cisgender men. Rightly recognizing how transphobic this is, people who identify as pansexual steer clear of this straw man of bisexuality and emphasize their attraction to people regardless of gender or sex. People who promote the “pansexual” label often use the phrase “hearts not parts” to convey their attraction to people, not specific genitals. This phrase carries with it the implication that people of other sexualities are attracted exclusively to certain genitals, and specifically stigmatizes lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Even further, “hearts not parts” perpetuates the dangerous stereotypes that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are perverted, predatory, and sex-obsessed.
While some individual bisexual people may view their sexuality as applying only to cis people, it is transphobic to think this way and it is not based in a correct definition of bisexuality. Believing that bisexual people are only attracted to cis people is based in bioessentialist understandings of gender and sexuality that perpetuate the deadly belief that trans men are not real men and trans women are not real women. Bisexual people are attracted to transgender men because they are attracted to men and are attracted to transgender women because they are attracted to women. It is not necessary to have a whole different label for people who recognize trans people as the gender that they are. This argument also overlooks the fact that a significant number of transgender people are bisexual themselves.
Many people will differentiate bisexuality and pansexuality not by saying one is more inclusive than the other, but by saying that bisexuality is for people who are attracted to more than one gender and that pansexuality is for people who are attracted to people regardless of gender. While this distinction is less harmful than other arguments for pansexuality, I’d contend that in its most honest form, bisexuality has room for all people who are attracted to multiple genders. There is and always has been variation in our community, variation in levels of attraction, in fluidity of attraction, in dating experiences, and in self-conceptualization, and that is part of what makes the bisexual community so beautiful and so powerful. In the same way that lesbian, gay, and transgender people are not monolithic groups and are comprised of people with vastly different experiences and ways of understanding their experiences, bisexual people are united not due to our uniformity but because of our common position in a patriarchal society and our common struggle against it.
Whatever the reasons may be for someone choosing to claim pansexuality, instead of or along with bisexuality, I’m convinced a major contributing factor to this whole problem is societal biphobia. Identifying as pansexual distances you from the stigma of bisexuality, which is one of the reasons this newer label is so appealing. All of the stereotyping, fetishization, discrimination, and violence bisexual people face as a result of our sexuality does not exactly make identifying as bisexual appealing. There is a whole history you become a part of when you recognize your bisexuality and choose to claim it. Openly identifying as bisexual is not safe. People see bisexual men as really gay and as threats who spread HIV to heterosexual women, if they choose to acknowledge that men can be bisexual at all. People see bisexual women as really straight, performing their attraction to other women for the sake of straight men, and as a fetish and porn category. Bisexual people as a whole are seen as confused, greedy, cheating monsters that will eventually settle down and “pick a side.” It’s no wonder that many young people who grew up hearing all of these violent beliefs are shying away from bisexuality and choosing to identify with a different term or none at all.
I understand why so many young people don’t want to be bisexual. It’s a terrifying thing to accept about yourself, and I am still struggling to unlearn a lot of biphobia that I have been internalizing my whole life. It is equally terrifying to openly identify as bisexual, with all of the stigma that it carries. But if there’s one thing I could tell pansexual people about the bisexual community, it would be that we have room for you. You do not need to make a new label or a new community because you are scared of who people will think you are. If you are attracted to more than one gender, you can claim bisexuality - that’s it. If you see yourself as someone who is attracted to all genders or attracted to people regardless of gender, congratulations! Bisexuality includes you. When everyone is accurately educated on bisexual history and what bisexuality really is (and what it is not!), I don’t think there will be any reason for the “pansexual” label to continue. There will be no more need to run away from bisexuality. When you choose to claim bisexuality as a part of yourself, you become part of a community with a long, rich history of shared struggle and shared joy. It is worth it. Bisexuality is beautiful. Bisexuality is enough.
About the author: Emma is a second year student at Seattle Pacific University majoring in Sociology and Social Justice and Cultural Studies. They are the 2018-19 president of HAVEN, a student organization for LGBTQ students focused on community, education, and activism.
Like Emma’s work? Support them here!