During the last live show, people brought up a number of questions about pansexuality and what it means as an orientation. I quickly realized that I didn’t know very much about pansexuality, and neither did many other people. The most common understanding is that pansexuals have the potential to be attracted to anyone, without gender identity or physical sex characteristics posing an obstacle. Yet in practice, bisexuality is often used to denote that same openness to any gender or anatomical configuration. It occurred to me that I could possibly be considered bi or pan, so I decided to look into this further.
Is there any difference between bisexuality and pansexuality? I asked around, and many bisexuals and pansexuals were willing to explain their view of what these orientations mean. It soon became clear that there are a variety of opinions about what bisexuality and pansexuality are, and there is no one definition that can determine who is or isn’t bi or pan. Beyond designating that a person can be attracted to more than one gender, these words appear to mean whatever people use them to mean. The easiest and most respectful position would be to recognize that bisexuals are people who identify as bisexual, and pansexuals are people who identify as pansexual. As such, I won’t attempt to make any definitive statements about what bisexuality or pansexuality actually are. Instead, I’ll simply go over some of the major themes in the responses I received.
One of the most common explanations was that pansexuality encompasses attraction to non-binary genders beyond men and women, including people of other genders, fluctuating gender, more than one gender, or no gender at all. They’re willing to consider bigender, third-gender or agender people as potential partners, in addition to binary-identified men and women. In contrast, bisexuality was perceived as implying attraction to men and women only, as suggested by the “bi-” prefix. While some bisexuals said they identify as bi because they’re only interested in binary-identified men and women, others said that their attractions are actually a great deal broader than that, overlapping with this definition of pansexuality. Some claimed that they identify as bi for the sake of convenience, since fewer people understand what it means to be pansexual.
Another widespread view was that pansexuality is a kind of “body-blindness”, focusing on attraction based on emotion and personality, while disregarding physical sex characteristics. This was commonly phrased as loving someone for who they are, rather than what they are. Some people characterized bisexuality as being based on physical attraction, whereas pansexuality is not. However, other pansexuals made it clear that someone’s physical sex, gender, and gender expression are indeed a significant part of what makes them attractive.
Finally, many people claimed that pansexuality is meant as an explicit statement of inclusion beyond the gender binary, serving to highlight the binary implications of bisexuality, in etymology if not in practice. One person suggested that while bisexuality focuses on sexual identity, pansexuality is focused on the acceptance of gender identities.
These are just some of the most prominent aspects of pansexuality that people have described, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that every person experiences their sexuality in their own unique way. Even the same label won’t have the exact same meaning for everyone. However, certain definitions of bisexuality and pansexuality can come with troubling implications. For instance, some pansexuals, or people talking about pansexuals, have described pansexuality as the attraction to men, women, and transgender people. This phrasing depicts all trans people as a gender other than male or female, when in fact many of them identify as men or women. Trans men are already men, and trans women are already women.
It also suggests that bisexuality, or other sexualities, do not include binary-identified trans people. This is incorrect, because bisexuality, homosexuality and heterosexuality do not specify the exclusion of trans people as potential partners. They say nothing about any possible preference for cis people or trans people. It’s not as though straight people cease to be straight if they’re open to having a partner who’s trans – except in the minds of homophobes and transphobes. If anything, this seems to be either an artifact of ignorance, or a poor choice of words, and given their awareness of diverse gender identities, most pansexuals probably don’t mean to imply that trans people are a completely separate gender.
All in all, the meanings of bisexuality and pansexuality are still in flux, and they may never be corralled into a single definition. There will most likely always be details and exceptions and individual understandings. Ultimately, bisexuality and pansexuality are as diverse as bisexuals and pansexuals themselves.