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What’s the Real Difference between Bi- and Pansexual?



What seem to be straightforward labels for sexual preference are anything but – and they even confuse many in the LGBTQ communityWhen queer activist and Younger star Nico Tortorella is asked how he identified, he takes a big breath before replying, “Well that’s a loaded question.”

“In the [queer] movement right now, we have a tendency of getting hung on specific words rather than the person,” the 29-year-old actor tells Rolling Stone. “And in my fluidity, I’m really attracted to this idea that it doesn’t have to be one thing.”

Bisexuality, pansexuality, sexually fluid, queer and simply “not doing labels” – all are different ways people identify to indicate that they are not exclusively attracted to either men or women. The truth is, however, there’s confusion even among members of the LGBTQ community as to what these words mean, particularly when it comes to bisexuality. In fact, the bisexual community doesn’t even agree on what it means to be bisexual. The term pansexual was birthed out of the confusion, and to create a definitive and more inclusive label. This has led to in-fighting between members of the community, who are upset that their bisexual identity is being replaced by another label.



The meaning of pansexual is clear: someone who is attracted – either emotionally, physically or both – to all genders. This includes cisgender, transgender, agender and gender nonconforming individuals. The prefix was chosen because it comes from the Greek root “pan,” meaning “all.” But that’s obviously not the case. Two months ago, when Janelle Monáe came out as queer and pansexual in a Rolling Stone cover story, searches for the word pansexual on Merriam Webster rose 11,000 percent, and the term became the most looked up word of the day.

The prefix “bi,” as we’re all aware, means two. Because of this, many folks, perhaps even the majority of people, believe that a bisexual person is attracted to only two genders: cisgender men and cisgender women. Members of the queer community who believe this to be the definition of bisexual, believe that bisexuality perpetuates a gender binary. They don’t believe it’s inclusive of transgender people and gender nonconforming people.



Given that “bi” means two, that’s a reasonable belief.

However, many bisexual-identifying individuals, myself included, now use renowned bisexual activist Robyn Och’s definition of bisexuality, as stated on her website: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

In this definition, the “bi” stands for two (or more) genders. Gabrielle Blonder, a board member of the Bisexual Resource Center, a nonprofit whose mission is “providing support to the bisexual community and raising public awareness about bisexuality and bisexual people,” explains, “I use it to mean ‘attracted to genders like mine and genders different from mine.’”

The majority of pansexual individuals don’t believe either of these definitions – and that’s precisely why they prefer the term pansexual.

When the word “bisexual” became popularized, starting with David Bowie when he claimed bisexuality in a Playboy interview in 1976, we didn’t have a nuanced understanding of gender like we do today. Now that we do have a better understanding, some bisexual people have updated the definition of bisexual to be inclusive of all genders, whereas others have favored abandoning it, for a new word, that frankly is less confusing, given that pan does indeed mean “all.”



Some pansexual folks even go a step further. “There’s the argument to be had that people use all the time, that bi is exclusionary. It feeds into the binary of gender,” says Tortella. “And I know that for me personally, that’s not the case. A lot of people say that bi is trans-exclusionary, but trans is not a gender itself, it’s a descriptor word for how people express their gender.”

That’s why Ethan Remillard, 22, who came out as bisexual in his early teens, said bluntly, “I identify as bisexual because I like fucking dudes and romancing girls. But I don’t claim pansexuality because trans[gender] girls and boys are the same as their cis[gender] counterparts.”

This is partly why people don’t like identifying with any sexual or gender identity label. Simply put, it’s confusing, and for many, the labels feels limiting. Also, inherent in your sexuality is an understanding of your own gender. If you’re not completely sure if you identify as male or female, then how can you accurately state your own sexuality?


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