Bisexual or Pansexual?


bisexual_triangleI’ve been pondering the question of whether I should keep using the word “bisexual” to describe myself, or whether I should start using “pansexual” instead. I wanted to run the pros and cons by y’all and get feedback.

On the one hand: The word “bisexual” feeds into the gender binary, in a way that I don’t feel comfortable with. It implies that either (a) there are only two genders, or (b) there are more than two genders, but I’m only attracted to two of them. Neither of these is correct. I accept the existence of people who don’t identify on a gender binary — and there are non-gender-binary-identifying people who I think are hot. “Pansexual” would be a more respectful word, and it would be more accurate.

On the other hand: Most people more or less know know what the word “bisexual” means. Far fewer people know what “pansexual” means. I’m very much a pragmatist when it comes to language: given a choice between (a) a word that means exactly what I want to say but that only ten people will understand without looking it up, and (b) a word that doesn’t quite mean what I want to say but that comes close and that almost everyone who speaks English will understand, I’ll almost always choose (b). It’s part of being an accessible, conversational writer. (It’s one of the reasons I tend to avoid words like “humanist” and “freethinker” unless I’m talking with other godless folks: there are contexts where “humanist” is a slightly more accurate description of the particular facet of godlessness I’m expressing at that particular moment, but I don’t always want to derail the conversation with a ten-minute explanation of what exactly “humanism” is.)

On the other other hand: The only way people are going to learn about pansexuality is if people use the word. Using the word is what will make it more widely understood.

On the other other other hand: I’ve self-identified as bisexual for a long time, and it’s become a political and cultural identity as well as a personal one, having to do with my particular relationship with the LGBT community. I have a longish history of being one of the people pushing for recognition and respect of bisexual people, both outside the LGBT community and within it. And I think bisexual visibility is important — again, both in and out of the LGBT community. That matters to me, and I’m somewhat reluctant to let it go.

pansexual symbolOn the other other other other hand: There’s no reason I can’t become one of the people pushing for recognition and respect of pansexual people, both outside the LGBT community and within it. Who knows — in twenty years, that might be an important part of my personal, political, and cultural identity.

On the other other other other other… okay, enough.

I’m toying with the idea of saying “Bisexual — well, pansexual, actually,” which opens the door to at least a short discussion of what pansexuality is and the rejection of the gender binary. Again, I don’t always want to derail the conversation with a ten-minute explanation of what exactly “pansexual” means… but at least sometimes, that might be worth it.

Thoughts?

(Oh, for the record: I’m not hugely interested in the “Why do you even need labels?” argument. I’m a writer. I care about language. We need language to talk about who we are.)

Comments

  1. says

    I do pretty much what you say at the end “I’m bisexual, well, pansexual.” If people understand I don’t need to explain, if they don’t, I explain and kind of get the non-binary explanation out.

  2. says

    There used to be a word, “pansexualism,” which had a certain meaning, briefly described in Wikipedia:

    Pansexual is derived from the word pansexualism, dated back to 1917, which is the view “that the sex instinct plays the primary part in all human activity, mental and physical”.[7][8] Credited to Sigmund Freud, it is a term of reproach leveled at early psychology,[7][8] and is also defined as “the pervasion of all conduct and experience with sexual emotions”.

    Might this have any effect on how people today would interpret the word “pansexual?”

  3. sawells says

    The issue Raging Bee identifies does make pansexual a bit problematic.

    The other other other hand issue suggests you should have asked PZ for some tentacles before you started counting :)

  4. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I’m toying with the idea of saying “Bisexual — well, pansexual, actually,”

    I think that rocks.

    I intentionally use things that avoid certain problematic gender assumptions all the time…but the problem is that those assumptions can be so ingrained that even when I choose my language very carefully, either my rejection of the assumption goes unnoticed *or* the rejection of the assumption leads to my audience’s failure to understand what I’m saying.

    When we rely on these assumptions to make sense of our world, it really can’t be any other way. So the best that you can do is use language that makes it clear that you’re challenging an assumption, but does so only after you’ve done the work to impart a context likely to both 1) render your language (likely) intelligible, by 2) making plain which (old/problematic) language you’re replacing with which new (better) language while 3) making your challenge to existing language problems explicit 4) without creating a sense of defensiveness on the part of your audience or 5) going into a (possibly tangential or even unwelcome) explanation unasked.

    I like the quote. I think it creates an implicit connection between bisexual and pansexual that communicates to most people that there’s a large functional equivalence between the familiar term and the new (unfamiliar?) term – which there is. The soft distinction through the use of “actually” makes it clear that there is a contrast – at some point the functional equivalence breaks down – but that it’s not always important to know the difference. Then the audience can be curious instead of closing off defensively. If there’s time and interest, education follows. If not, you’ve still said that pansexual ≠ bisexual **while** accurately communicating your identity. Those aware of multiplicative gender will be able to reason it out for themselves. Those unaware can’t derive any more information from “pansexual” than they get from “bisexual”.

    The only risk here is that, like some people can’t understand the difference between “omnivorous” and “indiscriminately ravenous and therefore dangerously prone to kill and eat you the moment you encounter such a being”, some will think “pansexual” means “attracted to everyone”.

    But that crap is already something you’re used to dismantling as a stereotype of bisexual. So I don’t think you’re really risking much of anything at all. It’s a very clever and subtle phrasing of a distinction that might otherwise go unnoticed in a way that would never allow you to be sure that your audience is understanding your intent as well as circumstances and language permit. That kind of distinction is rarely as well made, and I would struggle with making such a distinction myself.

    I say, “Good show,” without saying “I say! Good show!”

  5. johnwoodford says

    A bi activist friend of mine described the binary in his sexuality as, essentially, being attracted to two kinds of people–people like him, and people not like him. Unfortunately, the discussion was a while ago and on FB, so hard to dig up on short notice.

  6. says

    I’m not actually fond of the message that “pansexual ≠ bisexual”. The distinction people seem to imagine is that bisexual people are not attracted to non-binary genders. I doubt that this is actually true of self-identified bisexual people.

    “Pansexual” also connotes that the person doesn’t see gender, or is attracted to all genders equally. And that may simply not be true of certain individuals, and that may make them uncomfortable identifying as pansexual. If we really wanted “pansexual’ to really replace “bisexual” in our language, we need to remove this connotation, and thus remove the distinction in meaning between pansexual and bisexual. They mean the same thing, it’s just the politics behind them is different.

    I also don’t think “bisexual” is significantly more erasive than other orientations like heterosexual or homosexual. Most people think of those words as meaning attracted to the opposite sex/gender or same sex/gender. But outside of cisgender, the idea of “opposite” doesn’t make any sense, and there’s an elision of the differences between sex and gender.

  7. jamessweet says

    and it’s become a political and cultural identity as well as a personal one

    I was thinking this aspect even before you got to it. Yeah, that. It’s why I self-identify as “atheist” even though I somewhat prefer “nontheist” — “atheist” has become a dirty word, and I want to take it back. Similarly, “bisexual” has some negative baggage, both in the broader world, as well as within the gay community (intentionally not using LGBTQ in this sentence, because the irony of saying “‘bisexual’ has negative baggage within the LGBTQ community” is just too much for me). Being proudly bisexual has political connotations, and it may be worth it to retain the label for that reason alone.

    Necessary disclaimer: Nobody is obligated to be a martyr for their identity. If Neil DGT wants to call himself an agnostic, even though he clearly fits any reasonable definition of the word “atheist”, he is perfectly entitled to do so (though I wish he wouldn’t say some of the bus-throwing-under things he says about self-identified atheists, but that’s another story). Similarly, if you want to call yourself “pansexual” because you are more comfortable with it, the political implications be damned, you are obviously entitled to do so. But that doesn’t seem much like Greta Christina ;)

    Anyway, that’s my vote: “bisexual” in most contexts and with most audiences, in order to destigmatize the word. And in a context/with an audience that clearly is already down with bisexuality, “pansexual” if you like.

  8. insertsymbolshere says

    People have been using the “bi” as same and different sex/gender rather than male and female. It’s also used as a subset indicator if you’re attracted to most but not all types of people. In the long run, I think the choice between bi and pan will come down to internal LGBT politics. Super long run, bi might become a relic of when multiple genders weren’t generally accepted, and be replaced by pan.

  9. johnu says

    OK, I’m on board with pansexual. I have always used bisexual, but I am certainly open to trans people, or any of the comparatively rare genders. However, I’m not going to ask Robin Ochs to change my submission to her new anthology.

    As to the “we don’t need labels” guys, I always tell them I hope their predilection isn’t shared by their pharmacist.

  10. Yellow Thursday says

    I used to identify as bisexual until I became aware that gender isn’t binary. I want to call attention to that, so I now identify as pansexual. In those places where I am comfortable being out about my sexuality, I am also comfortable taking the time to explain what it means. I can also get behind the “Bisexual — well, pansexual, actually,” for many situations.

    I have seen other pansexuals talk about pansexuality being more about attraction to someone’s personality than their body. That’s a sentiment I can get behind. Although I can be attracted to certain body types, if I want to actually get intimate with someone (physically or emotionally), it’s their personality that’s important.

  11. juliegomoll says

    Nice little coincidence: just this morning I was having coffee with a friend who admitted to me a newly-discovered interest in BDSM. I was suggesting some reading material, and of course brought up “Bending.” As I was describing your writing, I referred to you as pansexual. Not sure why – it’s not a term I’ve used before. And as I said it, I realized how comfortable the word feels to me. So I, for one, am going to adopt it. Thanks! :)

  12. rrede says

    Fascinating post and comments! Thank you!

    It took me until my thirties to realize I was bisexual (heck, to even learn the word (born in 1955 in very conservative part of rural northern Idaho).

    But by the early 2000s, for various reasons (in part connected to my immersion in online slash fandom), I found that the word “bisexual” no longer felt right, and I began calling myself a queer woman.

    (Acknowledging right up front that there are major issues around this word, including the race and class privilege it has.)

    I hadn’t thought of (or even learned of, until recently) “pansexual.”

    I’m going to have to think about it…..though my initial response is that it has one of the problems of bisexual in the usage of “sexual” — I know that the reason that bisexual people are associated so strongly with SEX (ditto gay men!) (I think these’s less of the association with lesbians because of the sexist notions about women’s lack of sexual appetite compared to men) is because of homphobia, that the same stigma is not attached to heterosexuals, but I just liked that queer lacked the actual word, so to speak).

    Wanders off to think about it some more….

  13. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    I’m not actually fond of the message that “pansexual ≠ bisexual”. The distinction people seem to imagine is that bisexual people are not attracted to non-binary genders. I doubt that this is actually true of self-identified bisexual people.

    I’d wondered about that too, actually…

  14. says

    I think the term “pansexual” only has a meaning distinct from bisexuality if we understand pansexuals as being attracted to people who do not fit the gender binary such as trans, genderqueer, etc., and bisexuals as being attracted only to cismales and cisfemales. I think that these two different sexualities definitely exist and are distinct enough to warrant their own terms. Now, under this understanding of the terms and judging by your explanation of your own sexuality, I certainly think you would “qualify” as pansexual. This term would be more precise and explanatory than saying “bisexual”, which I believe would appeal to you as a writer.

    That said, I see nothing wrong with you defaulting to the “bisexual” term for simplicity’s sake in certain contexts, at least while the world continues to change and adapt. This is a strategy used by many different communities- your example of terms within the non believing community is a good one. Outside of the atheist community, I identify as atheist unless someone then goes to to ask why I’m not agnostic or something of that sort, then I might get into how I’m actually an agnostic atheist, what that means, and why I choose to use “atheist” by default. In more professional contexts, if I’m worried about discrimination, I might say I’m nonreligious. In philosophical conversations in atheist circles, I might identify as humanist to be clear about what “kind” of atheist I am. Also, I know trans people who utilize similar fudging of terms in different situations- such as a mostly female-identified genderqueer/trans person using feminine pronouns in most company, but preferring the use of the singular “they” with people who “get it” more. I don’t see anything wrong with these types of labelling strategies and it should probably be approached on a case-by-case basis (i.e. “how much do I want to get into this right now?”). And on those occasions when you feel it is either easy enough to use “pansexual” (because your company “gets it”) or worthwhile enough to get into a bit of an explanation about it, you’ll be helping to move the cultural conversation forward and getting society to a place where these sorts of “what term should I use?” discussions are no longer needed because EVERYONE “gets it.”

    Finally, pans definitely need more visibility, but even if/when you identify as pan, you CAN still continue to advocate for bisexual interests and bisexual visibility. :)

  15. John Horstman says

    Both at once (as in the idea with which you’re toying) or both/either contextually seem to me like a perfectly cromulent paths to take.

  16. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Miller #6 & Azkyroth #14 [but quoting from miller]:

    I’m not actually fond of the message that “pansexual ≠ bisexual”. The distinction people seem to imagine is that bisexual people are not attracted to non-binary genders. I doubt that this is actually true of self-identified bisexual people.

    bisexual ≠ pansexual not because bisexual folk are not attracted to people of non-binary genders, but because one has the effect of minimizing the importance of trans people to the point where it doesn’t matter if we exist…and the other doesn’t.

    There’s denotation and connotation – your communication depends on both, not just one or the other. Implied comfort with the gender binary sends a message to those outside the binary that you really couldn’t give a shit if the oppression of trans* folk continues.

    Unfortunately, that **is** true of a lot of people. Not in the sense that bi folk have it in for trans* folk. But rather, in the sense that most cis bi folk are not changing their lives at all in order to improve life for trans folk, and if life improved for trans folk, that wouldn’t change the lives of most cis bi folk either. Bi folk are much more likely to give money to LGBT orgs than T orgs. They don’t have to interface with T-specialist orgs at all, and if T folk didn’t exist, they would be just as likely to donate to the LGB orgs. Most don’t ask if US LGBT orgs provide their employees with health coverage inclusive of trans health care before donating. The fact that the orgs that they give money to as part of their trans* justice agenda are themselves screwing over trans* folk doesn’t even cross their minds.

    They care about T folk the way that the average US democrat cares about degradation of reindeer habitat in northern Finland. Sure, they’re for environmental protection and healthy animals and yadda yadda. But they don’t even notice the airborne and marine pollution affecting Taiga and Tundra habitats north of the Baltic and south of the Arctic seas.

    “Pansexual” also connotes that the person doesn’t see gender, or is attracted to all genders equally.

    Except that that bisexual connotes the same: the connotation arises not from something inherent in the word or its etymology, but because people assume this is a necessary precondition of being attracted to folk of more than one gender. People’s perceptions of the prime social importance of gender leads them to think that if you noticed gender at all, you certainly wouldn’t be able to have no preferences…and isn’t bisexuality about having no preference along gender lines?

    Of course it isn’t. But people don’t know that. You’re articulating a problem with pansexual, but it’s every bit as much a problem with bisexual because the problem originates with other people’s assumptions. So this isn’t actually a point against “pansexual” and, if the problem is assumptions, any effort to make addressing those assumptions more likely should be seen favorably. That means this is a point in **favor** of “pansexual”.

    And that may simply not be true of certain individuals, and that may make them uncomfortable identifying as pansexual. If we really wanted “pansexual’ to really replace “bisexual” in our language, we need to remove this connotation, and thus remove the distinction in meaning between pansexual and bisexual.

    And “anything that moves” is the name of a popular bi rag because bisexual effectively communicates the idea of nuanced attractions that likely differ along gender lines but nonetheless include at least one attraction to an individual member of at least 2 genders?

    Yeah. That’s my experience too…

    They mean the same thing, it’s just the politics behind them is different.

    They mean the same thing to **cis folk for whom casual trans* oppression is unimportant**.

    The politics behind them is different specifically because it **doesn’t** mean the same thing to those who care deeply about trans* folk (themselves or others) and the way casual erasure affects us.

    I also don’t think “bisexual” is significantly more erasive than other orientations like heterosexual or homosexual.

    Talking about race as “black and white” isn’t significantly more dismissive of the existence of multi-racial folk than some other ways that people talk about race.

    Therefore we shouldn’t give a shit when someone talks about race as “black and white” with no other races or multi-racial people existing or mattering.

    Most people think of those words as meaning attracted to the opposite sex/gender or same sex/gender. But outside of cisgender, the idea of “opposite” doesn’t make any sense, and there’s an elision of the differences between sex and gender.

    So we shouldn’t challenge that?

    I really don’t get your argument.

  17. says

    Re: the idea that “bisexual” implies binary gender, I’m with comment #8. “Homosexual” was coined to mean “same gender” and “heterosexual” to mean “different gender”; any relationship I have with a partner whose gender isn’t the same as mine, whether they’re a woman or nonbinary, can therefore be understood as heterosexual, and “bisexual” comes to mean “both gay-relationships and not-gay-relationships”. I like the way that this a) repositions same-gender pairings as the default and b) prompts people to rethink their idea of heterosexuality.

  18. says

    @Crip Dyke

    The problem with pansexual as I see it is that it’s trying to be two things which are at odds with each other. On the one hand, it’s trying to signify a different set of people. On the other hand, it’s trying to signify the same set of people, but trying to refer to them in a way that better acknowledges nonbinary people. Some people mean the first thing, and some people mean the second thing, so the end result is that it means both things at once.

    I believe it should only mean the second thing. In other words, I agree with this:

    bisexual ≠ pansexual not because bisexual folk are not attracted to people of non-binary genders, but because one has the effect of minimizing the importance of trans people to the point where it doesn’t matter if we exist…and the other doesn’t.

    You said that both bisexual and pansexual have the connotation of being “attracted to all genders equally”. I agree, but I definitely get the sense that this is more a connotation for pansexual, because pansexual people often actively support this connotation. For example, see comment #10. I’ve also seen pansexual people actively support the connotation that bisexual people are not attracted to nonbinary genders, even though I’ve never seen a bisexual person agree with this.

    I don’t think this means there’s a problem with “pansexual”. I think it means that there’s a problem with these connotations. That’s why I say that pansexual and bisexual mean the same thing, in the sense of referring to the same patterns of attraction.

  19. Greta Christina says

    I think the term “pansexual” only has a meaning distinct from bisexuality if we understand pansexuals as being attracted to people who do not fit the gender binary such as trans, genderqueer, etc., and bisexuals as being attracted only to cismales and cisfemales.

    chelseabutler @ #15: I don’t agree, for two reasons. One: I don’t see what being attracted only to cismales and cisfemales has to do with it. Someone could only be attracted to people who identify as either male or female — i.e., not be attracted to people who don’t identify on a gender binary — and still be attracted to trans people. Many trans people do identify on a gender binary.

    The other reason is that, even if most bi people are attracted to people who don’t identify as either male or female/ on a gender binary (I’m not sure if that’s true, but I’ll accept it for the sake of argument), the word itself still perpetuates that binary. The word itself implies (as least as I learned it and understand it), “There are two genders, and I am attracted to both.” I don’t want to keep implying that.

    Now, I am interested in the idea that “bisexual” doesn’t mean “attracted to both men and women,” but that instead it means “attracted to both people of my own gender and people who are not of my gender.” I’m not sure that this makes sense in the strictest parsing of the construction of the word — “two”-ness is at the core of the word, and I don’t know if “gendered like me/ not gendered like me” is clearly conveyed by that “two”-ness. But I don’t much care about the strictest parsing of word construction. That wasn’t what the word meant back when I was first getting in to LGBTQ politics (hey, you kids, get off my lawn!), but if people are using it that way, I’m not going to tell them they should knock it off because of word construction.

    For the sake of visibility of non-gender-binary people, though, and for the sake of pushing back against the gender binary in general, I’m still thinking I should use “pansexual” at least sometimes. Still thinking this through, though.

  20. Greta Christina says

    The problem with pansexual as I see it is that it’s trying to be two things which are at odds with each other. On the one hand, it’s trying to signify a different set of people. On the other hand, it’s trying to signify the same set of people, but trying to refer to them in a way that better acknowledges nonbinary people.

    miller @ #20: I’m not sure that’s true. Not all bisexual people are attracted to non-gender-binary people. I think “pansexual” is trying to signify the set of self-identified bisexual people who are, in fact, attracted to non-gender-binary people — but that’s not all bisexual people.

  21. says

    @Greta #22
    I find this a little frustrating, because you’re contradicting the response I got from Crip Dyke.

    Crip Dyke said that bisexual and pansexual refer to the same patterns of attractions, only self-identified pansexuals were the people who cared about casual trans oppression. Crip Dyke denied that there was any other legitimate difference in connotation (correct me if I’m wrong, please).

    Whereas Greta, you’re telling me that there is a legitimate difference in connotation, with pansexual implying attraction to non-binary people (again, correct me if I’m wrong).

    You’re both disagreeing with me, when you should be disagreeing with each other.

  22. cartesiandaemon says

    I like what you say, and I wish I knew the answer.

    In response to the last suggestion, how about “bisexual — but I think it should be called pansexual really”. Does that more clearly convey that I don’t think most people who identify as bisexual are doing something wrong, and I’m doing something different, but that “I fit roughly into what most people mean by bisexual, but I think there’s something wrong with the NAME”?

  23. Daniel Schealler says

    A part of the problem is to do with assuming that other people either don’t know the term ‘pan-sexual’ or that it would be to hard or difficult to explain yourself in the event of it being a point of confusion.

    There’s a more general point here to consider in how we relate to other people when you perceive yourself to have higher level of expertise than those around you in a given area. There’s a tendency to dumb things down. And that’s not always wrong. But I think it’s possible to dumb down too much.

    I’ve started playing with identifying myself as an ignostic rather than an atheist, and just dealing with the inevitable confusion when that get’s misinterpreted as ‘agnostic’. For the most part… It’s actually been surprisingly good. Better than I expected.

    I think I had a tendency of underestimating what other people were capable of grasping or picking up, in part because some of the theists that I’ve tried explaining these kinds of distinctions to online can be so very, very dense. It skewed my perception to think that the average level of competence in the rest of the population was worse than it actually is. :P

    It’s contextual obviously, so in some cases I’ll stick to atheist. But ‘ignostic’ is working its way into more regular use with me. And it serves as a little teaching exercise whenever confusion does arise, which is nice.

    I’ve been getting good results when I start by extending the benefit of the doubt that the people I’m speaking to are as capable and open to grasping the concepts I’m trying to tell them, but that their area of interest happens to lie elsewhere so they’re just missing some information and context.

    I then only downgrade that expectation only once the person I’m speaking to fails to live up to it.

    I get more good conversations and more bad ones that way. The tradeoff of doing the assumption the other was is less good conversations and less bad ones.

    Really comes down to where you stand on the tradeoff matrix in any given situation, as well as what prior plausibility you place based on context, and how willing you are to put up with a bad conversation at that particular point in time. :P

  24. says

    Speaking as someone who doesn’t identify with either binary gender, I can say at least for myself that I am appreciative when people use pansexual, and varying levels of uncomfortable when they use bisexual to self identify. Aside from the fact that bisexual does feel, to me, as though it necessarily erases the existence of non-binary gender, on a different level it acts as a social environment red flag; the more often I hear the word bisexual and the less often I hear words like pansexual, the more likely I am to be somewhat wary of making the decision to be out and participate in a particular community on account of the fact that I do think a higher degree of use of the word bisexual over pansexual will tend to correlate with a lesser degree of understanding about the existence and nature of non-binary genders, and a correspondingly lesser degree of insulation or safety from cultural intolerance, insensitivity, and/or microaggressions.

  25. says

    When I learned enough about nonbinary gender to begin identifying as agender (though I originally labeled myself as genderqueer) last year, I shed the bisexual label I’d claimed for the previous twenty years because I too felt that it excluded nonbinary people. However, some very vocal Tumblr users insisted that, as some of your commenters have already pointed out, bi meant not attracted to male and female (or men and women), but to “same” and “other”. I had never seen it used that way myself, but they were very insistent on it, as if it were obvious. Then again, I’m 2-3x older than the average Tumblr user, which is part of why I stopped actively using that service…

    In any case, I tried to adopt the pansexual label for myself, but it really didn’t fit. It seemed too broad. I’m not attracted to all sexes and genders. I’d seen the term “polysexual” used to mean attracted to more than one, but not necessarily all, and that seemed to fit, but also too easily confused with “polyamorous” which I also am, but that means something else entirely.

    In the end, as I’m physically transitioning to male, I decided to identify either as “queer” or “gay male” depending on the context. If I were simply a cis guy or binary trans guy I would be basically a Kinsey 5. My sexual interest in people with conventionally-female bodies is very narrow, and my romantic interest in women is virtually nil (and always has been). It’s too bad that sexual and romantic interest are so conflated, but that’s another subject…

  26. Rebecca Dominguez says

    As the President of an Australian bisexual organisation, this is a conversation we have a lot within our community. We don’t tell people that they have to identify a certain way, but we explain that we take bisexual to mean “attracted to people of my gender, and other genders”.

  27. Heather B says

    If I’m in a context where I don’t have to wonder if the people I’m talking to know what I mean by pansexual, then I use it. If I’m not, I often try to go for something descriptive and non-labelling.

    For instance, when a guy asked me if I “swing both ways,” I replied “You say that as though there are only two ways to swing.” Or for a less cryptic and cutesy answer, I say something like “I’m attracted to people’s minds and personalities more than any particular arrangement of jiggly bits,” or, “If I like someone, it doesn’t matter what they have going on in the pants area. I’ll make it work.”

    I also have bi-identifying friends who have a preference for one gender presentation, regardless of physical attributes, so they say “I like femme people, regardless of sex,” or “I prefer butch jocks of any gender,” etc.

    When filling in check boxes, if pansexual or omnisexual is available, I go for that. If not, my next choice would be queer, then bi, then other.

  28. triple3a says

    I don’t want to get into discussions of bi-erasure or trans-erasure since I’d only fuck up trying to explain others’ lives and experiences.

    I am, however, all for changing language to suit our needs since language evolves anyway (while dictionaries try to keep up).

    Greta, I once heard you refer to yourself in an in-group, unironic, and complimentary (not derogatory) way as a “bi-dyke.”  Why not refer to yourself as “bi-pan”?  You keep the history of fighting for the bisexual community and introduce the reality of your pansexuality. Anyone confused about the “pan” part can ask.  Anyone that’s not confused doesn’t need to.

    Also, for any bi people only attracted along the cis- spectrum of gender that want to indicate their support for trans, agender, intersex, and genderqueer communities, they could say they are “bi-cis” and socially QUILTBAG inclusive.

    That’s my two cents.

  29. sciamannata says

    Quick (if somewhat late) drive-by posting, just to point out to anybody who hasn’t read it Julia Serano’s 2012 take on this subject, which I only read recently and found very interesting (as is the case for most of her writing). Here’s the link: http://juliaserano.blogspot.ie/2012/11/bisexuality-and-binaries-revisited.html (this is an “update” of a previous shorter article on the same subject, it’s linked in the 1st paragraph).

    It’s old, but since nobody seems to have linked to it before me, I thought it was worth it.

  30. geekgirlsrule says

    I have this issue, too. In high school a friend of mine and I referred to ourselves as “omnisexual” which can be misunderstood in completely new and exciting ways I’m sure. Mostly I stick with queer anymore, although a lot of people get upset with me since I am primarily partnered with a cis man, regardless of the fact that I date women more often and have certainly spent most of my life attracted to non-binary as well as binary people.

    I usually just tell people I don’t care about the plumbing, what I’m into is if you’re an awesome person who likes me back.

  31. says

    @31

    That post is an interesting read, and a lot of the history and it is stuff I didn’t know, but I think her defense of the term bisexual as not reinforcing a binary is incredibly weak. In terms of a discussion of different possible interpretations of the language itself, this seems to be her key point:

    “Here is another potential interpretation of the word bisexual: The prefix “bi” can mean “two,” but it can also mean “twice” (e.g., as in bimonthly). So while monosexual people limit their potential partners to members of only one sex, bisexual/BMNOPPQ folks challenge the hetero/homo binary by not limiting our attraction in this way, and are thereby open to roughly twice as many potential partners. My main point here is that the prefix “bi” has more than one meaning, and can have more than one referent. So claiming that people who use the term bisexual must be touting a rigid binary view of gender, or denying the existence of gender variant people, is as presumptuous as assuming that people who use the term “bicoastal” must be claiming that a continent can only ever have two coasts, or that they are somehow denying the existence of all interior, landlocked regions of that continent.”

    And okay, fair enough, it is entirely possible to interpret the prefix as meaning “two” and not “both”, but if that’s the interpretation, then, first, it should make just as much sense for someone to identify as bisexual because they are attracted to both male and neutrois individuals, for example, and I have never in my entire life seen anyone of any identification use it for that. She, herself, in the very beginning of the essay describes her own sexuality in terms that make it clear that that interpretation would be just as apparently inaccurate interpreted to mean “two” as interpreted to mean “both”.

    “Since some people paint bisexual-identified folks out to be “binarist” in our partner preferences, I will mention for the record that I date and am sexual with folks who are female and male, trans and cis, and non-binary- and binary-identified.”

    I do agree with her that bisexual isn’t the only term that reinforces the gender binary, and that we ought to pay attention to the others as well, but I don’t think that means that it’s reasonable to ignore the implications of the word bisexual until we’ve dealt with the others. The word bisexual is a perfectly reasonable word for people to use if they are actually attracted to two different genders, but the problem is that that isn’t what anyone, including the author, uses it to mean. Bisexual is never used to describe someone who is attracted to two and only two genders unless those two genders are female and male. There are other “discrete” gender categories (to the extent that any gender category is actually discrete, anyway) that are taken to never apply under the bracket of genders that the word bisexual could imply attraction to, so either it is a word that implies attraction to two genders and oh by the way we all know that those two genders are THE two genders of male and female because we never use it to imply attraction to any other pair of genders, or it is used, as it is being used in the author’s case, to identify as attracted to male, female, and other genders as well, but with a word that implies attraction to only two genders, and since we all know which two genders are implied by that, because we are all comfortable automatically assuming that bisexual means AT LEAST attracted to men and to women, I don’t think there’s anyway to read it as not erasing the other genders that enter the equation.

    She does list some other possible interpretations of the word as well, but the problem is that while those other interpretations are hypothetically reasonable, the fact is that that’s not what she means by them, and as far as I know that’s not what anyone who has ever identified as bisexual means by them. As long as it is a completely safe to assume that anyone who identifies as bisexual is definitely attracted to men and definitely attracted to women, we all know what is referred to by the “bi” prefix, and we all know that it is going to be used with equal frequency to describe people who are attracted to men and women and no other genders and to people who are attracted to men and women and also other genders. As long as that is the case, I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that using the word bisexual as an identifier that specifies attraction to both men and women, and does not differentiate between whether someone is attracted to other genders or not implies that the only attractions that are important to specify are those to men or women.

  32. malta says

    I think I like the suggestion for “bisexual, but I think the better descriptor is pansexual” to audiences you want to educate. It has the advantage of including both terms (making comprehension easier) but also segues into a discussion of why you think pansexual is a better term, which I think is your main point.

    This leads me to wonder… would it be a good idea to replace heterosexual and homosexual too? Because I think “same” and “different” convey the idea of a gender binary as well, though perhaps not to the same extent. For example, I think it would be nice to have a word to describe being attracted to cismen and transmen and some people who are genderqueer. Panheterosexual? And if straight people used that term it would help accomplish a lot of the political goals you described in using pansexual.

  33. tengalaxies says

    Amazed that no one has mentioned the Robin Ochs quote that popularized the idea that the “bi” in bisexual could refer to self and other genders rather than male and female:

    “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.”

    I just want a sexual orientation label that doesn’t rely on saying who I’m *not* attracted to. I’d prefer polysexual over pansexual, because it doesn’t have the implication that I’m attracted to everyone or every gender identity. I don’t claim to not see gender. I was raised like every other human to perceive gender as the most fundamental way you can categorize a human. It’s even baked into the English language I grew up with. I’m attracted to certain combinations of gender expression and bodies. None of which has to do with “plumbing,” but all of which has to do with gender identity, presentation, and embodiment. I could come up with some long description of what I am and am not attracted to, but that’s not my identity. My attractions are fluid and the idea of building a community and identity around something that could easily change tomorrow because I’m just not feeling attracted to xyz anymore seems absurd to me. I have been attracted to and involved with people of my gender and other genders. That’s as far as I want to break it down. It’s a club I never plan on leaving.

  34. says

    Here’s what I think. If the root word of homosexual is “homo,” mean “same,” and the root word of heterosexual is “heteros,” meaning “different,” then bisexuality can be defined as being attracted to someone of the same gender and a different gender, thus making it non-binary. Plus, when the term bisexual was first coined, non-binary genders were practically unheard of (not saying that they didn’t exist, of course).

  35. says

    I identify as bisexual, but that’s because I’m only attracted (so far) to cismen and ciswomen. This thread is the first time I’ve ever seen or heard “bisexual” used to mean something other than that. I think I would identify as pansexual if my attractions were broader than they are.

    I just wanted to put that out there, as it goes along with what Greta said @22.

  36. Ava Perls says

    This terminology thing has been driving me crazy for years, and I feel like the more I look into it, the wibblier it all seems to get. I can generally get the idea across by telling people simply that I’m “not straight” and they’ll get the idea, since my being a woman married to a man establishes a certain framework. If a situation allows for a lengthier (and less technical) self-identification, I’ll usually tell people that I have approximately the same preference for men as I do for dark hair, which is both literally true and I think accurately illustrates the vagaries of my personal sexual orientation and patterns of attraction. But sometimes it’s weird to give people that much information, and it IS a little vague, and there are always going to be checkboxes to fill out – so then, what to call oneself?

    Attraction for me is simply not contingent on specifics of gender, sex, or anything to do with specific physiological bits and and pieces, so if “bisexual” is taken to be coded as being about a binary type of attraction, then it doesn’t properly apply to me. Even if we assume a broader definition of bisexual, there are always going to be people who don’t feel that way, and who are made to feel further marginalized by casual use of binary or binary-seeming language. I’m not keen on supporting further exclusion, so I’m uncomfortable with using “bisexual,” but, well, it’s the word people know, so it’s most likely to get the right general idea across without a bunch of extra details. (Which seems to weird people out even more now that I’m in a “straight” marriage – because apparently I signed some sort of gender attraction exclusivity clause on my marriage license without realizing it?)

    So: pansexual. I like the idea of a word that’s explicitly making clear that the gender binary is just not what things are about…. but I don’t like how incredibly unclear the meaning of pansexual is to people who haven’t heard it before, or, for that matter, how variable the definitions of pansexual are among the people who are familiar with it. Depending on context, pansexual can mean “similar working definition to bisexual, but never mind your silly binary,” or it can mean something much broader, as it seems to in BDSM and other kink contexts. I’d thought that the interpretation of pansexual as meaning “into everyone and everything, have at!” was just a matter of people unfamiliar with the term being likely to misconstrue it easily, but nope, it turns out that it at least some communities/contexts, pansexual really can be used as an identifier for people to indicate that they’re basically game for whatever and whoever, generally speaking. I am very much in favor of that being a thing that people can express, but it’s a distinctly different, and much broader, definition than what I’m looking for when trying to express that, no, I’m not in fact straight, and it would be lovely if people would stop assuming that.

    I want there to be a word that says “attracted to humans; gender and sex aren’t likely to be big deciding factors in patterns of attraction” without adding extra confusion and ambiguity. For me, given the sheer diversity of use of the word pansexual, it’s just too ambiguous to be very practical. Omnisexual doesn’t, I think, carry the same level of diverse usage, but it’s even more unfamiliar, and again can easily end up sounding like it’s about an inclination toward diverse kinds of sex, rather than specifically about an attraction to diverse sexes/genders, which can of course create more confusion. If it’s appropriate in context, I’ll sometimes self-describe as queer, but it’s not wholly accurate either, and I’ve never felt anything but actively excluded and mistrusted by self-described queer communities, so that’s a whole extra level of awkwardness. So usually I make a quip about hair color when I can, click on bisexual when I have to, and generally make casual references to my deep and abiding crush on Katee Sackhoff. It’s messy, but it’s the best solution I can come up with, for the moment.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Greta Christina has just made a post talking about her thoughts on whether to identify as bisexual o…, and one commenter linked to a post by Julia Serrano that defends the word bisexual as not reinforcing the gender binary. I ended up writing a pretty long response, and thought I would repost it here in case other people were curious or wanted to share thoughts on the issue: […]

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