For about ten years, I’ve been hearing about this dispute between pansexuality vs bisexuality. In its most basic form, the contention is that the “bi” in “bisexuality” refers to two genders, which seems to entirely forget about nonbinary people. Some people propose using “pansexual” instead. Other people defend “bisexual”, or admit that it has problems but still prefer it as the more recognizable term.
I am neither bisexual nor pansexual nor nonbinary, so I’m just weighing in from the perspective of someone who has been hearing about it for a long time.
1. The meaning of “bisexual”
One of the common defenses of “bisexual” is that the “bi” does refer to two things, but those two things are not men and women, but “same” and “different”. In other words, “bi” is “homo” and “hetero” together.
As a claim about the historical meaning of “bisexual”, this is a stretch, to put it mildly. I briefly looked it up and “bisexual” dates to the 19th century. Even if people were thinking of “bi” in terms of “same” and “different”, for most of its history people would have thought of “different” as referring to men or women, not to nonbinary people.
That said, words are not bound to their historical meanings. (And if they were, then “pansexual” would be in trouble too since it dates back to 1917, when it meant something completely different.) If people are just asserting what bisexual means now, that’s acceptable.
2. The meaning of “pansexual”
Although it’s less talked about, “pansexual” also has definitional issues. In particular, pansexuality is described as attraction “regardless” of gender. This suggests equal attraction to all genders. This label may not resonate with people who experience different degrees of attraction to different genders, or different kinds of attraction (e.g. sexual or romantic) to different genders.
You can’t have it both ways. Either pansexuality covers slightly different territory from bisexuality, or it functions as a more enlightened replacement for bisexuality. If you have it both ways, then it seems to imply that certain people have a sexuality that is inherently less enlightened.
With the way things are going, I think people likely will maintain the semantic distinction between bisexual and pansexual, and drop the notion that pansexual is an enlightened alternative.
I am sympathetic to people who prefer “bisexual” because it is more recognizable. For “invisible” orientations, a significant amount of activism goes towards making our words recognizable, and that’s not something you just throw away so quickly. And you literally can’t. However much your favorite internet community might be aware of the criticisms of these words, it really takes a decade or more to get that message out to everyone else.
I suspect there are a lot of people who prefer “pansexual”, but switch to “bisexual” whenever the context calls for a more recognizable word. Rather than thinking of pansexuality vs bisexuality as an either/or question, it’s better to think of them as two words that mostly overlap, but have a few distinct use cases.
4. Nonbinary attraction
Is the problem bisexuality that bisexuals (supposedly) aren’t attracted to nonbinary people? Or is it that nonbinary people are an afterthought? I believe it is the latter.
It’s not like nonbinary people are going around saying “I’m interested in this person, but they’re bisexual, so it would never work out.” If someone is bisexual, we’d probably guess that they also have the potential to be attracted to nonbinary people.
And look, even if some bisexual individuals are indeed not attracted to nonbinary people, this is not morally wrong. I am not attracted to nonbinary people (or anyone else).
No, the problem is that nonbinary people are an afterthought. And when bisexual people make the argument that “bi” refers to “same” and “different”, that doesn’t necessarily address the problem! Clarifying, afterwards, that “different” refers also to nonbinary people–to me that is an afterthought. And to be clear, bisexuality is not alone here. “Gay” and “straight” labels also treat nonbinary people like an afterthought.
And there’s a certain honesty in that. Are most straight people attracted to nonbinary people? How would they know without meeting a lot of nonbinary people? If they don’t know, wouldn’t it be dishonest to say that they do know? I think for most people, an honest sexual orientation label necessarily treats nonbinary people as an afterthought.
And besides, “nonbinary” is not even a gender, it’s more of a collection of disparate gender experiences. As far as appearance-based attraction goes, there is no single nonbinary “look”. Many nonbinary people I’ve met are visually indistinguishable from cis people. If a person says they’re attracted to nonbinary people, that’s clearly not the whole story, and it probably means something different to different people.
5. Etiquette for umbrellas
Earlier, I wrote an article about umbrella labels, which are intended to describe collections of experiences. The problem is that not everyone under the umbrella chooses to self-describe as such, and this causes the umbrella label to shift in meaning towards the kinds of people who opt in.
Bisexuality and pansexuality are both umbrella labels, and not everyone within these labels will choose to use them. So, what do we do about it?
In my article, I recommended some rules, so let’s go ahead and apply them to bisexuality and pansexuality:
- You may disidentify with bisexuality/pansexuality even if the word accurately describes you.
- You should understand that other people with similar experiences might choose to identify with a label that you do not.
- If you identify with bisexuality or pansexuality for some particular reason, you should not assume that everyone else who identifies with the term does so for the same reason.
- If you advertise a group for “bisexuals”, understand that some people identify as pansexual and not bisexual, and those people may or may not show up. (And vice versa.)
- Bisexuality is not invalid just because you prefer not to use the term. Pansexuality is not invalid just because you prefer not to use the term.
I’ve said a few things on both sides of this argument, so some readers might be wondering which side I think is right. Nope, sorry, can’t give that to you. All I can say is that the concerns are legitimate, but not necessarily compelling. I can’t tell you what to do about it, because I’m not the boss of you.
But remember that arguments about pansexuality have been around for at least a decade, and aren’t going away anytime soon. Let’s all live with each other’s choices in the mean time.