Bi or Pan?
Battle has raged on the internet over the meaning of ‘bisexuality’ and whether ‘the b word’ is adequate for all the people who experience attraction to more than one gender.
Here some bi and pan people explain how it works through their eyes.
What about gay and straight?
Coming out as bisexual in the late 80s, when I first came across the label pansexual it didn’t involve any kind of gender nuance: it was how someone explained their bisexuality feeling interwoven with their Pagan beliefs.
Back then the “bi” in bisexual didn’t get talked about as having some great limiting weight of “two”, it was an “and” in a world that saw things as strictly either/or. As I was pushing at boundaries of discussion around gender and sexuality with people in the 90s I’d sometimes quip that I was “bisexual, I just haven’t decided which two genders yet”. When I started to come across people saying that bi was limiting because it meant two, a bit of me did think: oh lord, were they taking me seriously?
I like having more words for bi. As there’s no real defining line between bi and pan that doesn’t depend on first redefining bisexuality, I tend to explain the difference as “bi is to pan as lesbian is to gay woman”. Some people are fervently one or the other, but it’s more about how individuals feel about words than two distinct, discrete groupings.
I worry at the double-standard in discussion around terms for bisexuality when we don’t also take apart the notions of hetero and homo. Whether we have 3, 4, 84 or 7 billion genders to differentiate in our attractions, different (hetero) and same (homo) attractions face serious redefinition. When we talk about big ranges of gender nuance, heterosexuality becomes “attraction to everyone but myself” and homosexuality a Narcissistic sense of only being sexually interested in yourself.
Even if we conceptualise a “small but bigger than two” range of genders to acknowledge in labelling, and consider the “bi” in bisexual to mean strictly two, then taking those two attractive genders as being cisfemale and cismale feels to have a bias as to what is attractive: to be saying “if you were attracted to two types obviously you’d be attracted to the cis people”. That can get stuffed as a notion, to put it mildly.
What Pansexuality means to me
I came out to my friends as bisexual when I was 15. This was back in 1999, the only terms I knew then were gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans; and bisexual was the best way to describe who I am attracted to. It wasn’t until part way through university that through the internet I discovered the term pansexual, and after some research figured that yes, this is the term I’m most comfortable with.
See, for me, pansexuality is finding people attractive, regardless of their gender. It’s not finding males, females and everyone in between, outside or both, attractive. Gender, for me, isn’t even part of the equation. I’ve always seen the person and personality first before seeing their gender – if at all, and the same is true of the person I’m in a relationship with. I’m in love with a funny, lovely, witty and very cute, silly person. She just happens to be a woman with a vagina.
I knew I could fall in love with anyone, and I called myself bi. When I researched pansexual, it just seemed to be a better fit. It was good to find a term that was still all-inclusive, but away from the gendered way of labelling and seeing things at that time.
I’m capable of falling in love with anyone, regardless of gender. That’s all really.
But I still also refer to myself as bi sometimes. Occasionally, that’s because outside of the LGBT+ community it’s not a well-known sexuality and bi is; but it’s also because I consider pansexual to come under a bisexual umbrella. Bisexuality to me is attraction to more than one gender. Pansexuality sits with it, just minus gender. I’m also aware that many bisexual people use the definition I use for pansexual as their definition for bisexual, and that works. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t. It’s not a comparison with bisexuality; it’s just a different label for a type of attraction.
Don’t redefine me
As awareness of non-binary gender identities has developed, some members of the queer community have chosen to identify as pansexual rather than bisexual.
Non-binary, also known as genderqueer, refers to the whole spectrum of gender identities outside of the male/female binary. I’m not transgender or genderqueer; I’m cisgender. This means my gender identity does match the gender I was assigned at birth.
Pansexuality is sometimes defined as attraction to people of all genders, which is also the experience of many bisexual people. More often than not, however, people define their pansexuality in relation to bisexuality. In response to the question: “What does pansexual mean?” I’ve seen countless people reply: “I’m attracted to people of more than two genders. Not bisexual.” The implication is that bisexual means binary attraction: men and women only.
Since I came out in the late 90s, I haven’t seen one bi activist organisation define bisexuality as attraction solely to men and women. Bi and trans* issues began to grow in recognition at the same time. When I use ‘bi’ to refer to two types of attraction, I mean attraction to people of my gender and attraction to people of other genders.
I also frequently see cisgender pansexuals managing to be both transphobic and biphobic in their definitions. They say pansexuals are different to bisexuals because pansexuals are attracted to “men, women and transgender people,” as if binary trans people aren’t really men and women, and bisexuals couldn’t possibly be attracted to them anyway.
Despite the presence of bisexuals at every queer demonstration since Stonewall, we’ve always been told by the lesbian and gay community that we’re somehow not queer enough. This pushes many bi people who are active in the queer community to identify as lesbian, gay or just queer. Being forced to pick a closet by both the straight and gay communities results in bi people having significantly higher rates of mental health problems than straight and gay people. This is why it’s so upsetting to see internalised biphobia leading many pansexuals, many of whom until recently identified as bisexual, telling us we’re still not queer enough. Gay and straight people aren’t being pressurised into giving up the language they use to describe their attractions and neither should they be. As usual it’s only bisexuals being shamed into erasing our identities and our history.
The most frustrating thing to me about the current bi vs pan discourse is that it’s framed as a cisgender vs genderqueer debate. This has never been the case. In reality, many genderqueer people identify as bisexual. At least three of the most influential bi activists, researchers and academics are genderqueer. Meg John Barker, founder of BiUK; Jen Yockney, longstanding editor of ‘Bi Community News’; and Shiri Eisner, author of ‘Radical Bi: Notes For a Bisexual Revolution’, are all non-binary. They’ve spent years at the forefront of campaigns, lobbying for queer rights. To say bisexuality is binary erases the identities of these revolutionary bisexual genderqueer activists, and it erases the identity of every marginalised genderqueer bisexual they’re fighting for.
I have no problem embracing more labels to better describe our attractions and our gender politics. We all have every right to use the labels that fit us. Some people identify as both pan and bi depending on context, but I can’t consider doing this before the implicit and explicit biphobia within the pan community is rejected. If your definition of pansexuality relies on redefining my bisexuality and negating it, I can’t support that. If you need to prove your queer credentials by vehemently clarifying that you’re not bisexual, you’re doing to me exactly what the lesbian and gay community does to both of us.
What do you think?
Want to add your voice in this debate? Drop us a line (or twenty) with your thoughts on the bi, pan, multi sexuality label debate for our next issue at www.bicommunitynews.co.uk/contact
This first appeared in BCN magazine issue 132, August 2015.
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