OPINION: Here’s the difference between bisexual and pansexual

by Jen Winston | @jenerous | Writer
Thursday, 23 September 2021 13:18 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: LGBT+ rights activists dance at the Queer Pride March in New Delhi, India on June 29, 2008. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA)

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Bisexuality felt right for me because it is inclusive of all genders.

Jen Winston (she/they) is a writer, creative director, and bisexual. Jen runs a monthly newsletter called The Bi Monthly, and their first essay collection, ‘Greedy: Notes From A Bisexual Who Wants Too Much’, comes out with Atria Books on Oct 5. Photo of Jen Winston taken by Landon Speers.

Today is Bi Visibility Day. At first glance, it seems like just another Instagram holiday — an excuse to post thirst traps with long captions. But unpack this further, acknowledging how an epidemic of bisexual erasure has manifested in troubling mental health statistics for the bi+ community, and those very thirst traps become radical. They’re grassroots activism that puts bi people and advocacy center stage.

I love Bi Visibility Day. It fills me with immense joy to see bi people shouting our truth. But all too often, I stumble across a caption where someone has written that their bisexuality is an attraction to “both men and women”. It makes me want to throw my phone at the wall.

I first came out as bisexual in 2019. Before I did, I worried about a lot of things: People would think I was greedy. They’d call it a phase. They’d ask for “proof”, details of my sexual experiences with anyone besides men. They’d tell me bisexuality wasn’t a big deal and wonder why I said anything at all. But what I worried about most of all was that my entire sexuality was dismissive of non-binary identity and that people would urge me to identify as pansexual instead.

In terms of attraction, I was interested in pretty much everyone, non-binary people very much included. But the word “bisexual” had always resonated with me and, knowing that the prefix “bi” means “two,” I couldn’t figure out why. I tried on broad labels like “queer” or “fluid”, but I didn’t feel confident in my sexuality enough to claim them just yet.

I considered “pansexual,” often defined as “attraction to everyone regardless of gender” — it seemed to be bisexuality’s gender-inclusive alternative. But, while I deeply appreciated that part of its definition, the word itself didn’t hit me the same way. “Pansexual” may have been the right term for some people — and it was for millions. But not for me.

I couldn’t put my finger on why, so I assumed that it was due to nuanced differences between the definitions. Gender felt like a massive component of my attraction to others (even when that gender was genderqueer, or the rejection of gender). I chalked my discomfort up to semantics — specifically, the definition of pansexuality’s inclusion of “regardless”.

I knew intrinsically that “bisexual” described my truest self — every time someone said it, it made me feel seen. But, because of its many stigmas, I carried too much shame around saying it out loud. Rather than come out using a label that didn’t feel right, I opted to stay closeted instead. I switched my dating app settings back to just men, figuring I should just lean into my “straight side” — it would make life easier anyway.

But my mind kept drifting back to bisexuality and I considered that I couldn’t be the only bi person who’d run into this issue. I needed answers and I started searching things like, “Does bisexuality reinforce the gender binary?” and “Is bisexuality transphobic?”, anxious to see the results.

I couldn’t believe what I found — tons of bi theorists were speaking about this issue, many of them genderqueer or trans themselves.

I learned bi activist Robyn Ochs’ gender expansive definition of the word “bisexual”: “The potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

I learned that the radical bi+ movement has always been about challenging binaries of all kinds — gender included.

I learned from activist and writer Shiri Eisner that, despite its gender-expansive history, bisexuality was often “scapegoated” as perpetuating the gender binary, while other binary-driven LGBT+ identities weren’t seen as bearing that responsibility.

Ultimately, I learned that dismissing bisexuality on the grounds that it reinforces the gender binary was just another tactic of bi erasure. I sighed with relief—I could be bisexual! I could show up as my full self - and still support all genders and resist all binaries.

So I came out, which was just as fulfilling as I’d thought it would be. I started dating a nonbinary person (who also identifies as bisexual), then came out as nonbinary myself.

But after that whole journey, I still find that many people in the bi community view the term as referring to just men and women.

Bi visibility has to go beyond thirst traps. This Bi Visibility Day, it’s my job as a bi person to educate my bi brethren about our sexuality’s gender-expansive history — and our responsibility to fight transphobia in our community and beyond.

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