As a self-identified cranky bisexual, I’m excitable about the topic of bisexual vs. pansexual identity labels. I imagine a sexual identity cage match, complete with dramatic voiceovers describing each challenger to enter the ring. That’s because in the nearly 25 years I’ve identified as bisexual, I’ve had to defend my orientation countless times. And although that’s not the fault of pansexuality as a label or pansexuals as individuals, sometimes it feels that way to me. Although bisexuality and pansexuality are essentially the same things, they’re often mistaken for being not just separate but opposing identities.
In the ‘90s, I’d never heard the term pansexual. During my formative years, it was bisexuality that was there for me. Internet access was limited, so instead, we had books, meetups listed in the back of the newspaper, and zines like Anything That Moves, which was made to confront and redefine concepts of sexuality and gender and took its name from a common insult hurled at bisexual people. The bisexual label helped me find these resources and communities and realize I wasn’t alone.
In the mid-to-late 2010s, the pansexuality label started gaining traction. Many folks’ first introduction to the term pansexual was likely when celebrities like Janelle Monáe or Bella Thorne came out, and much of the larger context may be unknown history. In fact, there are tons of quotes from celebrities that make pansexuality an appealing choice, such as Emily Hampshire telling Passport, “I don't fall for people because of their bodies — I fall for them because of who they are.”
At first glance, that sounds really nice! But for many bisexuals who already feel that bisexuality includes everyone, introducing another term feels like one more form of bi erasure. According to GLAAD, “Bisexual erasure or bisexual invisibility is a pervasive problem in which the existence or legitimacy of bisexuality is questioned or denied outright.”
To fill in some of the context and history, and gain a better understanding of both bisexuality and pansexuality, Elite Daily reached out to several experts on the topic.
A Brief History Of Bisexual Identity Politics
As William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” But is that true? This famous line is commonly interpreted as meaning that names and labels don’t matter, but many peoples’ lived experiences say differently. Especially for bisexual folks, talk about sexual identity labels is often a touchy subject.
It’s impossible to talk about bisexuality and pansexuality without getting into LGBTQ+ identity politics. Back in the ‘90s, when I was figuring out my sexuality and coming out, the “alphabet mafia” had a much shorter alphabet. And although the B for Bisexual was in there, bi folks weren’t exactly welcomed into the larger LGBTQ+ community. At the same time, we also faced a lot of stigma and scapegoating from mainstream society.
In 1997, the Long Beach Pride parade in California allowed a bi group for the first time, and at 17 years old, I was one of the people proudly marching. I knew that Pride parades often attracted protesters, but I hadn’t expected there to be a group specifically for us. The protesters were blaming bisexual folks for the HIV crisis. More specifically, they considered us to be the “bridge” between gay and straight folks, meaning it was our fault straight people were getting it — which is what they actually cared about. And maybe that kind of harassment would be almost bearable if the LGBTQ+ community was welcoming to bi folks, but unfortunately, the biphobia was coming from inside the house, too.
This kind of stigma takes a toll. In fact, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Sex Research, bisexual people are more likely than gay and straight folks to suffer from anxiety and depression due to discrimination based on a bisexual orientation, bisexual invisibility and erasure, and lack of bisexual-affirmative support. In 2019, The Trevor Project published a similar study and found several disturbing trends, including that “over one in three bisexual youth reported being bullied at school.”
So what’s in a name? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Bi Vs. Pan — What’s The Difference?
The first definition of bisexuality I learned described it as an attraction to people both “the same as, and different from” yourself. Meaning that bisexuality includes attraction to all genders. Gabrielle Blonder of the Bisexual Resource Center frames it in a similar way when writing about the topic for Out Magazine, “I've finally settled comfortably into my choice to identify as bisexual, meaning I'm attracted to genders like mine and genders different from mine.” And activist Robin Ochs uses similar phrasing, “For me, the bi in bisexual refers to the potential for attraction to people with genders similar to and different from my own.”
The deeper I tried to dig into the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality, the more I ran up against the conclusion that there isn’t one. “They're both the same, kind of. There's a lot of overlap between the two. People who are bisexual are technically also pansexual. People can choose to identify as both, or either. It's really up to the individual,” says Varuna Srinivasan, sexual health media expert.
With an increasing understanding of how restrictive (and inaccurate) it is to class gender as a binary, I can understand focusing on the “bi” in bisexual and assuming it reinforces binary thinking. But back in 2013, transgender activist and gender theorist Kate Bornstein wrote in My New Gender Workbook, "Bisexual movements don’t get enough credit for breaking the either/or of sexual orientation. And they did it long before gender scholars, activists, and radicals came on the scene." Nevertheless, the misconception that bisexuality is about two genders persists. And it’s this misconception that can pit bisexuality and pansexuality against each other.
Jen Winston, author of Greedy: Notes from a Bisexual Who Wants Too Much says, “For those looking for a difference, I hate to break it to you, but bisexuality and pansexuality are sort of the same thing. The reason we don’t always see it that way is yet again because of bi erasure.” She goes on to explain more ways bi erasure manifests, and what it has to do with the tension with pansexuality. “Bi erasure often comes in the form of casual asides like ‘I was bisexual once, too’ (which implies that it’s a phase) or ‘everyone is bisexual’ (which implies it’s not worth talking about). But there’s also another one: “‘Bi means ‘two’— if you want to be truly inclusive, you should be pansexual instead.’” And it’s this example that gets to the heart of my personal discomfort with the pansexuality label.
Luckily, Winston goes on to deconstruct why this assumption is inaccurate and harmful. “This implies that bisexual people (1) can change the label we ascribe to at a moment’s notice, and (2) are inherently supporting the gender binary and erasing nonbinary people. The former reinforces the stereotype that bi identity is a pathway to another sexuality. The latter ignores the fact that bisexuality has always challenged binary systems, starting with the sexuality binary (gay or straight). Bisexuality includes nonbinary people and people of other genders (I should know, as a nonbinary person dating a genderqueer person),” says Winston.
Do Sexual Identity Labels Matter?
It is both comforting and empowering knowing that you’re not alone in what you feel. That other people feel the same way, and there are communities of similar folks just waiting to meet you. Labels can do that. But labels can also feel like they’re putting you in a box that doesn’t quite fit.
So, do labels matter? “They do and they don't! Meaning that at the end of the day — labels are what we use to help define our sexualities and this should be for the individual and no one else. Sometimes they are vital to a movement. For example, the label 'queer' was reclaimed by the LGBT community and it's been a beacon of hope ever since. On the other hand, for someone exploring their sexual/gender identity, labels can be daunting, so in that case, it's important to remember that labels don't matter!” says Srinivasan.
At first glance, it feels as though more options should be a good thing. The trick here is the weight being placed on the choice. It’s not like being presented with 31 flavors of ice cream and getting to joyfully sample each one to see what you’re in the mood for. Too often, it’s a matter of being judged, mocked, or stigmatized for your choice.
Despite all this stigma, bisexual identification is growing. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 7% of US adults identify as “something other than heterosexual.” And when the same data is broken down by age, that number jumps to 21% for Gen-Z folks. Interestingly, among the folks who identified as somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, 57% claimed the term bisexual. And it’s big polls like this that demonstrate some of the values in labels. Without these terms to work with, we wouldn’t have a way to understand how very large the LGBTQ+ communities actually are.
“Sexual identity labels matter when we apply them to ourselves and use them to connect to others with similar experiences. They can be a tool to create community and organize for equal protections and rights. Labels can be useful in giving language to our experiences and attractions that help us understand more about who we are. That said, the most important thing is living our lives authentically, regardless of what label we do or don't apply to ourselves,” says Rae McDaniel, gender and sex therapist, coach, and educator.
What If Neither Term Feels Right?
Labels should be as flexible as you are. You can change the terms you use as often as you like, and you can skip labels altogether if that feels better. At their best, sexuality labels should be a tool that helps folks find their people and begin conversations. But they should never feel restrictive or confining.
“Many folks get caught up trying to find the perfect label for themselves instead of simply leaning into what feels authentic to them. Discovering a label that feels right to you is rarely about thinking really hard about it. It's in experimenting, playing, and being curious when you notice something feels authentic to you and then taking another tiny step in that direction. The labels will come. And they might change over time. That's OK, too,” says McDaniel.
And if you find yourself changing your mind, you’re in good company. “When I was on the journey of sexual discovery and exploration, I changed my mind a lot. I had a hard time deciding 'what I was.' During that time, I took solace in the fact that sexuality is a spectrum (in the form of a circle), meaning that I could be anywhere on that spectrum and I didn't have to decide on a label,” says Srinivasan.
How Do Bi And Pan Identities Fit Into LGBTQ+ Communities?
Many bi and pan folks feel forgotten within the larger LGBTQ+ communities. You can often see this demonstrated when people question owners of gay bars, or hosts of queer events, asking for clarification about who is invited to attend. In July 2022, a new lesbian bar, Doc Marie’s, opened in Portland with the tagline “A lesbian bar for everyone.” But the comments on their Instagram post were full of people asking if bi folks were welcome. At the time, they walked right into the identity politics problem so many LGBTQ+ spaces have faced: trying to define who a space is intended for within a community full of micro-identities.
Doc Marie’s closed after just one day after reports of racism, unsafe working conditions, and more surfaced (the bar has since reopened). And as messy as the situation was, it clearly illustrated that being allowed to visit a space and feeling welcome are two very different things. This is one of the reasons people use different labels in different spaces. As attached as I am to the bisexual label, I often simply call myself queer in LGBTQ+ spaces.
“There are many folks within the LGBTQ+ community who identify as bisexual or pansexual. In the circles I run in, most folks prefer the term ‘queer’ as an all-encompassing identity that emphasizes fluidity and flexibility of things like gender and sexuality,” says McDaniel.
But the queer label isn’t a seamless fit for all bisexual folks. “People have often asked me why I didn’t just identify as “queer,” and the answer is that I didn’t think I deserved the label of “queer.” After writing my book, I’ve realized that this impostor syndrome is too real for bi people — we often don’t think we are ‘queer enough’ (as if that’s a thing)!” says Winston. In fact, this queer imposter syndrome is so common, I often say that feeling “not queer enough” is actually one of the rights of passage for folks coming out as bi.
Where it gets even trickier is that bi and pan folks are sometimes in relationships that are deemed “straight-passing.” “It's stigmatizing, especially if your sexuality isn't reflected in your partnership. When bi and pan people date (especially as a woman) someone of another gender (who is cis het), [people think] our sexuality is automatically invalidated,” says Srinivasan.
As disappointing as some bi and pan people’s experiences have been, communities, like people, are always changing. And as trends toward more fluid labels or eschewing labels completely continue, communities will need to adjust. After an interview where he refused to define his sexuality with a label, Lee Pace tweeted, “As a member of the queer community, I understand the importance of living openly, being counted, and happily owning who I am.” And he’s not the only celebrity to take that stance. Ariana Grande, Lizzo, Tyler Posey, Harry Styles, and many more have refused attempts to label their sexuality with any single term but are still largely embraced by LGBTQ+ communities. “I'm happy to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community because they embrace all,” Joshua Bassett told GQ. And if enough people share that attitude, it will become true.
Varuna Srinivasan, sexual health media expert
Rae McDaniel, gender and sex therapist, coach, and educator