While exploring sexuality, it can be a bit confusing if you’re not completely familiar with the definitions of certain sexual or romantic identities. Sexuality is a spectrum, and there are many labels people use within the LGBTQ+ community. Two well-known terms are pansexual and bisexual, and while the labels have been around for decades, their meanings are still sometimes mixed up.
“Although definitions and understanding can vary based on age, geography, and other factors, bisexuality is often considered to mean attraction to more than one gender, while pansexuality is often considered to mean attraction to people regardless of their gender,” Angela Dallara, Director of Rapid Response and Campaigns at GLAAD, explains.
Here, experts break down these terms and provide a detailed explanation of the difference between pansexuality and bisexuality. Fully understanding these terms is important for not only educating yourself on all of the LGBTQ+ initialisms, but also for raising the visibility of all queer folk who own the pansexual and bisexual label.
What does it mean to be pansexual?
Pansexuality is the sexual or romantic attraction towards people, regardless of their sex or gender. “This term is sometimes specifically used to be inclusive of attraction to individuals across the gender spectrum,” Keygan Miller, Public Training Manager for The Trevor Project, says.
What does it mean to be bisexual?
Bisexuality is the sexual and romantic attraction to more than one gender. “One of the most common definitions of bisexuality originated from author and activist Robyn Ochs,” Dallara says. The description is as follows: “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.”
Miller adds, “Historically framed as being attracted to ‘both’ genders, bisexuality has been reframed as referring to people who are attracted to one’s own and other genders, including those outside the gender binary.”
What is the difference between pansexuality and bisexuality?
The difference really varies based on a person’s definition and understanding of the terms “pansexual” and “bisexual.” Drawing from their basic definitions, bisexuality means sexual, romantic, or emotional attraction to more than one gender, while pansexuality means sexual, romantic, attraction to all, regardless of gender.
“Pansexuality was a response to the fact that bisexuality frequently gets shorthanded to ‘men and women,’ which is not necessarily inclusive of transgender and nonbinary people,” Miller explains. “But really that is an issue of how bisexuality is defined by society, not an issue of the identity being exclusionary.”
How do you know if you’re pansexual or bisexual?
There isn’t one specific list of signs that might indicate that you’re pansexual or bisexual. “People can realize at any point throughout their lives that they are bisexual, pansexual, or another sexual orientation,” Dallara says. “It’s up to every individual to decide if, how, and/or with whom they share who they are and which identity, if any, feels right to them.”
It’s key to note that sexual identities are fluid, and can change over time. The most important thing to remember is that nobody should ever be prescribed or feel limited by a label. Even if you feel like you might fit the label of “bisexual” or “pansexual,” if the term doesn’t feel right for you, that’s OK.
Can you be both pansexual and bisexual?
Yes. But again, it depends on a person’s understanding and definitions of these identities, Miller explains.
“Many people might use both bisexual and pansexual as labels for themselves, in addition to other terms like queer,” Dallara adds. “It’s up to every individual to determine what term or terms feel right for them.”
Is bisexuality binary?
Nope. “There is a common misunderstanding that the prefix ‘bi’ in ‘bisexuality’ refers solely to men and women, and is thus binary,” Dallara explains. “The truth is for many bisexual people, the prefix ‘bi’ actually refers to genders similar to and different than their own.” There are transgender and nonbinary people who identify as bisexual, she says.
Miller points out that most bisexual people do not experience an equal, 50/50 attraction to more than one gender. “It is very common for bisexual people to prefer one gender over another, and some say that this preference changes over time,” Miller explains. “Some bisexual people feel romantic feelings towards one gender but physical attraction towards the other.”
What are some misconceptions about pansexuality and bisexuality?
Dallara notes that some people believe that bisexual and pansexual people make up only a small percentage of the LGBTQ+ community. But this isn’t true. One 2022 study from Gallup shows that more than half of LGBTQ+ people in the United States identify as bisexual.
“Many stereotypes still persist about bisexual and pansexual people due to a lack of visibility and understanding,” Dallara adds. Bisexual and pansexual people still encounter many forms of discrimination and disparities in spaces such as schools, workplaces, and healthcare. In research conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, bisexual people face significant physical and mental health disparities compared to the rest of the population. Stigma and “biphobia” contribute to these health risks, the organization explains.
Another misconception is that bisexual and pansexual people are non-monogamous, or are attracted to everyone, Dallara and Miller explain. “Just like straight and gay people, bisexual and pansexual people have certain people they are attracted to and others they aren’t. It’s the possibility of attraction, not the guarantee,” Miller says.
Another common misconception is that bisexual people and pansexual people are “confused” or “undecided” about their sexual identity. But this is also not true. “Even when bisexual and pansexual people are in a relationship with a person of one gender, that does not negate the fact that they still experience attraction to other genders,” Miller says. “People have held these identities for their entire lifetimes. It’s not just a phase.”
Are there bisexual and pansexual pride flags? What do the colors mean?
The bisexual pride flag is a thick pink stripe, thin purple stripe, and thick blue stripe. “Michael Page, the designer of the bi flag, describes it as the pink represents sexual attraction to the same sex, the blue opposite sex, and the purple is a blend of both worlds,” Miller explains.
The pansexual pride flag is three stripes of pink, yellow, and cyan. “Some people state that pink is for attraction to women, cyan is for attraction to men, and yellow is for attraction to nonbinary people, but the origins of the flag are a little fuzzy,” Miller says.
Are there resources available to pansexual and bisexual people?
Dallara and Miller point to a number of organizations and resources for pansexual and bisexual people. “Many organizations and support groups offer resources for both bisexual and pansexual people, as well as those with other fluid or non-monosexual identities,” Dallara says.
These organizations include the Bisexual Resource Center, Bisexual Organizing Project, BECAUSE Conference, The Bi Pan Library, and History of Pansexuality. The Trevor Project, GLAAD, Human Rights Campaign, and the It Gets Better Project offer tons of resources for the LGBTQ+ community, as well.
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