By Hannah Burt
Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities. Do you have a word that needs defining? Let us know!
Pansexuality can be defined as romantic and/or sexual attraction to a person regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. What it boils down to is that pansexual people are capable of attraction to anyone. This includes (cisgender and transgender) men and women, non-binary people, people who are agender, bigender, genderqueer, and all those who fall outside the gender binary.
The term’s growing popularity has been helped along by celebrities like Janelle Monae, Miley Cyrus, and others who have publicly come out as pansexual. Pansexuality can mean different things to different people, which is part of what makes the identity so awesome, but also means that pinning down a definition that fits everyone is a bit of a challenge. So, we are going to do our best to give a general overview of pansexuality, but remember that it’s also ok to respectfully ask someone what the identity means to them!
Let’s dive right in. The prefix “pan-” comes from the Ancient Greek prefix meaning “all” or “every.” However, like with many terms, pansexuality in practice is a good deal more nuanced than that.
For some pansexual people, pansexuality means that attraction is not directly physical and that the gender identity of a person does not factor into their potential attraction at all (“gender blind” and “hearts not parts” are common phrases). For others, gender identity does factor in to what attracts them to a person, but there are no identities that are excluded from their realm of possible attraction. Of course, pansexuality does not mean attraction to every single person that you meet, or even all identities equally.
If your child identifies as pansexual, it is understandable to want to know EXACTLY what that means and what their future will look like. But don’t be discouraged by the nebulous nature of pansexuality. Instead, the best thing to do is to ask your child (respectfully, of course!) about what pansexuality means to them. Hearing their definition in their own words is the best way to understand your child’s identity. Most importantly, respect their boundaries, believe what they tell you, and support them no matter what!
The main thing to remember is that pansexuality is a broad and flexible term that can be claimed by many people, each with a nuanced way of experiencing attraction—and that’s part of what makes the term so awesome! At the heart of any queer identity is the idea of breaking down previous assumptions about gender and sexuality and creating our own terms to describe ourselves, find community, and redefine our human experiences. Having the ability to embrace a term and make it our own is a big, awesome part of that.
Because pansexuality is not yet a widely understood term, there are many myths and misconceptions out there. Let’s tackle a few of the most common ones:
• “Pansexuality is just a fad identity.”
While the term pansexuality is somewhat newer than other LGBTQIA terms, that doesn’t make it any less valid. The modern understanding of the term has been around since at least the 1960s and gained prominence in the early 1990s due to the growing activism and awareness of non-binary and genderqueer identities. Since then, societal understandings of sexuality and gender have continued to become more fluid and the term pansexuality has become increasingly popular, especially among younger generations. Language is not a static entity, meaning that it is meant to change and evolve to better represent our human experiences. The term pansexuality arose as a part of this rethinking of the language that we use to express our queerness. Such changes should not be shrugged off as the latest trend, but embraced for their potential to bring about better understanding and acceptance of identities and experiences of all kinds.
• “Pansexuality is more inclusive than bisexuality because it includes attraction to people outside of the gender binary.”
Because the prefix “bi-” means two, it is often thought that bisexuality means attraction only to men and women. While this may be how some people define their bisexuality, it is not the most commonly understood definition. Most bisexual people define their bisexuality as “attraction to two or more genders” or “same and different genders” (you can read more on that here). Therefore, neither bisexuality nor pansexuality is inherently exclusionary of those outside the gender binary.
• “Pansexuality and bisexuality are the same thing.”
Now that we’ve established that bisexuality can also include identities outside of the gender binary, what is the difference between identifying as bisexual and identifying as pansexual? Put most simply, pansexuality and bisexuality are different but related identities. Both identities fall under the umbrella of “non-monosexuality,” meaning that they include attraction to more than one gender identity. Functionally, they can look very similar—even the same. While some people proudly identify with both terms, they are not inherently the same thing. Each term has its own history and community, and each person has their own reasons behind the language they use to identify themselves. The most important thing is to respect whatever term a person chooses to identify with!
But while we’re at it, many of the same myths that apply to bisexuality also apply to pansexuality, so just to be clear: No, we aren’t confused. And no, it’s not just a phase.
• “Pansexuality is too complicated.”
If pansexuality is a new concept to you, it may seem difficult to keep track of all the nuances of the term. But don’t despair! The most important thing to remember is to respect the identities of others, whether or not you fully understand them yet. And remember, as curious as you might be, especially if it is your own child, their sexuality is ultimately their own. They have the right to explain as much or as little as they want. And if they are still figuring it out, that’s great, too! Don’t rush them. As a parent, it is your job to listen and accept them throughout their journey.
Be sure to check out the rest of The Defining Series right here!
Hannah Burt is the social media intern at My Kid Is Gay and a queer bike mechanic living in Boston, MA. If they aren’t on their bike, you can find them knitting, listening to podcasts, or dismantling the gender binary. Find them online @hannahranga.