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Freedom Requires Wings FRW The #1 QUILTBAG opinion blog on the web. We aim to open minds and help the queer community. News, blogs, video, worldwide suicide prevention and more. Worldwide

Soo... you're bi?

Freedom Requires Wings | by on




You’re among a group of people you don’t know very well, when the topic of sexuality comes up. You mention offhand that you’re pansexual, and, predictably, you hear the inevitable comment. “Isn’t that the same thing as bisexual?”

We’ve all heard it, no matter our sexuality - the implication that pansexuality is just another form of bisexuality, or is the same thing as bisexuality, or some other variant on the same underlying idea - pan people don’t exist. Occasionally, the tone is less innocent, and the idea more hostile - that those identifying as pansexual are merely seeking attention from others who will give it to them based on a "more oppressed" identity.

This, of course, is untrue - most people with a general familiarity of sexual orientations understand the distinction between pansexuality and bisexuality. Yet the myth continues - this pervasive idea that being pan is merely a subset of being bi - and we often find ourselves in a conversation with someone who believes it. It’s difficult to explain the difference between the two to someone less familiar with identity politics, especially when the vocabulary of the issue is poorly-defined in modern dictionaries and its intricacies are still discussed in many forums in the community. The details of the issue are rife with controversy, much of which concerns trans* and non-binary identities. Introducing a less-knowledgeable person to it can be messy without introducing them to many other issues as well.

For example, there is a similar-yet-strangely-inverse myth within the QUILTBAG community - that bisexuals do not experience sexual attraction to non-binary genders. This may be true for some bisexuals, but is not a blanket statement for all or even most bisexuals. This particular misunderstanding, like many, lies within the etymology of the word “bisexual” - that it is implied that bisexuals are attracted to two genders and no more. However, the latin root “bi-” means two - so bisexuals are attracted to two groups, those of the same gender as themselves and those of other genders. Very rarely does one argue that no homosexuals are attracted to non-binary persons, despite the latin roots suggesting that it would be so.

Even those who reject this argument must accept that language evolves, and many words today do not mean simply the composite form of their Latin or Greek roots. Not all gay people are effeminate or flamboyant, as the words once meant. Not all lesbians are from the Greek isle of Lesbos, from which the word is derived. Similarly, not all bisexuals are attracted to only two genders.

This issue only serves to further obfuscate an already-messy situation, which brings us back to our discussion on the distinction between pansexuality and bisexuality. If bisexuals are attracted to the gender that is the same as theirs as well as others, and pansexuals are as well, then what is the difference? Surely if the two groups are attracted to the same gender/s, then they are of the same sexual orientation.

I believe that, rather than the problem lying in the definition of either pansexual or bisexual, it is instead in the definition of “sexual orientation.” Dictionary.com defines it as “one's natural preference in sexual partners; predilection for homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality.” Not only does this definition completely erase pansexuality (as well as other sexualities), it defines orientation poorly. Many people, and apparently dictionary.com, believes that orientation is only who one finds attractive, whereas the word more specifically defines how that attraction is felt, and there lies the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality. It is not a matter of which genders one finds attractive, but rather how one is attracted to individuals of that gender. Generally speaking, bisexuals are more often attracted to certain traits in certain genders, or have genders to which they don’t feel attraction, whereas pansexuals generally feel more attracted to certain traits within all genders.

Of course, this complicated definition is less well-known. In a heterocentric society, a definition of “sexual orientation” that applies well to heterosexuals and the second-largest group in that society (homosexuals) is likely to be well-accepted, especially as most mainstream conversations relating to gender politics discuss only heterosexuality and homosexuality, and only occasionally touches on bisexuals - never, of course, straying from the gender binary or discussing less popular sexualities.

Explaining to less well-read people that orientation determines more than the gender/s towards which one feels attraction may help them understand the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality. Explaining that common dictionary definitions of words like that are inadequate will probably help explain your position further.
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