the true meanings of pan and bi

Sometimes, when talking about my sexual and romantic inclinations with non-Queer folks, I need to alter the way I describe myself a bit. I am Pansexual in body, mind, and spirit, but frequently I find myself saying, when asked what that means, “it’s like bisexuality, only different.”

Which it is–and isn’t, exactly.

I grew into the term quite naturally. I discovered it at a time in my life when I didn’t have many words to describe who or what I was. Lots of people around me were identifying as bisexual. For some, it was a period of experimentation that confirmed their hetero- or homosexuality. For others, it led into the term ‘bi’ as a personal identification.

Surprisingly enough, I found the term “pansexual” under the orientation option on Myspace, back in ’05; I Googled it and felt something click. Soon after, I adopted it as my own. I enjoyed saying that “I like people for who they are, not what’s between their legs.” I reveled in phrases like “Hearts not Parts” and proudly explained that I love people, regardless of how bodies manifest. I also, unfortunately, bought into the binarist version of defining “bisexual.” This was, in part, the reason I rejected the label.

Luckily, I no longer subscribe to this viewpoint. I haven’t for quite a while, and this is what I wanted to discuss: ‘bi’ does not mean ‘binary.’ ‘Bi’ does not mean erasing non-binary genders. Identifying as bisexual is not an oppressive action. That bisexuality contributes to an erasure of nonbinary identities (such as my own) was an all too common argument, and still is. Language is as fluid as people are and continuously evolves. Bisexual activists like Shiri Eisner (author of Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution) and Julia Sereno (author of Whipping Girl and Excluded: Making Queer and Feminist Movements More Inclusive) are working towards ‘redefining’ the meaning of the word bisexuality, and in turn correcting the common misunderstanding of what it means to be bisexual.

This is the argument condemning ‘bi’ as a prefix and identity: bisexuality is trans-exclusionary because it promotes a gender binary composed of only two genders (man and woman), as ‘bi’ means two.

The proponents of ‘bi’ as a prefix and identity argue that yes, ‘bi’ means two. Nobody said it didn’t. ‘Two’ doesn’t mean only two in this context; two doesn’t mean there are only two genders. The proposed definition is: attraction to individuals who share your gender identity, and individuals of other, differing gender identities. This is super appropriate, logical, and not at all oppressive. I agree with Eisner and Sereno when they say that bisexuality is a valid Queer identity and that, as terms like ‘pansexual’ and ‘omnisexual’ popped up as more inclusive alternatives to a bisexual identity within Queer circles, ‘bi’ not only fell out of use–it fell into a definition that it never held before, one of deliberate oppression and erasure. Sure, ‘pan-,’ ‘omni-,’ ‘poly-‘ and other LGBTQIA+ prefixes to identity-defining terms gain an individual a bit more “street cred” in many Queer circles, but ‘bi’ as an identity-defining term should not be invalidated, or erased from LGBTQIA+ lexicon under this fairly new and grossly misconstrued assumption. Plus, it’s not anyone else’s place to police what words an individual uses to define who and what they are.

This is another reason I rejected bisexual as my identifying term. I felt like it was the only other acceptable term besides Gay/Lesbian and Straight. It felt forceful, not liberating. At fifteen, everything can seem confusing, so I wasn’t about to willingly throw my whole being into another box I didn’t fit into like I did with so many before.

When I discovered the word ‘pansexual’ and stitched it right onto my Heart (which was already stitched to my sleeve), I wasn’t familiar with Queer Theory, Gender Studies, and the huge politics surrounding Queerness. Now, I’m submerged in Queer politics and intersectional activism, I understand the political impact the word “bisexual” has; how subversive it can be. I know that it was largely appropriated by the medical-industrial complex and subject to medicalization, assigned pathologies, and that in bi-identified people reclaiming the term ‘bisexual’ they are moving mountains. Part of that medicalization was categorizing individuals attracted to more than one gender as hypersexual, deviant, and broken; early psychoanalysts, unsurprisingly, coined the term. When I was stumbling into Queer terminology, I immediately grasped how heavily the word ‘bi’ was steeped in sex alone. I disliked that; I was trying to refute traditional labels in claiming my Queerness, and I certainly wasn’t trying to sexually project myself onto, well, anything. The word seemed too loaded, too taboo. That is why the word is so powerful, though. The word Bisexual as a descriptive term, and Bisexuality itself is revolutionary for this reason. There is so much to reclaim; there is so much to refute; there is so much to reject. Self-identifying with the word is not what we should be rejecting. It’s the connotations that dominant culture has weaved around should be subject to rejection. It’s the connotations projected onto, and subsequently internalized by, Queer communities, leading to ‘pan-,’ ‘Omni-,’ and ‘poly-‘ being treated as more acceptable than the original revolutionary term. Instead of rejecting the term and act of ‘bisexuality,’ we should reject the stereotypes and myths surrounding the word, replace the untruths that are said to be ours with the truths that actually are ours.

What I’m saying here isn’t that any and every polysexual individual should identify as one thing as an end-all-be-all. Nor am I saying that we, as a community, are obligated to vastly embrace a self-identifier with far-reaching social stigma attached to it. I’m proposing the opposite: a self-identifying term shouldn’t be rejected a merely because it has societal stigma attached to it. Societal stigma can be–and is–harmful. It can also be–and is–world-changing, empowering, and revolutionary, so ‘Bisexual’ as a term and identity-indicator should by no means be avoided in our communities because it is easier to do so than think critically or engage in dialogue about the concepts attached to certain terminology in our lexicon.

My own critical thought around the word, and my initial rejection of it, led me to believe that I was initially misguided, that perhaps my reaction was a knee-jerk one. It has been nine years since I discovered the term ‘pansexual,’ nine years since I began identifying with it. However, it is not my sole indicator, it is merely a single cog in my large, shiny Queer gear-box. At this point in time, ‘bisexual’ is still not how I would introduce myself. It’s not a term I would ever rail against again, though.

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Jenna-Nichole, more commonly known as JayJay, is a Poet (with a capital P!) currently experiencing life in and around Massachusetts. When they’re not reading books, they’re reading more books.