Bi, Pan, and the Insufficiency of Prefixes

First of all, Happy Belated Pansexual Pride Day!

Second of all, let’s stop touting pansexuality as a new-and-improved, more highly evolved version of bisexuality. That’s not what it is.

There exists an ugly myth that because the prefix “bi” means “two”, bisexuality reinforces the concept of a gender binary and only recognizes two genders — men and women. It is often assumed this also excludes trans men and women. In light of these myths, pansexuality is sometimes put forth as an enlightened, gender-inclusive alternative to bisexuality, because “pan” means “all”, and therefore subverts the gender binary.

Bisexuality is simply the attraction to more than one gender. Full stop.

Pansexuality is the attraction to all genders, or anyone regardless of gender.

Semantically, bisexuality encompasses pansexuality, but there is a point where we can distinguish between the two, and this is important to much of our community.

Bisexuality has never been defined — by actual bisexuals — as the attraction to only two genders. This misconception developed somewhere outside of our community, all-too-conveniently during a period of time when bisexuals were making a lot of headway organizing in partnership with the trans community, which inexplicably came to a screeching halt shortly thereafter…

Anyway, to illustrate this history, we can point to The 1990 Bisexual Manifesto, published in the Bay Area Bisexual Network’s literary magazine “Anything that Moves”, and as archived by BiNet USA:

“We are tired of being analyzed, defined and represented by people other than ourselves, or worse yet, not considered at all. We are frustrated by the imposed isolation and invisibility that comes from being told or expected to choose either a homosexual or heterosexual identity.

Monosexuality is a heterosexist dictate used to oppress homosexuals and to negate the validity of bisexuality.

Bisexuality is a whole, fluid identity. Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in nature: that we have “two” sides or that we must be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genders. Do not mistake our fluidity for confusion, irresponsibility, or an inability to commit. Do not equate promiscuity, infidelity, or unsafe sexual behavior with bisexuality. Those are human traits that cross all sexual orientations. Nothing should be assumed about anyone’s sexuality, including your own.

We are angered by those who refuse to accept our existence; our issues; our contributions; our alliances; our voice. It is time for the bisexual voice to be heard.”

This manifesto is a fundamental piece of bisexual history and culture. It explicitly denounces the idea that bisexuality means an attraction to only two genders, and the idea that there are only two genders. Yes, “bi” means “two”. The duality of the “bi” in “bisexual” refers to the combination of homosexual and heterosexual attractions — some people extend this to a definition of bisexuality as “attraction to genders similar to and different from one’s own”.

“Bisexual” is a relatively old term compared to much of our queer lexicon. It predates most of the gender-expansive language we have today. This doesn’t mean the word “bisexual” is incompatible with it. Some individuals who call themselves bisexual don’t have access to or knowledge of this language yet. There may also be bisexual individuals who are transphobic, but that’s their damage, and doesn’t reflect a problem with the word itself. For instance, there are also some transphobic gay and lesbian folks, but no one would infer that being gay or a lesbian is inherently transphobic.

Today, many individuals and organizations use “bi+” as an umbrella term for all of the identities and labels the non-monosexual (attracted to more than one gender) community uses. This includes, is not limited to; bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, queer, fluid, and unlabeled. This term is awesome and useful because it recognizes bisexual as the oldest and still most widely used term, while also being inclusive of the many other terms our community uses to describe our identities and experiences. It is also very common for individuals to use multiple labels simultaneously, or change labels as they move through various life stages or community spaces.

Bisexual writer, activist, and educator Robyn Ochs has coined the ultimate definition of bisexuality:

“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted — romantically and/or sexually — to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

This definition has resonated with much of the bi+ community, because it encompasses the entire range of bi+ experiences. No two people in the bi+ community experience attraction the same way. The space between and beyond homosexuality and heterosexuality is an immense and boundless sexuality galaxy. A handful of Greek and Latin prefixes falls painfully short of describing its entirety.

Furthermore, people of color are more likely to identify as bisexual than white people, particularly women of color. Youth of color identify as bisexual at higher proportions than white youth, and more white youth identify as pansexual than youth of color do. The bisexual identity is culturally significant in many communities of color. There is more tied to the bi/pan “label wars” than sexual orientation. What else are we implying by putting pansexuality on a pedestal above bisexuality?

Pansexual is a real, valid, and beautiful identity. So is bisexuality. They don’t conflict with one another. They can and do coexist, because language is imperfect, messy, and always changing. It will continue to change. Is there a difference between bi and pan? Well, yes and no. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Bisexuals and pansexuals are part of the same community, and deal with the same issues and challenges surrounding our sexual orientations. If you are not part of this community, you don’t get to participate in conversations about our language and labels, or write shitty uninformed think pieces that nobody asked for.

by Sally Corbett, Administrative Assistant at Bisexual Organizing Project

Written by

Committed to building the bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer, and unlabeled (bi+) community.

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