Bisexual vs. Pansexual 1/2

There’s been some discussion lately on Twitter and Facebook within the feminist/LGBT communities over how we should use the term “bisexual.” The question is whether or not using the term is a form of non-binary erasure. That is, does saying “bisexual” inherently exclude people who have a non-binary gender identity (such as myself)?

My position on the subject is that, yes, the term “bisexual” implies an exclusion of trans* people.

It was pointed out to me recently that the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” aren’t used properly in modern colloquial contexts. Etymologically speaking, the Greek word homos means “same” (duh) while the Greek hetero- means “other” rather than “opposite,” which is how we tend to interpret it in modern English.

Now, again speaking etymologically, the Latin bi- means “two.” (Two, twice, double, etc.) It was argued to me that the word “bisexual” is actually supposed to mean one is attracted to the “same or other” sex, combining the meanings of the roots hetero- and homo-. Looking purely at the origin and root of the words, this latter definition is plainly wrong. Saying “bisexual” explicitly states that one is attracted to two sexes/genders. However, I will grant some credence to the argument since I’m by no means an expert on language.

Even granting that, I still reject the notion that saying “bisexual” is an inclusive term to non-binary people.

As I stated above, the word “heterosexual” is commonly understood to mean “attracted to the opposite sex.” (Or gender, which we’ll get into later.) Most people who identify as heterosexual probably intend it to mean “opposite” and not “other.” In addition, many English-speakers are familiar with the prefix bi-, as it shows up in lots of other contexts meaning “two.” For example: biannual, binary, bicycle, etc. To a common English-speaker, the word “bisexual” says “attracted to men and women”.

There are also plenty of people who use “bisexual” to include attraction to people of a range of genders/sexes/presentations. Knowing that this ambiguity of intent exists, I can’t rightly say that every time someone claims to be bisexual, they’re excluding and erasing non-binary people.

But they’re certainly not challenging the binary by using this label (as I see it) incorrectly.

Seemingly, most people are not very aware of trans* issues, nor would they factor the existence of trans* people into their personal sexual identities. Unless people are faced with a trans* person, the idea is intangible to them. The existence of trans* people is a challenge to their worldview, so if they’re faced with one, they’re made to confront their views about gender as a binary. A lot of the time, the response is anger because a crossing of the gender binary can be perceived as a threat to their sexuality. (Or to their claim on the gender, which I have actually heard and don’t understand.)

This is the reality for trans* people who don’t “pass” as cis; just part of their every day lives. This is part of why I openly identify as “pansexual” rather than bi. I pass as cis every day, and most of the time I don’t disclose my gender identity unless it’s necessary. However, I’m plenty liberal with telling people that I’m attracted to people of different gender/sex/presentation combinations. It feels safer for me to shed light on non-cis people when they aren’t me. But it is a great opportunity to challenge cisnormativity.

I use the term “pansexual” in conversations where I know the definition is unknown to my fellow chin-waggers because I expect them to not know what it means and inquire. I use it as an opportunity to call to their attention the existence of non-cis people, and the existence of a sex life for those people. As someone who seems cis by all accounts, it doesn’t really hurt me at all to call attention to gender non-conformity.

So, I advocate that cis people especially who identify as bisexual in a way that includes trans* people should instead identify themselves as “pansexual,” if for nothing but it challenges the assumption of a binary to the average person. If you say “bisexual” in a language steeped in Latin roots, you’re giving the wrong impression to the ignorant and to the non-binaries you’re potentially attracted to. Or if not the wrong impression, at least an ambiguous one.

And that’s not even including the fact that some bisexual people are actually only attracted to cis people, for whom the word is not meant to be inclusive. Genitals can play part in our attractions just as much as secondary sex hormones and presentation. But that’s a post for later this week. =]

If you liked this, there’s a “Like” button somewhere. There are also “share” buttons if you think others might enjoy reading or tearing down my terrible arguments. Look for part two later this week!

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7 thoughts on “Bisexual vs. Pansexual 1/2

  1. So. I identify as bisexual, as pansexual, as queer, as perpetually questioning (seriously, i’m still not entirely sure why I’m more attracted to one person over the next). All of the above, I’m it.

    Which is why when I read you say “I advocate that cis people especially who identify as bisexual in a way that includes trans* people should instead identify themselves as ‘pansexual'” I think two things:

    1. Why “instead”?

    2. What about straights whose straight identity includes trans* people? Lesbians whose lesbian identity includes trans* people? Gays whose gay identity includes trans* people? Why can’t this conversation ever make it past the bisexuals?

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    1. I say “instead” because I think it would generate a lot more visibility for non-cis individuals, and because I believe that it’s more accurate and conveys the idea more clearly to say “pansexual” where it applies.

      I totally get where you’re coming from on that bit, and I do plan on talking about that in my next post on the subject. In brief, the language for making this distinction doesn’t already exist for various flavors of straight or gay. I’ve been thinking about terms like “androsexual” being more appropriate than “heterosexual”, etc. I will get into it more deeply this week. :)

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      1. “Pansexual” does seem to nest well between “androsexual” and “gynesexual”, and “bisexual” between “homosexual” and “heterosexual”. Maybe that’s why I’ve never quite gotten the either/or bit, because they’re different (yet intersecting) spectra.

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        1. I don’t consider “pansexual” to be a term between terms, but rather as an all-encompassing one. Pan- meaning “all”. But all of these terms can be interpreted and used differently, I just happen to think my way is more correct :p

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  2. I agree with you that using ‘bisexual’ isn’t inclusive. The term “pansexual” kinda bothers me, though. I don’t think that because someone experiences both androphilic and gynephilic attractions they’ll necessarily be attracted to all possible genders out there. That just reinforces the notion that all non-binary genders have to lay somewhere inbetween “man” and “woman”. That’s why I prefer the term polysexual if you have multiple types of gendered attractions. If your attractions ignore gender altogether, however, I’d call it gender-neutral or gender-blind sexuality.

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    1. I guess I generally view pansexual as meaning I could be attracted to people of any gender. Like, I wouldn’t say their gender doesn’t *matter* because it certainly factors in to how I’m attracted to that person and how I relate to them. But I have been known to be attracted to pretty much anyone of any gender, whether you factor in a binary or not.

      There’s nothing wrong with preferring a different label if “pansexual” doesn’t describe how you relate to the world. It works for me, though. /shrug (maybe I should add a caveat in my post.. but I’m super lazy.)

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