You Do You

This ‘bisexual vs. pansexual’ discourse teaches an important lesson about labels

Being queer isn’t a competition, but that doesn’t stop folks from pitting identities against each other. Take the age-old debate around bisexuality and pansexuality: Despite being two very similar sexualities, lots of people don’t seem happy to let them coexist.

The latest round of “bi vs. pan” discourse stemmed from a resurfaced survey asking people who’d previously identified as pansexual why they identified with the label. It included answers like “I thought bisexuality was transgender-exclusive,” “I thought all bisexuals had gender preferences,” and “I thought pansexuality was more progressive.”

As both bi and pan folks quickly pointed out, though, those reasons are all biphobic stereotypes — and pitting them against pansexuality makes it seem like an inherently biphobic sexuality.

Folks also noted that the survey seemed to have been conducted in bad faith. The survey comes from a three-part series on pansexuality, which the author began by asserting that pansexuality as a label is often harmful (“Despite the plethora of evidence suggesting otherwise, quite a few people continue to argue that the pansexual label has not harmed people or interfered with other identities,” they wrote, before conceding that pansexuality is not “inherently perilous”). Notably, the survey also didn’t have an option for respondents to say they simply identified more with pansexuality at the time, not due to any outside pressures or stereotypes.

Others fixated on the 15.4% of survey respondents who apparently chose their sexuality based on which flag they preferred.

So, knowing that bisexuality is not trans-exclusive and can sometimes denote attraction to more than two genders, what really is the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality? Ultimately, like many labels, the difference is personal and occurs on an individual level. While exploring one’s sexuality, the bisexual label will resonate with some people, while the pansexual label will resonate with others. That doesn’t mean all bisexual people think of their sexuality the exact same way, and the same goes for pansexual folks. 

In the same way that lesbian is a gender for some and a sexuality for others, that the trans umbrella includes a plethora of other identities, or that queerness has infinite interpretations, the meanings of bisexual and pansexual (like almost every identity label) are malleable. And for the record, both of the flags are cool.

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