What Does Pansexuality Mean? Here Are 5 Myths You Should Never Believe
For many LGBTQ+ people, the act of verbalizing your identity can come as a huge emotional relief. Pansexuality, like every LGBTQ+ label, is defined differently depending on who you ask, but queer advocacy organization GLAAD broadly defines being pansexual as “being attracted to all gender identities, or attracted to people regardless of gender.” Still, there are pervasive myths about what pansexuality means, and it's important to recognize why they're so misleading.
Over the last few years, several celebrities have come out as pansexual, raising awareness about the identity and what it means. And recently, another celebrity has been welcomed into the public pansexuality fold: joining agender rapper and singer Angel Haze and singer, songwriter, and producer Janelle Monae, 33-year-old model Tess Holliday came out as pansexual in an interview with NYLON magazine for its July 2019 digital issue.
Holliday relayed her coming out story as a hilarious misunderstanding. She told NYLON that she talked through her relationship with queerness, saying that the word pansexual “speaks to” her, before realizing that the person she was explaining this to asked “are you buying something” rather than “are you bi.” (We’ve all been there, Tess.)
Sure enough, an anonymous 25-year-old nonbinary pansexual person tells Bustle that they started liking the term pansexual for themself when they were coming to terms with their gender and with the fact that they were crushing on their best friend (a queer classic in some TV storylines). They say that the term pansexual spoke to them because choosing to embrace it “helped my coming out process.”
But despite the rise in knowledge about what pansexuality means, damaging myths about it still exist, and these myths have the potential to harm the coming out experiences of too many people. Here are five myths about pansexuality and why they're so damaging to pansexual people.
1. Pansexuality Is A Condemnation Of Bisexuality
Some people interpret pansexuality as a condemnation of bisexuality, arguing that bisexuality is transphobic. This argument uses a cisnormative definition of bisexuality as being attracted to “cis men and cis women," implying that bisexual people cannot be attracted to nonbinary people or binary trans people. However, according to INSIDER writer Angela Johnson, bisexual people more often define their sexual orientation as being "attracted to people who are the same gender as themselves, as well as those of different genders.”
This framing of bisexuality helps dismantle the myth that pansexual and bisexual people must be at odds with each other. In fact, GLAAD places “pansexual” under the “bisexual umbrella.” In this formulation, bisexuality takes on Johnson's definition above, and pansexuality emphasizes potential attraction to any person without regard to gender. But whichever label you identify with the most, it’s ultimately about what speaks to you, as Holliday said, because there’s more than enough room for multiple labels.
2. Pansexuality Isn’t Real
Many people coming out as pansexual and bisexual both encounter the question: “So, this means you’re actually gay, right?” The argument, rooted in systemic binary thinking, that coming out as pan or bi is a "stepping stone" to coming out as gay creates the binary heteronormative illusion that these sexualities aren't real, but rather just phases.
Sure, some people do change how they define their sexual orientation over time, and that's okay. It also doesn't make sexual orientations other than "gay" or "straight" any less real. For instance, in reference to her coming out as bisexual, and then pansexual, Janelle Monae told Rolling Stone, “I'm open to learning more about who I am.” Monae's embrace of self-learning acknowledges that coming out as one thing now and something else later does not make any of those identities less valid.
3. Pansexuality Means You’ll Sleep With Anyone
While some pansexual people are polyamorous — just like some people of other sexual orientations are polyamorous — the myth that pansexual people will sleep with anyone implies that pan people don’t develop deep, intimate relationships with romantic and sexual partners. This myth has always struck me — as a person attracted to people of multiple genders — as at once insecure and fetishizing.
Not only does it distort pansexuality as a threat to stable romantic partnerships (untrue), it feeds into the assumption that pansexual people sleep with multiple people at the same time. And it's no coincidence that that assumption sounds a lot like a cismale fantasy. Such fetishization goes hand-in-hand with the belief that unless cis men are sleeping with women, or women are sleeping together for a cis man's benefit, pansexuality isn't real or valid.
4. Pansexuality Is A “New Trend”
While the word pansexual has been around since the early 20th century, people have had intimate lived experiences of sexual fluidity across time and cultures. And more young people are identifying as pansexual now than ever before, according to the Human Rights Campaign's 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report. Additionally, AARP notes that sexual fluidity like the kind that falls under pansexuality is common in older populations.
Ultimately, “trend” arguments tend to flail in the face of facts: it is still far from easy being queer in this world. In particular, transgender, pansexual, and bisexual people — three LGBTQ+ identities often accused of being “trendy” — experience significant mental health struggles because of chronic social invalidation, lack of access to care, and oppression, according to a 2018 study in the journal Pediatrics.
5. Coming Out As Pansexual Will Be Horrible
It’s easy to focus on only the negative myths pansexual people face when they come out. It’s easy to read the comments sections about pansexual celebrities, listen to your family say pan and biphobic things, and be terrified to come out as pansexual yourself. And you don't have to come out if you don't want to — that's very valid!
But, if you do decide to come out, it might help to keep some of Holliday's words in mind. During her interview with NYLON about coming out as pansexual, she said,
I feel like a lot of stuff in my life now makes sense... I definitely have a sense of relief. I can connect with people on a more intimate level than I was before, because I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not.
And that could ring true for other people coming out as pansexual, too. So the myths aside, there’s still so much to celebrate.