The real difference between bisexuality and pansexuality

By Grace Marra

There is a substantial amount of discourse within the LGBT community and just as much confusion among allies concerning what distinguishes bisexuality from pansexuality. A common explanation is based on the literal definitions of the prefixes: bisexuality is attraction to two genders, and pansexuality is attraction to all genders.  

This definition, however, often creates conflict because it illustrates pansexual as a more inclusive label, and it gives way to the argument that bi is trans-exclusive and reinforces the gender binary.  While common, this perspective is harmful not only to people who label themselves as bisexual, but also to transgender men and women.

People who would define pansexual as the more inclusive and progressive label and bisexual as reductive and binary often believe that the prefix “bi” indicates attraction only to cisgender men and cisgender women. This common myth about bisexuality is harmful as it implies that transgender people are somehow separate from their cis counterparts and that bisexuality is limited to the two binary genders. As the 1990 Bisexual Manifesto reads: “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.” The prefix “bi” is not and never was meant to be taken literally; bisexuality is simply attraction to multiple genders, not necessarily limited to the gender binary and not trans-exclusive. 

For this reason, bisexual and pansexual aren’t entirely separate sexualities at all; rather, pan is a label that falls under the umbrella of bisexuality. While bi applies to anyone who experiences attraction to more than one gender, pan is commonly described as attraction regardless of gender. Although a small difference, some identify more with this definition, and so prefer the pan label. 

Neither bi nor pan is more or less progressive, and neither label should be invalidated. Ultimately, the difference between them is a small one, and it is left up to the individual to decide with which label they identify most.

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