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Pansexuality 101: what it means and how to know if you’re pansexual

Robyn Exton

Jun 20, 2023

Pansexuality 101: what it means and how to know if you’re pansexual

In the simplest terms, pansexuality is the attraction to all genders — or regardless of gender. 

But there’s nothing simple about that, and for many folks, that’s what’s great about it. There is endless room to grow, explore, and love under the umbrella term. Hey, there’s even a Pansexual Visibility Day, which lands on May 24 of every year, where members of our community and allies celebrate the joy and beauty of this identity!

Being pansexual connects you to a rich history and a vibrant community — if it feels right, claim it as yours. 

Pansexual definition and etymology 

Source: Grand Rapids Pride Center

Some people experience pansexuality as an attraction that isn’t defined by another person’s gender or sexual orientation. They love people for who they are, not for their gender.  After all, the term pansexual comes from the Greek prefix pan, meaning all

But pansexuality also has a lot to do with gender — it’s a term that emerged out of the need to expand beyond the binary. So for some people, pansexuality is an identity that feels more inclusive of their gender and the gender of people they like. 

Akilah Sigler, a psychologist, says, “as someone who identifies as pansexual, I define pansexuality as being attracted to people who are located anywhere along the spectrum of gender identity.”

Pansexuality is a sexual orientation referring to romantic or sexual attraction.  It’s different from Pangender, a gender identity, describing someone with many genders at once. 

History of the term pansexual 

Source: Times Machine

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word pansexual first appeared in 1914 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. It was about Sigmund Freud’s theory that sex motivated all human action. 

I hate to start out that way, but throughout the first half of the 1900s, lots of medical researchers made it their mission to pathologize anything outside of being straight. Unfortunately, a lot of the early history of sexual identity starts by trying to make it a medical problem. This is also true for race and gender. Honestly, science has some explaining to do. 

Pansexuality, as we know it today, started to emerge in the gay liberation of the 1960s and 70s. A 1974 New York Times article claimed, “I see that a lot of people are going bisexual this year. This seems to be different than bisexual, which was last year…I know what comes next season. It’s pansexuality.” The term continued to evolve in the 80s and 90s, growing out of the desire to form an identity that explicitly nods toward gender diversity outside of the binary.

And then there was the internet! In 2010, Tumblr user Jasper V first created the pansexual flag with neon pink, yellow, and blue horizontal stripes. When Janelle Monae came out as pansexual in 2018, it was the most searched term in the Merriam-Webster dictionary the next day. 

Pansexual vs. bisexual: what’s the difference 

Source: Minus 18

It’s one of the questions pan folks get a lot — so does that mean you’re bisexual?

Pansexuality and bisexuality are similar; some use both to describe themselves. They are nuanced terms with lots of history, and many extraordinary people feel represented by what they mean. Other identities like queer and fluid can also fall under the bi+ umbrella to describe the attraction to more than one gender. 

We’ve been using the term pansexual to talk about attraction to all genders or attraction regardless of gender. For many pan people, this might mean that gender is less of a factor in their attraction experience. 

Bisexuality describes the attraction to more than one gender. Bisexual advocates have pushed for decades to frame the term by including trans and nonbinary people, so it doesn’t mean just men and women. Any number of identities can be attractive, but maybe not all. 

These definitions are also changing and expanding. When I think of defining my own sexuality, the moments that feel important are the moments when I feel validated. If you see yourself in these terms that feel good, keep them in your back pocket. Or maybe they feel restricted, like a sweater that’s itchy and too small. Defining your attraction is entirely up to you. 

Common misconceptions about pansexuality  

Source: Queer in the World

Dealing with misconceptions about any sexuality is always something I struggle with, mainly because, first, it makes me sad. Also, many misconceptions about pansexuality come out of trying to weaponize other LGBTQ identities against each other. I mostly blame cis heteropatriarchy, but queer people also do this to each other. I always remind myself — finding your identity is not a zero-sum game. 

Pansexuality is not a gender identity

One common misconception about pansexuality is that it also means someone is nonbinary. 

I mentioned this above, but pansexuality is a sexual orientation, not a gender. It refers to who someone is attracted to, which doesn’t affect a person’s gender. There are a lot of nonbinary people who are pansexual, but these are two separate concepts that don’t always come together.

Pansexuality is not polyamory 

Another common misconception is that people who are pansexual are also polyamorous. This is also similar to stereotypes about bisexual people as unfaithful or deceptive, which is not true. 

Again, there are many poly people who are pan and pan people who are poly — OMG, tongue twister — but they are not the same thing. Polyamory describes ethically dating or loving more than one person at once, which is not a sexual orientation. 

Pansexuality and gender diversity 

A complicated misconception about pansexuality is that it is transphobic because it ignores gender or misrepresents trans men or women. Many trans and nonbinary people identify as pansexual because it feels more inclusive. This doesn’t mean that other identities are exclusive, either. There’s room for everyone to experience the same identity in their own way. 

On another note, there’s a lot of casual transphobia in how cis people of all sexualities describe their relationship to sex or gender. This is a larger issue that has nothing to do with a single sexuality.

The most outspoken pansexual celebrities

If you’re like me and are Very Online, maybe you skipped to this section because we love gay celebrities! And pansexuals are in extremely good company. Now, these celebs are not only pan-tastically proud, but they’ve also been the most outspoken about their sexualities, which I can’t help but stan.

We’re taking a moment to say, thank you, more please, to celebrities like:

  • Janelle Monae
  • Miley Cyrus
  • Brendon Urie
  • Amandla Stenberg

These pan icons really said, gay rights! And actually meant it.

Janelle Monae

Source: Yahoo

Janelle Monae came out as pansexual in 2018, and they also came out as nonbinary in 2022. 

In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2018, Monae said they first identified as bisexual until they read about being pan. “[As] someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker,” they said. 

And if you want to see some queer joy and beauty today, I highly recommend the music video for their new single, “Lipstick Lover.” It’s definitely NSFASW (Not Safe For A Straight Workplace). 

Miley Cyrus 

Source: Harper’s

I love living in a time when Miley Cyrus is the queer queen of rock and roll. Cyrus came out as pansexual in 2015, and she’s been open about her fluidity ever since. 

“What I preach is: people fall in love with people, not gender, not looks, not whatever,” she told Vanity Fair in 2019. “What I’m in love with exists on almost a spiritual level.” 

Another beautiful moment in queer history that I hope to see one day painted in the Louvre — Miley and FLETCHER performing together on New Year’s Eve. Gay panic, emphasis on pan! 

Brendon Urie

Source: People

Brendon Urie, the lead singer of Panic! At the Disco, came out as pansexual in 2018 in an interview with Paper magazine. 

“I’m married to a woman, and I’m very much in love with her, but I’m not opposed to a man because, to me, I like a person,” he said.

Urie also just welcomed his first child with his wife!

Amandla Stenberg

Source: WWD

Amandla Stenberg. Such a beautiful person. They identify as nonbinary and pansexual.

Also, if you love Celesbian drama, I highly recommend googling their dating history. It’s rumored they inspired two queer breakup albums, Valentine by Snail Mail and Cheap Queen by King Princess. That’s powerful. 

Finding your identity as a queer person can feel lonely and overwhelming, but you aren’t alone at the end of the day. You have a right to community as a unique, evolving human being, and you have a right to choose your identity for yourself and come out on your own terms. 

This is just the beginning of all the nuance and beauty of being pansexual. It’s an identity that leaves endless room for exploration and love. 

Robyn Exton

Robyn is the CEO & Founder of HER. Find her on Twitter.

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