Jennifer Wilber is a writer, teacher, and bisexual rights activist from Ohio.
Bisexual vs Pansexual: What is the Difference?
On the surface, bi- and pan- identified people may seem very similar. Both bi and pan people are attracted to people of more than one gender. These orientations are called “polysexual” orientations, as opposed to “monosexual” orientations, like gay or straight. All “polysexual” orientations are sometimes referred to as “bi+” within the LGBT+ community, indicating inclusiveness of all non-monosexual orientations.
What is Bisexuality?
Bi people are attracted to their own gender and other gender(s). They may find certain characteristics of their own gender appealing, while also being attracted to other characteristics of other genders. For example, a bi woman may be attracted to certain feminine physical characteristics of women, but they can also be attracted to masculine characteristics of men. The most commonly agreed upon definition of bisexuality within the LGBT+ community comes from the prominent bisexual activist Robyn Ochs. Ochs describes bisexuality thus:
“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge in myself the potential to be attracted, romantically and/or sexually, to people of more than one sex, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”
Bisexuals may be more attracted to one gender than another, or may find that they are attracted to different genders in different ways. This is okay. You are still bi even if you have a preference.
What is Pansexuality?
Pan people experience a similar pattern of attraction as their bi counterparts, but they are not necessarily attracted to specific masculine or feminine characteristics of potential partners. Instead, pan-identified individuals describe themselves as being attracted to the specific person, regardless of their gender. They commonly describe their pattern of attraction as being interested in “hearts, not parts.”
Pan people may also specifically indicate that they are interested in dating people who identify as trans and/or non-binary. Pan individuals are less concerned with what physical body parts a person has or how they express their gender, and are more interested in the overall person.
Pansexuals are not attracted to pans, despite this often-repeated joke.
So, Are Bi People Transphobic?
No. It is a common misconception that the difference between bisexual and pansexual is that bi people are never attracted to trans-identified individuals, and that pan people are. Bi people may be attracted to trans and non-binary individuals, just as pan people are, because bi people are attracted to similar and different genders to themselves. A bi person would also tend to consider a trans man a man, and a trans woman a woman, as opposed to categorizing trans men and women into a separate “other” category. Bi and pan people may also both be attracted to non-binary individuals.
There are many trans and non-binary people who also identify as bi. Bi does not mean a person who is only attracted to cis-gender people, but rather, a person who is attracted to their own and other genders. Accusing bi-identified people of being inherently transphobic only hurts the overall LGBT+ community.
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I’m Still Confused. Am I Bi or Pan?
Which term you wish to use to describe your identity is up to you. If you feel like the description of “bi” fits you better, you can identify as bi. If you feel like the definition of “pan” is a better fit, you may wish to use that label instead. Some people prefer the term “bi” because is better understood than “pan” in mainstream culture. On the other hand, some people prefer “pan” because of the misconception that bi people are transphobic. Other people feel that both definitions fit them equally well, and may refer to themselves as both “bi” and “pan” and use the terms interchangeably.
Only you can decide how you will identify. Even if you use one term now, you can always switch to a different label later on if you find that you no longer identify with your original label for your orientation. Ultimately, you are the only one who can determine your orientation and identity.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Jennifer Wilber
Noct on February 17, 2020:
forgot to add but doubt it matters i’m sure every comment saying anything negative about this article is being rejected
if you id as pan because you don’t wanna be confused as a transphobic bi how do you explain your sexuality to a person that doesnt know pan.
As someone who believed the pan lie when I was younger I know the answer to this one.
“It’s like being Bi but unlike them I would date trans people.”
You’re not only passively contributing to the stereotype you’re doing it actively. You’re telling people who probably didn't even think that of bi people like that before that this is how bisexuality is defined. And if they already believed that stereotype you’re only confirming it.
Noct on February 17, 2020:
How is pan a separate sexuality when it doesn’t change who you're attracted to just how. How is it considered separate from bisexuality when its just an enabler.
And as a bi trans guy, how is it ok to id as pan because you don’t wanna be confused for a transphobic bi person. By iding specifically as pan for that reason you’re only further pushing the stereotype that bi people are transphobic. You’re saying I would id as bi but they’re transphobic. That’s like saying I would id as a lesbian but they’re stereotypes as terfs so I’m just gonna call myself (insert made up term).
You’re not fighting the stereotype you’re only reinforcing it.
I would Never trust a pan person with my trans status. Trans or Cis. Treating me (and in some cases themselves) like some freak only they’re capable of loving isn’t support or allyship.