In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, singer Janelle Monáe referenced a few different terms and concepts, including queer, pansexuality, and bisexuality. For people who use these terms when discussing their own sexuality, having a celebrity as high profile as Monáe mention these terms helped bring visibility. But for people unfamiliar with these terms, the references were confusing. For at least one day, the word “pansexuality” topped the searches on Merriam-Webster’s website, indicating that many people were unfamiliar with the word before the Rolling Stone article on Monáe.

At Pop Culture Experiment, we pride ourselves — pun intended — on being able to explain LGBTQ terms and issues with which some folks might not be familiar. And after explaining RuPaul’s transgender comments and the significance of “Love, Simon,” it made sense to use this as a teaching moment, too. “Queer,” “pansexual,” and “bisexual” do not necessarily mean the same things, but they also aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, either.

So let’s start with what the Rolling Stone article about Monáe said:

“Being a queer black woman in America,” she says, taking a breath as she comes out, “someone who has been in relationships with both men and women – I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” She initially identified as bisexual, she clarifies, “but then later I read about pansexuality and was like, ‘Oh, these are things that I identify with too.’ I’m open to learning more about who I am.”

So what all does that mean?
GLAAD states “being bisexual means being attracted to more than one gender, being pansexual means being attracted to all gender identities, or attracted to people regardless of gender.”

Isn’t that the same thing?
It is and it isn’t.

They are both the same in that both cases, a person who identifies as pansexual and a person who identifies bisexual are indicating with their identities that they are not solely attracted to one gender. But for some people, “pansexual” is seen as more inclusive than “bisexual.”

How so?
Because for many people, saying “I am pansexual” is a way of saying “I like people.”

Got it. So pansexuals are attracted to everyone?
No, not everyone. A pansexual person is not literally attracted to every single person. But a pansexual person is likely to say “I am into who I am into, regardless of whether that person identifies as transgender, cisgender, man, woman, non-binary, non-conforming, and so on.”

And a bisexual person couldn’t say that?
A bisexual person could say that, too. And I know many who would.

So what’s the difference between the labels? I still don’t get it.
For some people, they are the same, and they would use them interchangeably. But other people want to signify a sense of inclusiveness for trans and non-binary folks, so they identify themselves as pansexual rather than bisexual.

So bisexuality is not inclusive of trans and non-binary folks?
That’s not my view, nor is it GLAAD’s view. As GLAAD points out, some people think “bi folks is that they seek to reinforce a rigid gender binary.”

Oh, so the “bi” in “bisexual” stands for binary?
No, but many see the term as an outdated vestige of viewing sex and gender through a binary lens solely in terms of men and women. Some see the “bi” in “bisexual” as meaning “two,” and only two.

So that’s why some people are more comfortable with pansexual over bisexual?
Correct. At least for some people. Some people, like Monáe, identified as bisexual, but then learned about pansexuality, and felt a connection to that term, too. Others, like Robyn Ochs, have a reason for sticking with the term “bisexual.” According to Ochs’ website:

“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

And pansexual people are attracted to all gender identities and expressions to the same degree?
Nah, I don’t think that’s what Ochs is saying, nor would I say that’s true. I think that could be true for some people who identify as pansexual, but I don’t think that’s a fair generalization.

But the capacity to be attracted to people of all gender identities and expressions is there?
“Pansexual” will be different to everyone who identifies with the term, but you’re more or less on the right track.

And people who are bisexual have the capacity to be attracted to people of more than one gender, which could include the capacity to mean all gender identities and expressions, but not necessarily?
Again, these terms will be different to everyone who identifies with them, but yeah, you’re grasping them.

I’m still not sold on the difference between bisexual and pansexual.
Well, for some people there is no difference, and some people there is a huge difference. It is divisive among some circles.

Oh, yeah. There are non-binary folks who use the term “bisexual,” and there are others who think of bisexuality as transphobic. Personal experience can account for some of it. Pansexuality hasn’t been portrayed in movies or TV much, and some people who identify as bisexual might only have heard the word “bisexual.” They might not know “pansexual.”

Until now?
Until now! Others might feel a familial, personal connection to one term over another because they had people tell them that bisexuality or pansexuality doesn’t exist.

What? They exist, don’t they?
Of course they do. But for many years, there was a trope among TV, movies, comedians, and elsewhere that joked about bisexuality being “a phase” or just a “cop-out” for people who didn’t want to admit they were gay. Even Phoebe on “Friends” wrote a song that said bisexual people were “kidding themselves.”

My friend Ted came out as bi. Now he says he’s gay.
And that’s OK! But that doesn’t mean that all the people who come out as bi will later say they are gay. Some might, and some won’t. But the overall premise that bisexual or pansexual people are lying to themselves (or their partners) has prevailed for a while. There has been this idea that you can only be attracted to one gender or gender identity.

So it seems to me that the real difference between these terms is more in how the person chooses to identify, rather than what the term means, right? Because it sounds like the terms pansexual and bisexual can mean different things to different people?
That’s exactly right. Because for some folks, they might choose to use one word over the other, and others who might choose to use them interchangeably.

So it seems like saying “I am bisexual” or “I am pansexual” is completely different from saying “I am a man” or “I am a woman” or “I am non-binary” or “I am transgender,” right?
Oh, for sure. Think of it in terms of saying “I am straight” or “I am gay” or “I am a lesbian.”

Oh, like sexual orientation! That is not the same as being transgender or cisgender at all.
Now you’re on the trolley!

OK, so what about “queer”?
The GLAAD Media Reference Guide explains “queer” as:

An adjective used by some people, particularly younger people, whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual (e.g. queer person, queer woman). Typically, for those who identify as queer, the terms lesbian, gay, and bisexual are perceived to be too limiting and/or fraught with cultural connotations they feel don’t apply to them. Some people may use queer, or more commonly genderqueer, to describe their gender identity and/or gender expression… Once considered a pejorative term, queer has been reclaimed by some LGBT people to describe themselves; however, it is not a universally accepted term even within the LGBT community. When Q is seen at the end of LGBT, it typically means queer and, less often, questioning.

So for some people, “queer” is a catch-all that can refer to anyone who is not both straight and cisgender. Some people use it as a generic synonym for LGBTQ. There could be straight transgender people who use it, lesbian cisgender people who use it, non-binary pansexuals, and so on who use it.

So it can mean anything?
Like pansexual and bisexual, it will depend on who is using it. But you are right in that there’s no hard-and-fast agreed-upon rule for what those terms mean. For some people, it’s a way to say “I’m not straight” without having to say “I’m gay” or “I’m bi” or “I’m pansexual.” The same goes for someone who doesn’t feel cisgender but doesn’t feel like “transgender” or “non-binary” fit them, either.

I’m getting that idea. That seems to be a prevailing theme.
Yeah, that is kind of a defining part of it: The people being labeled should be the ones who do the labeling. They should get to decide what the label is, and what the label means, even if what it means to them is at odds with what it means to someone else.

So how do you know what these terms mean to any given person?
You have a conversation with them.

Hey, we just did that!
We did! Feel free to come back anytime for more.

OK. I just want to get it right. I don’t want to say the wrong thing.
I hear you. Thing is, there is no way to know the “right thing” without talking to the person. And again, that’s the point: The wording and phrasing for person’s label and identity gets to be decided by that person.

I get that. I just don’t want to use the wrong label or offend someone.
The best thing is to not use any label until the person says anything. And if they end up changing their labels, they will tell you. Or, if they don’t tell you, they will at least tell you if you use an label that doesn’t work for them anymore.

That makes sense.
And really, how often do you need to be referring to your friends’ sexual orientation? It’s not like you’re going to be walking around saying, “This is my friend Ted, who is gay, and this is my friend Amber, who is pansexual.” Or, if you are introducing them to strangers in that way, it probably has more to do with you than how your friends identify.

Oh, I don’t have any stake in how they identify! I just didn’t know much anything about pansexuality. Now I do. But it doesn’t change how much I love the new Janelle Monáe album.
Good, because that album is fantastic.


Sign up for the weekly newsletter here.