Updated: Jul 13
Guest Writer, Emily Horton, describes how her relationship with the label 'bisexual' has changed over time. She also tells us about the history and etymology behind some of the labels we use within the Queer Community, and the importance of personal choice.
By Emily Horton
When you don’t fit into what society tells you is “normal”, it's natural to start searching for things that make you feel seen. So, like many queer people, I’ve spent a significant amount of time exploring the labels that best describe my identity.
So far the ones that have stuck are bisexual, femme, she/her/they.
Words bring things into existence. They legitimise and empower the people using them. They create boundaries around concepts that previously may have been felt, but not seen. However, our relationship to these words can change over time, as we evolve and society evolves around us. They can also restrict identity and put you into a box, which might be the exact opposite of what someone wants from their identity exploration.
New words may challenge our perceptions of the previous ones. This journey can be exciting, but it can also be incredibly confusing and destabilising, especially when you thought you’d found your “identity”.
Bi was not the binary I thought it was…
I was incredibly excited when I found the word bisexual in my late teens. Finally, something that normalised not just being attracted to heternormative men!
At the time, I assumed the “bi” or “two” in binary meant “male” and “female”. And for quite some time, I didn’t interrogate the word any further.
But the more I found myself in queer spaces and the more people I met with different sexualities and genders, my understanding of the breadth of the gender spectrum grew and so did my attraction to multiple gender expressions.
“Wait a minute! Am actually I bi?”
A mini-identity crisis ensued. It had taken me almost ten years to really see myself as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. This was what I later realised to be a symptom of bi-erasure - a lack of bisexual representation that wasn’t hypersexualised or framed around the male gaze; and my own internalised biphobia. All of this was compounded by the fact that I had only been in long-term romantic relationships with men.
I feared I would have to go through this process of belonging all over again.
So I started to read more about the history of the word bisexual and was relieved to find the definition did encompass multiple gender expressions.
“Someone who is attracted to more than one gender, someone who is attracted to two or more genders, someone who is attracted to the same gender and other genders, or some who is attracted to people regardless of their gender.”
“Phew!”, I thought “I’m still bisexual!”
However, during my research journey, I came across another word - pansexuality - “the attraction to multiple genders, attraction to all genders, attraction to people regardless of gender”.
This piqued my interest - am I pansexual? Why are there two words that basically mean the same thing? Do they mean the same thing? Which one came first? Do people not feel seen or represented by the word bisexual? Why?
A very short history of bisexuality and pansexuality...
Being attracted to more than one gender has existed since the dawn of society. Ancient Greece, Japan, and China all show historical evidence of bisexual relationships. However, the term “bisexual” - which was popularised in Western science and psychology - was used for the first time in the 19th century and has had many different applications and meanings over its lifetime.
Its first use in 1859 was similar to what we understand to be intersex today, ie the possession of ‘male’ or ‘female’ physical characteristics.
In the early twentieth century, it was used to refer to having a combination of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gendered characteristics - which in today’s LGBTQIA+ dictionary would be understood as androgyny.
But it wasn’t until Alfred Kinsey's spectrum of sexuality in 1948, that a rated attraction to the same or different genders along a scale of 0 to 6, did the modern understanding of bisexuality emerge.
Under this definition, although “bi” means “two” it is not referring to a binary “male” and “female”, but refers to the combination of homosexual and heterosexual attractions.
The term pansexual has an equally interesting origin story. The word “pansexual” itself was derived from the Greek prefix pan- which means all.
The first recorded use of the term 'pansexual' was in 1914 as the word 'pan-sexualism' in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, according to the Oxford English Dictionary - over 50 years after the term bisexual was first recorded. The word was used by doctor J. Victor Haberman to explore one of Freud's theories of sexuality.
But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the term pansexual started to take on the meaning that it does today - ie “the attraction to multiple genders, attraction to all genders, attraction to people regardless of gender”.
This definition grew out of a queer activist movement aimed at reclaiming identity in one’s own terms as awareness and understanding of trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer identities grew.
Biphobia and transphobia...
Although well-meaning and born out of a desire to be more inclusive than the current definitions (aka bisexual) on offer, some see the creation of the term pansexual as both biphobic and transphobic.
Critics argued that this “alternative” to bisexuality comes with the implicit suggestion that it doesn’t encompass trans people and the misunderstanding that bisexuality means attraction to the “same and opposite” genders.
A possible explanation for this is a lack of understanding of the term bisexual, which is understandable given that the word bisexual has shape-shifted its meaning and that the literal meaning of “bi” is two. But biphobia is real, as is bi-erasure and this could be viewed as yet another attack on an identity that has historically been ostracised and or outright denied.
However, when having these discussions we need to be careful not to promote the misconception that identifying as pansexual is transphobic or biphobic.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about pansexuality is that pansexual people are somehow being transphobic by stating that they’re attracted to trans people while bisexual people aren’t because they don’t see trans people as men or women,” wrote Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin (they/them) for Stonewall. “This is a dangerous and untrue myth! Pansexuality is attraction regardless of gender, so a pansexual person’s attraction to someone has nothing to do with whether they are trans or cis” they wrote.
From my understanding of this debate - it's not intrinsically biphobic or transphobic to identify as pansexual, but there is an argument to say that the creation of the word is - if it was created in response to an assumption that bisexuality was only about two genders.
It all comes down to personal choice...
But etymology and history aside, if someone relates to the term pansexual more than bisexual because it literally means “all” then that is their choice.
Ultimately someone can choose how they identify, depending on their own personal preferences and experiences. If it brings you joy, if you feel seen and represented, then use it! Labels are useful, but they can also be limiting. So just do what feels right to you.
I currently feel attached to the term bisexual. It’s been part of my identity for over a decade, but this may very well change. And actually, when I think about it the thing that excites me the most is that I’m open to this change.
Yes, labels are useful and liberating, but they also can also box you in. I will call myself bisexual so that others can see that it is a thing as that might help them understand more about themselves, even if I don't want to be limited by the term itself.
Here are a few from my personal circle of lovely bisexual/pansexual humans:
“Around the age of 14 or 15 it slowly dawned me that the way I admired the women around me was quite different from my straight female friends. Since then it’s led me to meet incredible people. Engaging with the sexuality of all genders makes me feel free, open, alive to the possibilities and beauty of everyone around me.” - Georgina (she/her)
“As someone who identifies as non-binary, my fluidity of sexuality also aligns with my own gender in that I am able to love people for who they are from where I am, and there is no label required other than queer.” - Genevieve (they/them)
“I grew up thinking women to women relationships involve competition and envy, but once I opened up as a bisexual, I suddenly saw women as someone I want to impress and seduce, and not outcompete. This has changed my outlook and approach with half of my human interactions overall and I am glad I can now fully cherish and champion my fellow ladies. And yes, sometimes I really fancy them.” - Anaïs (she/her)
Most importantly though, what brings me the most joy about this entire journey, is seeing other people blossom into themselves and realising there are alternative ways of living your life.
Emily Horton (she/her/they)
Emily is a writer, speaker and the founder of the inclusive communication consultancy More Diverse Voices. She helps create and deliver anti-oppressive and inclusive communication strategies that build trust, educate and empower.
You can find out more about Emily's work here.
If you would like to book Emily as a speaker for a workshop or panel event, please get in touch with us via email at email@example.com
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