Social Justice Advocates Handbook: A Guide to Gender Understanding

How to explain that bisexuality (or pansexuality) is real

by Sam Killermann · 14 comments

in Sexuality

Pansextro Comic

This is a second-part response to an email I received from a high school senior (it’d probably help contextualize if you read her email first).  Here I am going to focus on the struggle many bisexual and pansexual folks have convincing their straight (or gay/lesbian) peers that bisexuality is an identity, not just a stopping point between two others.  While I’m focusing this article on advice for bi- and pansexual folks, some of it applies to all sexuality discussions.

I have three main approaches you can take below, but I’d love to hear suggestions for more ways to breach this subject in the comments below.

1. Point out that not only does bisexuality and pansexuality exist, but everyone you know is probably at least a little bi-, whether they’ll admit/realize it or not.

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You can point this out to them a number of ways.

Alfred Kinsey’s research on sexuality is one way, as it demonstrates quantitatively that most folks are not absolutely heterosexual or homosexual, but somewhere in between, but not the way I’d recommend (other research shows people tend to get even more holed up in their beliefs when challenged with research, so you might be affecting more regress than progress).

Another way you can demonstrate your peers bisexuality is more fun, but can be considered “jilting” and might push folks a bit too far outside their comfort zones if not done well, so proceed with care and ask for help. Sexuality is commonly broken into three spheres: physical, emotional, and romantic. Odds are they have experienced attraction to members of the same sex in one of those spheres.

Show the young men pictures of two shirtless men, one “hottie” and one “nottie” (ditto the young women, but maybe non-shirtless) and have them decide which person is more attractive. Ask them if they ever get joy/pleasure from touching members of the same sex (i.e., hugs, high-fives, handshakes, not handjobs). Ask them who they have the closest emotional relationships to, or who they enjoy spending quality time with.

Ultimately, the idea here is to help your peers realize that sexuality (aka “attraction”) is about much more than just doin’ it, and they’ve likely experienced that attraction, in some way, to members of their sex (or, if they are queer, members of the sex/gender to which they aren’t “attracted”).  With this realization, and with some hope, folks will start to get a better picture of the complexities of sexuality and attraction, and realize that just because they can’t understand something (e.g., bi-/pansexuality) it doesn’t mean they can’t respect it.

2. Talk about what bisexuality and pansexuality mean to you.

Yes, this likely requires you to come out to your peers; no, I’m not telling you you need to do this. This is something you should do only when you’re ready, because even if you’ve come out to a number of social circles in your life, coming out to your class might be tantamount to coming out to your entire school, which, if Glee has taught me anything, isn’t much easier now than it was when I was in high school.

However, people tend to relate to individual stories, particularly if those stories belong to people they already know and trust. Sharing a class or workplace or mutual friendship with someone, particularly if it has a history of discussion of sensitive issues, fosters at least a small amount of trust.

Explain your experience with your own bi- or pansexuality.  What does attraction mean to you?  How do you reconcile in yourself what seems to many to be an impossible concept?  Talk about your first realizations of your sexuality, and how you came to make sense of it yourself.  All of this and more will help someone understand a journey they will not likely ever experience themselves.  (note: all these steps can be applied — though not as effectively — second-hand if you aren’t bi- or pan- yourself, but have a close friend who is)

3. Don’t do anything at all.

Just because you’re pansexual doesn’t mean you have to be PANSEXTRO: STUDENT BY DAY, SOCIAL JUSTICE SUPER HERO BY… well, ALSO DAY! What I mean to say, Pansextro, is that you shouldn’t feel individually and personally responsible for educating everyone you encounter about queer issues ‘cuz you happen to have been born into that group. Living with that responsibility on your shoulders is a heavy way to live, so, please, take my permission to not.

Written by Sam Killermann

Sam is a writer and performer who uses those skills as an ally to advance progress in the realms of LGBT equality and social justice. He tours the country speaking to college students about stereotypes, prejudice, and oppression, and writes for this site when he's at home in Austin, TX.

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  • Adam

    This sounds like good advise to me – especially about doing what’s comfortable. There are so many folks who are closed minded to accepting queer folk, from those who claim that people should just pick one cis-gender to be attracted to and be done with it to the men who claim that all women are bisexual to justify their lesbian fantasies. It’s heartening, as always, knowing there are people like you fighting for human decency, equality, and acceptance.

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  • Jedi Grrrl

    Thank you for this article! I was raised in a very gay-friendly household, but I have hit a major roadblock in explaining bisexuality (especially MY bisexuality) in general to my mother. I think my mother would be happier if I were gay, rather than bisexual. In her opinion, bisexuals are “just confused” or that bisexual people simply want to have sex with anyone/everyone. Even though I am in a monogamous marriage, I feel like I have to conceal that part of my identity :(

    • Robyn McIntyre

      Had the same problem. These days I merely comment that I’m attracted to personalities, not genders.

      • Kayla

        That’s pretty much where I’m at. I toss in that my vision has gotten so bad i can’t see the differences in gender anymore anyway, but that’s just me being the clown that i am. people around me seem to respond best to humor.

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  • miranda

    hi, i read this artical (and many others) in the hopes that it would help me understand whats going on in my own life. I’ve been trying to figure out who I am or where I belong for a while but not many places have answers. The only way I can explain my sexuality to others is that regardless of a persons sex if I like who they are as a person I can become sexually attracted to them. It’s confusing because one year I’ll be sexually attracted to a nice boy at school and the next to a older girl at my place of work……ugh i just have no idea whats going on….can anyone help?

    • Jay Irvine

      Sounds pretty normal to me! Just like some people are only attracted to buff guys, and other people may have felt attraction for both buff guys and skinny guys, there are people who can feel attracted to both men and women. And, just like with straight people, some of the people you’re attracted to will be attracted back, and some won’t. Figuring out who you are and who you want to be (both regards to sexuality and other things) can be frustrating and confusing enough when you mostly fall within society’s expectations; when you don’t it is even more so. You’re not the only person in the world who’s primarily attracted to personalities rather than bodies either (and frankly I suspect that’s more emotionally healthy anyway).

  • Jay Irvine

    My favourite metaphor for explaining it: “You’re dating a skinny blonde now, right? but your last squeeze was a curvy redhead! When are you going to stop being confused and make up your mind which type you *actually* like? Oh, come on, nobody is *really* attracted to more than one body type!”

    • Raymond Barrett

      I like using ice cream as an analogy. You can like vanilla, and chocolate, and strawberry – you don’t have to pick just one. You can have them separately, or all at the same time. And you can have them plain, or you can add some nuts, bananas, whipped cream, and chocolate syrup, and just make a party of it. :-)

  • Emma

    Can you be bisexual AND pansexual?
    I identify with bi-, pan-, and also polysexuals, but I’m not sure what to call myself.

    • Gina

      Yes. Many people do consider themselves both. I identify most strongly as a pansexual, but also as queer and bi, for example. Both bisexuality and pansexuality are very loose terms, that can have very different definitions for those who use them. So some might feel that bisexuality explains part of their identity and pansexuality explains another part. Or some might view them as meaning the exact same thing personally, but recognize for others they aren’t. There is a huge amount of overlap between bisexuality and pansexuality.

    • May

      Same as Gina, but I identify most strongly with bisexual (I have a thing for the history and community of that word) but also pansexual and queer. It really depends on the individual! The community definitions tend to be that bisexuality is attraction to more than one gender and pansexuality is attraction to all genders, sometimes with the connotation of gender not affecting how/in what way you are attracted to someone.

  • May

    This is really hard for me, because bi/pansexuality doesn’t seem odd to me. Actually, I find it really odd that anybody would only be attracted to one gender (how do you know someone’s gender? So you’re attracted to gender presentation, right? I don’t even know, monosexuality is confusing.) And therefore explaining to people this concept that they don’t understand and that’s the simplest thing in the world for me is so difficult.