On April 26, 2018, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people flocked to the internet to look up one thing: What, exactly, does pansexual mean? Following Janelle Monáe’s coming out in an interview with Rolling Stone, Merriam-Webster reported that searches for the term went up 11,000 percent (!!!). The portion of the LGBTQIA+ alphabet usually unacknowledged was finally making headlines, and people were attempting to get to know the community that exists past the plus symbol.
Merriam-Webster defines pansexuality as “of, relating to, or characterized by sexual desire or attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation.” Ask actual self-identifying pansexuals what the term means to them, and it might differ slightly. Eighteen-year-old Sophia’s definition is pretty parallel to the dictionary's though: “attraction to other people, regardless of their gender.” Courtney, 26, has a similar interpretation, adding that “some pansexuals feel they are gender blind.” Olivia, 21, has a more personal answer, defining it as “love and interest based on personality, not gender or sexual organs.” She can be attracted to anyone, she says, and pursue something romantic as long as the other person is interested.
What pansexuality definitely isn’t is “deluxe bisexuality,” as Sophia says she’s heard it being described before. It’s a confusing concept for some to grasp but here's the deal: Bisexual means you’re attracted to two sexes, male and female, while pansexual is all-encompassing. Olivia says people commonly mix up the two, likely because pansexuality hasn’t received as much visibility in media. “There’s a whole spectrum of identities that are often not portrayed on TV, so when people see a cis woman dating a cis woman and then subsequently dating a cis man, in their heads, it makes sense to say, ‘They like two genders, so they are bisexual.’” That also brings up the other issue, she says, which is that “many people are still stuck thinking there are only two genders, so they see no reason to differentiate between bisexuality and pansexuality.”
Things are starting to shift though ever so slightly. Monáe’s coming out definitely helped. Miley Cyrus was one of the first celebrities to publicly identify as pansexual in 2015. Then, also this year, Solo: A Star Wars Story co-writer Jonathan Kasdan stated that Donald Glover’s character is pansexual, though it’s not said or even really hinted at outright in the movie (which many saw as queerbaiting). Glover said about his characters sexual orientation: “How can you not be pansexual in space? There are so many things to have sex with…Yeah, he’s coming on to everybody.” Which leads us to our next misconception about pansexuals: They want to have sex with everybody.
“I guess the most frustrating thing is people assuming I’m polyamorous when I’m in monogamous relationships,” Olivia says. “Although I have had open relationships, which was a beautiful thing, it all goes back to people assuming people who are pansexual only care about sex, which is not how I am. Sex is good, but it’s not the only thing that matters.” Basically, pansexual does not automatically equal promiscuous. In fact, everyone I spoke to has had, as Sophia puts it, pretty sparse love lives; they’ve either been in serious relationships or date occasionally. There are no wild orgies going on with this group (not that there’s anything wrong with that), just lots of love. “It shouldn’t matter if I want just sex, but that’s not what it is, I just love who I love,” says Olivia. “And I think that gives me so much opportunity and purity within love. I don’t ever feel limited or confined… I just get to love who I love and pursue happiness, which I think other people may get stuck on.”
According to GLAAD’s 2017 Accelerating Acceptance report, millennials are the most gender- and sexually fluid generation ever. As awareness grows, people are discovering that they might not fit into one box or the other. They’re figuring out parts of themselves that might have been indescribable before; they’re discovering their true selves and the freedom that comes along with that. With more celebrities and non-celebrities alike coming out as pansexual, that awareness will grow even more, as will the acceptance. “Before, if you asked someone what pansexuality was, they'd either say they don't know, be confused, give you the definition for bisexuality, or make a joke about having sex with pans and cookware,” Sophie reflects. “It being more mainstream means that people actually know what it is, and pan people will finally get more recognition outside of the internet and LGBT+ only social circles. It will also mean that more people who are pan but didn't know how to label it will finally have a way to describe themselves and have a community they can be a part of.”
Love is love is love, after all.