What’s The Difference Between Bisexual & Pansexual?

There has been some tension between the bisexual and pansexual communities, rooted in misunderstandings about each label. Sexologist Carol Queen, Ph.D., believes some of the tension is generational, at least in part, and stems from the emergence of the nonbinary community. She says there is “an assumption built in that the term bisexual is automatically not appropriate for nonbinary folks.”

Since the prefix bi- means “two,” some people assume the term is referencing the gender binary and describes “the two genders,” i.e., men and women. Some people thus believe the term bisexual is therefore not inclusive enough, as it excludes nonbinary people and potentially trans people by perpetuating a gender binary.

“It’s certainly true that if someone finds that language too binary, they shouldn’t necessarily embrace the term. But it’s a mistake to step past that and say that all bisexuals are only into binary gender notions,” Queen explains. “That’s just not the case for many—maybe even most—bisexuals, who may be attracted to some subset of women, men, and everybody else.”

She notes there’s even a newer, more inclusive term that some bisexual folk use: bi+, which seeks to remind people that there are more than two genders to love and desire and that bisexual people are not perpetuating a gender binary.

“The worst part of all this is that the discussion provokes biphobia,” Queen adds. “Denying that it’s OK for one to ID as bi and should ID as pan equals bisexual invisibility, full stop. Even if it isn’t intended to diss bisexuals, it can hurt to hear this—just reinforcing the idea that bisexuals don’t have a lot of support even from other LGBTQ+ people, which historically has often been the case.”

On the other side of the coin, the push to call out any biphobia in the definition of pansexuality has led to some criticism of the pansexual community in general, with some people arguing that pansexuality itself is biphobic because the label was created on the biphobic assumption that bisexual people are exclusionary and binary-oriented.

Queen notes that the confusion between the two identities has contributed to more people switching to the more general term “queer.” “This group may encompass all the folks who ID as bi or pan, TBH, because what attracts many to that term is how big-umbrella and overarching it is.”