I lived in Miami for three humid years, and was unintentionally closeted the entire time. There were very few spaces for queer women, and most people just assumed I was straight. I wore my hair long and dressed the way women were expected to dress there - albeit without the sky high stilettos and two-hour makeup. I wasn’t trying to hide. In fact, I felt frustrated and limited by the invisibility of my identity.
For most of my life, I identified as bisexual. It made sense to me; I was attracted to women and men, and bisexual was the only word I knew to describe that.
I learned the term pansexual from my best friend’s little sister. Well, little isn’t quite right. She is 19, and I like to call her the most millennial person in my social circle. While her older sister and I identified as bisexual, she identified as pansexual.
Here is the difference, according to stop-homophobia.com:
Bisexual people are attracted sexually and romantically to both males and females, and are capable of engaging in sensual relationships with either sex.
Similarly, pansexual people may be sexually attracted to individuals who identify as male or female; however, they may also be attracted to those who identify as intersex, third-gender, androgynous, transsexual, or the many other sexual and gender identities.
People who self-identify as pansexual do so with purpose, to express that they are able to be attracted to various gender and sexual identities, whether they fall within the gender binary or not.
When I learned that there was an alternative, the “bi” in bisexual started to bother me. Bi means dual, of two; bicycles have two wheels, bipeds have two legs, bisexuals love two genders. Bisexual became a gate closing on the trans, non-binary, gender-fluid, and intersex people around me ― and it was an inaccurate description of me.
At a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop I taught this summer, one of my straight-cis students innocently said,
“We’re all going through the same thing.”
“Are we?” I asked gently.
As a cis-woman, I enjoy the privilege of walking the world a little more safely than a non-passing trans or non-binary person. While some may harass me for my haircut or the clothes I wear, these are things I can control.
Passing is a privilege afforded to few trans people. Even those who do pass risk violence and alienation upon revealing their identities. At a time when corporations have co-opted Pride to the exclusion of QTPoC, when justice for attacks on trans women is rare, privilege adds weight to my words.
Ever since my ultra-millennial friend introduced me to the term, I’ve started identifying as pansexual. There are those quick to accuse us of jumping on a “trend.” As Farhana Khan wrote in an article for The Independent, “five years ago I didn’t identify as pansexual, because I didn’t know the word… Sexuality is not a trend, and there’s nothing fashionable about opening yourself up to prejudice by expressing who you are.”
Working this summer on The Sex Myth, a devised feminist production that aims to dismantle the harmful ideas we sub-consciously and explicitly learn about sex, has connected me with people who share my dream of an inclusive and safe world. We’re moving toward that dream together using an oft-forgotten superpower: listening.
On one of the first days of rehearsal, a castmate said they were attracted to people of all genders, but chose not to identify as pansexual because it sounded “Ugh.” In “ugh,” I heard pretentious-liberal-snowflake, and my defenses went up. Luckily, I took in a deep breath, listened, and then shared my own perspective.
Joe Salvatore, an ethnodramatist and professor of Educational Theatre at NYU, believes that listening is a radical act:
Given today’s political climate and the impersonal ways that we tend to communicate with one another, I think that sitting in front of someone, in person, and listening to them and hearing them is actually a radical act right now.
We spend significant amounts of time seeing and hearing each other through mediated experiences that we control through our smart devices and our computers. I feel that these impersonal modes of communication in some ways dehumanize us and makes it easier for us to say and do awful things to one another.
I think that actually being in the physical presence of another person allows us to gain a greater sense of humanity and to develop empathy, and I think that a deepened sense of humanity and increased empathy are two things that we need a lot of right now.
Telling my story and being listened to affirmed my identity. Still, as I left rehearsal on the day I came out to the cast, I was hit by a wave of shame. Why did people other than my close friends have to know about my identity? Couldn’t I just go on hiding for a little while longer? But hiding behind my privilege only reinforces the current power dynamic inherent in the binary. I identify as pansexual with purpose, because in reality my attraction isn’t limited to two genders, and because the binary that affords me so many privileges does so on the backs of those who don’t fit in it.
The labels used in our society change with our political landscape. Many older LGBTQIA folks hate the word “queer” because of its association with the cruelties they witnessed, yet some in my generation use it as an umbrella term. And let’s not forget that there are those who still have yet to wrap their heads and mouths around “LGBTQ.”
Is my publicly identifying as pansexual going to stop violence and injustice against trans and non-binary people? Hell no. This microscopic step away from the binary is only one way to use my privilege.
Special thanks to Joe Salvatore for providing a quote for this article. The Sex Myth is playing at HERE Arts Center August 16th-20th.