We all know there’s a lot of words for queer identity. As someone who has been out as about half of them for varying lengths of time (look, I question myself a lot), I know that there’s no real succinct explanation for a lot of them.
There’s no question I get asked quite as often as “what’s the difference between bi and pan?”
It’s not just confused outsiders asking it- it’s people questioning themselves, people who identify as one of the two and, well, everyone. It’s a big question with no simple answer, really.
First of all, we need to work something out. What do bi and pan mean?
BISEXUAL has a thousand different definitions. When you’re first introduced to it, you probably got told it means something like “you like boys and girls”. Then, somewhere along the line, you found out that the gender binary isn’t real.
A lot of people assume that what that means is that bisexuals either don’t know non-binary people exist or aren’t attracted to non-binary people… or even trans people at all!
As a bi non-binary person, I promise you that isn’t the case.
While some people might use bi to mean they only like girls and boys, that isn’t a universal definition. A lot of us actually use it to mean “attracted to same and other genders”. As in the same gender that we are, and other genders to what we are. That’s two groups, which is where the bi part comes from.
PANSEXUAL however, means attracted to (or has the ability to be attracted to, rather), people of all genders. Binary or not.
Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t mean “gender-blind” or "hearts, not parts". A lot of people hate the idea of gender blindness because it can feel like you’re erasing an important part of their identity!
Some people also use it to mean they like "men, women and trans people", but that can feel like you're saying trans people can't also be men and women. Trans people aren't a separate category, because it's not a gender. It's just a descriptor of how you experience your gender.
Really, it just means “attracted to all genders”- and that can mean that you don’t factor gender into whether you’re attracted to someone at all, but it doesn’t have to. You can have gender preferences and still be pan, but you can also genuinely not care.
SO HOW ARE THEY DIFFERENT?
Well, they don’t have to be. You can identify as bi and pan, because they kind of fit into the same sort of thing. But there are a few reasons why you might prefer one to the other.
Bisexual, for starters, can mean you’re attracted to same and other genders- but not all of them. You might be attracted to boys and non-binary people, girls and non-binary people, boys and girls, or a range of specific non-binary genders but not all of them. You might be attracted to any number of people with any number of different identities, and that's totally cool. Don't feel like you have to like everyone to call yourself bi.
On top of that, bisexual has a long long history. Holding onto the label of bisexual can be about remembering all the people like you who came before you, and aligning yourself with them.
You might prefer pansexual, though, because it makes it really obvious that you mean all. It makes it easier to communicate what your preferences are without getting specific, and makes it well known right from the start that you mean non-binary people too.
IS THERE ANYTHING WRONG WITH PREFERRING ONE TERM TO THE OTHER?
No! Not at all. Just remember that you preferring one term doesn’t make the other one bad, and don’t assume that everyone who uses that term means it in a bad way. Not everyone who is bisexual is clueless about non-binary things, and not everyone who is pansexual believes in being “gender blind”. If you're defining your identity as how it's better than someone else's, you can really hurt people. They're both legitimate identities, and there's plenty of good reasons to use either term for yourself.