What’s The Difference Between Being Bisexual, Pansexual, & Queer?

UPDATE: In a recent Rolling Stone interview, queer icon Janelle Monáe officially came out as pansexual. "Being a queer black woman in America," she said, "someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker." Monáe told Rolling Stone that she initially identified as bisexual, but later read about pansexuality and realized that term better fit how she experiences her sexuality. "I'm open to learning more about who I am," she said.
Many bisexual+ (an umbrella term for bisexual, pansexual, queer, and other not-monosexual identities) go through a similar experience when trying to find the label that fits best for them. Read our story below to learn the differences between bisexual, pansexual, and queer.
Advertisement
I came out as bisexual eight years ago when I began dating women. As time passed, I also began using the term "queer" to describe my sexuality, since I love how it serves as an umbrella term for anyone outside of the heteronormative world. And because of this, identifying as queer provides me with a sense of connectivity to the LGBTQ community as a whole. But also, I just feel like the words "bisexual" and "queer" fit. Other people who are attracted to more than one gender may prefer the label "pansexual," and they have their own reasons for this preference.
When your sexual orientation falls somewhere between homosexual and heterosexual, deciding which label is best for you can be confusing. The good news is, there's no rush to apply a label to yourself, so you can take all the time you need to decide, says Sarah Mikhail, director of family and career development at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in New York City. And, like me, you can also use more than one label — or you can choose not to use a label at all. It's totally up to you.
While some people argue that labels only separate us, personally, finding terms that described my individual sexuality was an extremely freeing experience. After going through a period of confusion and uncertainty about my sexual orientation (and how to communicate it to others), discovering and using these terms felt like coming home. "Labeling makes us real people with all our complexities, rather than just a faceless category of 'other,'" says says Liz Powell, PsyD, an LGBTQ-friendly sex educator and coach. She says that labels like these are particularly important in a society that privileges straight people.
Advertisement
Keep in mind that it's also okay for the words you use to describe your identity to change and evolve over time. "There's a lot of pressure on this idea that you have to pick something," Mikhail says. "Sex or gender identity doesn’t have to be a place where you land; it can always be a spectrum."
So, since labels can be a helpful tool for people both in and out of the LGBTQ community, here's the difference between "bisexual," "queer," and "pansexual." Just remember that people's use and definition of these terms is as individualized as they are.
1 of 3

bisexual

A common misconception about bisexuality is that bi people are only attracted to cis people, and/or they don't understand that gender is fluid — which is not true for every single bi person out there. "'Bisexual' means that you have the capacity for attraction for all genders," Mikhail says. Of course, this can be confusing, since the prefix "bi" implies that people who identify as "bisexual" are only attracted to two genders, which can be misunderstood as reinforcing the gender binary.

While other terms may sound more inclusive, "bisexual" is the preferred label for many people who are attracted to more than one gender, since they think it can help fight bi-erasure within the LGBTQ community specifically. These people may feel like the misconception about bi people reinforcing the gender binary is just that — a misconception. So, they'd rather keep the term "bisexual" alive to show that it is, in fact, an inclusive term.

"I've been out as bisexual since I was 17, and seeing bi-erasure happen so frequently makes me feel like this label is still needed to help give voice to those who are currently marginalized," Dr. Powell told Refinery29 recently.
2 of 3

pansexual

Someone who is "pansexual" is also attracted to people of all genders, according to Mikhail. She says that, in her experience, younger people (usually under the age of 23) are the ones who tend to prefer this term over "bisexual." "What I've seen in young people is that there's less stigma than in using the term bi," Mikhail says.

Why is that? Like I said, many people in the LGBTQ community assume that bi people are only attracted to cis people. So, since "pansexual" is lacking that "bi" prefix, it's seen by some as the evolution of the term "bisexual." Identifying as "pansexual" makes it clear that the person is aware of gender fluidity, so it may work better for those who are attracted to gender-fluid, gender-queer, and transgender people. (And clearly, younger people who grew up in a world that discussed gender fluidity more openly might be more drawn to the word "pansexual.")

Dr. Powell says that pansexuals often say that they're attracted to the person, not the gender. Of course, as Mikhail said, bisexuals can also be attracted to trans, non-binary, and gender-fluid people, but that doesn't mean that the term "pansexual" is totally interchangeable with "bisexual" for everyone. "I think any time the definition promotes more inclusion of our community is a wonderful thing," Mikhail says.
3 of 3

queer

Many people, such as myself (and Mikhail and Dr. Powell), identify as queer, as well as bisexual. "'Queer' is an umbrella term for those outside of the heteronormative world," Dr. Powell says. "Some would argue this includes people who participate in kink or non-monogamy as well." (Though whether or not "kinky" counts as "queer" is hotly debated, and many people in the LGBTQ community say it doesn't.)

"'Queer' also connects to a long history of the struggle of sexual and gender minorities," Dr. Powell says. The literal definition of queer is "odd," and the word has a sordid history of being used as a slur against LGBTQ people. There is power in reclaiming "queer" as an umbrella term that unites the LGBTQ community. "I use 'queer' and 'bi,' because 'queer' to me is expansive and also links me to my community," Mikhail says.
Advertisement

More from Sex & Relationships

Watch

R29 Original Series

Watch Now
Documentary
Five love stories behind diverse, multicultural marriages.
Watch Now
Lifestyle
Life experiments, 5 days at a time.
Watch Now
Fashion
The style of subculture.
Watch Now
Beauty
Viral trends, tried and tested.
Watch Now
Documentary
From vibrators to lipstick, learn how your favorite products are made.
Watch Now
Documentary
Extraordinary, one-of-a-kind individuals
Watch Now
Documentary
The latest stories to watch.
Watch Now
Lifestyle
Inside the homes of millennial women — & what they paid for them
Watch Now
Comedy
Let's talk about sex, baby.
Watch Now
Documentary
Female artisans around the world
Watch Now
Politics
Made by and for smart, opinionated women.
Watch Now
Film
We helped 12 female directors claim their power.