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.
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.
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.

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series