The Difference Between Bi and Pan
The other day while looking at some of my Google Analytics, I noticed that a few folx had come to my blog and searched for “pansexual,” no doubt hoping to see a fun and nuanced discussion on how to write pansexual characters. I, however, haven’t done a post on how to write pansexual characters, and don’t really plan to.
The reason for this is that there’s a LOT of overlap between bi and pan identities, and in the end I’d just end up repeating what I wrote in my post about writing bi characters. In fact, I mentioned this in that write-up — and also noted that pansexuality is often used as a biphobic attack against bi people, which is itself an issue in a lot of queer representation.
That being said, there truly are people who connect better with the term “pansexual” than with the word “bisexual,” and I don’t want them to feel excluded, and I certainly don’t want to give any non-pan writers the false impression that pansexuality doesn’t exist!
So today I’m going to talk about the difference between bi and pan, to help illuminate why one might choose to identify their characters as one or the other!
Bisexuality vs. Pansexuality
The crux of the difference between bi and pan identities is largely one of terminology. The classic differentiation is that bi means “two” and pan means “all” — therefore, pan is more inclusive of trans and nonbinary folx, because bi implies attraction to only men and women.
As I’ve said in various discussions about bisexual characters, however, this isn’t the case.
Bisexuality is most often defined by bisexual people as “attraction to two or more genders” or “attraction to your own gender and others.” Bisexuality, therefore, implies a potential attraction to multiple different genders — not just binary men and women — but also leaves space for folx who might identify with bisexual but won’t feel attraction to all forms of gender expression.
In contrast, pansexuality generally refers to “attraction to all genders.” This is sometimes considered more inclusive because it encompasses gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and otherwise gender expansive folx.
However, bisexuality also allows for attraction to those genders!
To me, the primary difference between bi and pan is that bisexuality has more space for folx who don’t experience attraction toward certain identities or modes of expression — which is perfectly acceptable
A bi person is not inherently problematic because they’re attracted to certain aesthetics. They WOULD be problematic if they declared broadly that they “aren’t attracted to nonbinary people” — but that’s because “nonbinary” is such an expansive umbrella term that could cover a wide range of expression. The more nuanced way to describe this would likely be “I’m mostly just attracted to binary-presenting people” — which may well include nonbinary folx who choose to present in more traditionally masculine/feminine ways.
Therefore, while a pan person experiences attraction to all genders, a bi person may experience attraction to many but not all genders. This, to me, makes bisexuality an umbrella under which pansexuality falls. A pan person is attracted to their own gender and others, and in this case others means all.
To add to this and round out the discussion, there is a third identity known as omnisexual. Omni (also meaning all) tends to be distinguished from pan as attraction regardless of gender.
This is distinct from bi and pan in that it is “gender-blind.” Whereas a bi or pan person may well experience their attraction to different genders differently, omnisexual folx experience attraction to all genders the same way.
Take this with a grain of salt, of course — I don’t identify as omnisexual, and I’ve heard both bi and pan folx say that they’re also attracted to people regardless of gender. It’s possible that omni would be a better fit for such folx in a world where omni was a wider-known identity, but currently omni doesn’t have a lot of prominence.
Bisexual vs. Pansexual in writing
So, which of these terms is best for your character?
Bi is definitely the more immediately recognizable choice, and using it comes with the added benefit of helping thwart the biphobia and bi erasure rampant in modern media.
I’ve also met many pansexual people who publicly identify as bi because it’s easier — they don’t have to really explain what it means to a passerby — so that’s a consideration to make for your character. It may be that your character actually identifies as pan because they do feel attraction to all genders, but choose to say bi because it still encompasses their identity and is more recognizable.
Pan, on the other hand, could be a powerful choice to help illustrate that the LGBTQIA+ community really does need that plus sign, and that the broadly available language isn’t always sufficient to describe the full, beautiful breadth of the nuanced experience that is human sexuality.
That being said, there are definitely some caveats — such as that, in a lot of circles, the term pan is used to attack bi people. Biphobia is VERY real in the queer community — bi people are often villainized, erased, marginalized, or otherwise considered “not queer enough”.
It sometimes seems that people really, really want bisexual people to be somehow in the wrong, and so some will disingenuously use the existence of the term pan to paint bisexual people as transphobic or otherwise “traitors” to the queer community. This is a trope as old as the queer community itself — the “traitorous bi” is something that shows up a lot, even in queer-written fiction.
Though the difference between bi and pan is in some ways largely semantic, the two terms aren’t quite interchangeable — there are some very important and valid nuances between the three that you should bear in mind when writing characters that might experience attraction to multiple different genders. You’ll need to bear in mind these differences, as well as how they’ve been used to attack and erase bi folx in the past.
That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week with another Queering the Narrative, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!