What being pansexual

 means to me

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written by Amy Gilbrook (she/her)

It is very simple really. As a pansexual woman gender identity just doesn’t limit my feelings for a person. I can and have seen beauty in, been attracted to and fallen for people of all genders. 

I recently heard Mae Martin say in a stand-up set ‘I think labels can be divisive and don’t feel the need to identify as anything other than a human being’. I very much identify with this statement. However, particularly when my own identity often appears to be invisible in society, it is important to paint those pink, yellow and blue colours across the world and say ‘I’m here, I’m queer, acknowledge my existence!’ With that also comes the need to establish that my sexuality is not: a phase, a fad (to paraphrase my father), a transition period, a moment of desperation (to paraphrase a very close friend when I came out to her), to get attention, indiscriminate sexual attraction to everyone, greediness, etc. You’ll notice I used the word paraphrase there, which maybe reflects how my own inner conflict at that time interpreted the thoughtless comments of those people, who had the best intentions, I’m sure. 

I also think that it is in the human condition, rightly or wrongly, to compartmentalise; to take a short-cut in understanding people. I think this tendency is also useful for people learning about themselves to find support and guidance in a community of people like them. I guess I have found some comfort in there being a word that describes my sexuality as much as it make it easier to have a word I can use for those curious folk that want to understand it too. I actually more often will use the word queer because it unites us as a queer community and I think the last thing an oppressed community needs is to be set against each other in teams that may or may not form a hierarchy and be divided against each other rather than united against their oppressors. I can’t take credit for this belief, as it is very much inspired by an interview Lea DeLaria (of Orange is the New Black fame) gave Krishnan Guru-Murthy a few years ago called ‘Ways to Change the World’. It can still be found online if you’d like to watch it. 

I have, in the past, felt like an imposter in queer spaces. Being quite femme presenting myself, I have been asked by gay (and straight) men in these spaces why I am there, as they assume I am straight. I also have been made to feel like I need to make a choice of the gender I date. A counsellor I went to once -once being the key word here- once asked me the ‘Which is it?’ question, even though it was not the issue I had raised at all. Even an ex-girlfriend, though she mainly claimed she understood my sexuality, did often have doubts that I would end up leaving her for a man. She also once made a throwaway comment of ‘Make up your mind’ when referring to a character in the L word who slept with men and women (I know, I know, I’ve not watched the L word so I can’t name the character – and I call myself a queer woman!). And lastly, the age-old dilemma of not being valid: a woman I once kissed said I ‘didn’t count’ when talking about the impact of that night on the guy she was seeing at the time (despite her openly identifying as bisexual herself). I don’t have any hard feelings towards these people, even if their comments sometimes made me feel slightly invalidated, hurt or frustrated. I guess the closer I get to reaching a point where I feel assured, comfortable and proud of who I am, the more often those comments just wash over me. 

The patriarchal narrative that ‘all women are a little bit bisexual (because woman are sexualised by the media) but really they’re just straight so keep fucking us men and only fuck the women in front of us’ meant it took me a good while to acknowledge and fully explore my sexuality.  It was worth the wait though, because I would never have wanted to experiment with anyone and I needed to be ready and comfortable with who I am first. What I’ve learned is that I am far more focused on the human connection than the mechanical details of sex, I’ve got to say. I can really relate to Desiree Akhavan’s character in Channel 4’s The Bisexual who, when she sleeps with a man for the first time after exclusively dating women, realises:
 ‘I thought sex with a man would be so different and it’s not’. Her film ‘Appropriate Behaviour’ was also a big eye-opener for me in realising my own identity.

I can’t write this article without also mentioning the wonder that is Janelle Monáe. Her tracks ‘PYNK’ and ‘I like that’ were especially empowering songs for me. Also, going back to Mae Martin, I would highly recommend her Guide to 21st Century Sexuality on BBC Radio 4.

Being open about my identity has drawn many people to share with me their own similar feelings but their reservations about being open about this, for a number of societal, religious or family reasons. I have felt this is such a shame and I always encourage them to love and embrace themselves for who they are and not be limited by these barriers. Of course, that’s easier said than done though, and they have their own journeys to go on, if and when they are ready. 

Finally, I’d just like to say that many of my closest friends are pansexual and they are the most wonderful, open, kind, generous, funny, creative, intelligent people I know. I am proud to know them and identify with them in this way. It can be a long and treacherous journey to self-love and self-acceptance, but love will always conquer over fear.