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Sexuality on a spectrum: Everything you need to know about pansexuality

Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

When it comes to understanding sexuality, we’ve come a long way as a society. Most of us understand gender and sexuality aren’t fixed or gender binary.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first reference to pansexuality was in 1914, when ‘pansexualism’ appeared in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. But it wasn’t considered a sexual orientation until well-known sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s extensive study spawned the Kinsey scale in the ’40s to explain how sexuality operated on a spectrum that measures degrees of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Queer publication Them revealed that in the ’70s, pansexual described desire and identity.

That was born of the need for a more expansive view of attraction since, along with sexuality, gender identities were no longer finite points. Bisexuality and pansexuality share similarities, but whereas the bisexual community tends to attribute their sexual and romantic attraction to cisgender people only, pansexuality defines a sexual, romantic or emotional attraction towards people regardless of their sex or gender identity. Previously, the only queers the mainstream media would represent were white cisgender gay men and lesbians. Today, that includes queer transgender, non-binary, Black people and people of colour.

The character David Rose on Schitt’s Creek springs to mind. The writers initially present him as gay, but in a clever scene, after he’s hooked up with his female friend Stevie Budd, he uses wine as an analogy to explain his sexuality. Like the audience, Stevie has assumed David’s only attracted to men. In the scene, he explains, “I drink red wine. But I also drink white wine. And I’ve been known to sample the occasional rosé. I like the wine, not the label. Does that make sense?”

But what does being pansexual in real life entail? Multi-award-winning social justice activist, renowned thought leader and public speaker Rowan Rory Roman shares some of his experiences dating and existing as a pansexual person in the queer community. I ask him why pansexuality has recently become more prominent. “I think people are starting to live beyond what society deems as acceptable or palatable. It used to prescribe heterosexuality as the general standard and homosexuality in the queer community.

Now there’s a greater understanding of love and attraction and romantic and sexual freedom rooted in agency and autonomy that, I think, hasn’t ever really been seen on this scale. It’s a freedom everyone should have the right to experience. “With more resources available and open discussions, people feel they can participate in online forums and IRL conversations and express their thoughts and be themselves in a way other generations couldn’t without feeling unsafe.” Whilst we better understand sexuality, there are still some misconceptions about pansexual people. Rowan says: “Pretty much everyone who doesn’t understand pansexuality seems to think being pansexual means we’re hypersexual, promiscuous, that we can’t be monogamous and don’t know what we want. “I honestly don’t think there should be a divide between pansexual and bisexual communities.

We’re probably the most closely related orientations, but, naturally, that may confuse people. My experience with other bi people, as a (then) bi person, made me feel uncomfortable about identifying as bi because they’d discount trans people as possible romantic or sexual interests, which didn’t sit well with me as someone involved with a trans person. The idea of erasing the historical course of either sexuality by claiming one over the other comes up. Both orientations can relate to that. “I think bi or pan solidarity is vital, but I also think there’s a general lack of understanding around the two sexualities from both communities that creates and reinforces the divide.”

You’d think being attracted to someone regardless of their gender would make dating easier, but pansexual people have to overcome a different set of obstacles. Sharing some of those, Rowan says: “Discrimination comes from both the heterosexual and queer communities, cishet women and gay men in particular. Women generally lose interest if I say or do anything they consider ‘gay’ (insert ‘that’s very LGBT of you’ meme*). If they find out that I’ve been intimate with other men, it’s over before it even begins.

“Gay men tend to want to erase my pansexuality by insisting I don’t want to choose a side or that I want to have the benefit of being gay in queer spaces without having to deal with the ridicule of it in real life.” Those are the emotional and mental gymnastics you have to perform when considering whether it’s worth putting yourself out there after having more negative experiences than you can count. Having to explain, validate and fight for your identity is exhausting. Sharing about the impact more pansexual characters in media have had on the community, Rowan says: “I think it’s always good to have representation, especially in mainstream media. It shows people they’re seen, and they matter. It means they can take pride in who they are.

“Misconceptions of pansexuality are often damaging because they involve stereotyping and portrayals of pansexual people as engaging in problematic behaviour such as hypersexuality and promiscuity. “Although I’m glad to see more representation, which will only get better with time, I also believe the media needs to better represent the queer community in general.”

Then there’s queer baiting, which Rowan explains means using sexuality to lure LGBTQI+ viewers or followers on social media without expressing their identity, and that needs to stop. Furthermore, he echoes the sentiment of many queer people when it comes to telling their stories: productions companies need to employ queer writers and cast more queer talent.

This article originally appeared on Glamour’s May 2022 Wellness Issue.

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