Updated: Oct 17
As the stigma attached to LGBTQ+ identities slowly dissipates and more and more people identify within this umbrella term, it’s possible you’ve heard different ways to refer to those who experience sexual, romantic and/or emotional attraction towards more than one gender. Pan, bi, queer… What are the differences? How do people experience these identities? Have we really left behind harmful stereotypes and preconceived ideas around people who engage sexually, emotionally and/or romantically with people of different genders?
First, let’s start with some definitions. As the LGBTQ+ community grows, so does the language that we use to describe our way of experiencing ourselves, the world, and the people around us. Labels are a communication tool that helps us develop our sense of self, which happens both when we interact with others, but also as part of our internal monologue.
Bisexual: Traditionally it has referred to those who are attracted to two genders, women and men. However, in recent years, the definition of bisexuality has expanded to include those who experience sexual, romantic and/or emotional attraction to more than one gender. This new definition escapes the previous man/woman binary (and therefore includes other gender identities, like non-binary or gender fluid). It also acknowledges those who might not feel sexual attraction but want to have romantic or emotional relationships with people of different genders. “Bi+” is commonly used to reflect this actualisation of the meaning of bisexual.
Pansexual: Someone who is pansexual will experience sexual, romantic and/or emotional attraction regardless of the gender of the person they’re attracted to. “Regardless” is the key word here, as pansexual people can potentially experience attraction to any gender (“pan” meaning “all”). Even though pansexuality has a reputation for being something new, even labeled an “emerging sexuality”, in reality, it has been around for a long time. The word has existed since the 1900s and it’s been used with its current meaning since the 1960s.
Queer: this is a tricky one. Traditionally, it has been used as a slur against people who were, or were perceived to be, part of the LGBTQ+ community - especially gender non-confirming folk. The term has been now reclaimed, and it’s used to refer to a range of non-heteronormative identities, so it’s applicable to either gender identity or sexuality. For instance, a person who experiences sexual and/or romantic attraction to their same gender, or to 2 or more genders, might call themselves queer. In the same way, someone who doesn’t identify with the woman/man gender binary, might call themselves genderqueer. There is therefore a subversive aspect to the word “queer”, and it’s often used as an alternative to the mainstreamed LGBTQ+ acronym. For me, this quote by bell hooks explains it brilliantly: "queer not as being about who you're having sex with (that can be a dimension of it); but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live."
Multisexual: An umbrella term sometimes used to encapsulate all identities that can experience attraction towards more than 2 genders, which would include bisexual, pansexual, and queer.
With September being Multisexual/Bi+ Pride, and September 23rd marking Bi+ Visibility Day, I talked to a few people who identify within the multisexual spectrum to find out more about their experiences.
Mark* is 17, asexual, biromantic and genderfluid, originally from Sri Lanka but residing in the UK. They tell me how lockdown allowed them to explore their sexuality and gender expression, which was possible because they found themselves surrounded by a community that welcomed this exploration.
This was also the case for Renu, 28, who is non-binary, gender fluid and bisexual, from Argentina. They explain that the pandemic and having to stay at home created a space for them to undergo an introspective process about their gender identity. Like Mark*, they were part of an environment that validated this process - their community provided “a beautiful accompaniment”, as they put it. As for their bisexuality, Renu never thought of themselves as heterosexual. Coming from a fairly progressive family, their mum never assumed their sexuality, and when asked, Renu simply told her they were bisexual. Renu tells me they never had to come out - there was no “before and after”. Rather, for them, developing their gender identity, expression, and sexuality was a natural process. They highlight that starting University and joining different social movements also allowed them to attach a political dimension to their identities.
I also spoke to Tabitha, 28, a cis bisexual/pansexual woman from the UK. Tabitha first identified as a lesbian when she was a teenager. When she started 6th form, however, she realised the bisexual label was more appropriate for her. As a femme-presenting bisexual woman who then went on to date primarily men, Tabitha had to “come out quite a lot”, as people would think that, when she said she was bisexual, this was something “you just say”or would think she was “actually straight”. In Tabitha’s experience, it was easier for people to understand when she identified as a lesbian, but found less acceptance when she started using the label bisexual.
Gem is 17, from the UK, pansexual, and in the process of figuring out her gender identity. Gem speaks of an early consciousness about her queerness (from primary school) and, at age 12, she identified as bisexual. However, being the only bisexual person she knew at the time, and due to lack of representation, Gem experienced internalised biphobia that manifested in thinking, for instance, that “bisexual female celebrities were faking it and were actually straight”. As she grew older, Gem realised she had “no preference for gender or gender expression”, and started identifying with pansexuality.
Unai, 27, cis man from Spain, identifies as bisexual/queer. One of the first times he realised he was bisexual was when, as a young kid, other boys “called him gay as if it was an insult”. He would deny this, and would do so “with conviction” because he knew he “liked girls too”. With time, he understood he was bisexual and this “was a natural process, not traumatic”. At 21, he started having romantic relationships with men and told his close family and friends that he was bisexual. However, even before adopting the label, for him “there wasn’t a need to prove anything”, as he always knew he liked more than one gender.
There were some common experiences among the people I talked to. Most people referred, in one way or another, to exploring and expressing one’s sexuality as both an individual and collective process. Environment and community, as well as internal introspective exercises, were both important to develop their identity, with a couple of people mentioning lockdowns and spending prolonged times at home as a good space for figuring out their sexuality and gender identity. Having a support network, access to information and progressive spaces also shaped this process for them.
The concept of “coming out” was also challenged, with the development of their sexual and gender identity seen more as a natural and gradual process, rather than something to come to terms with, to declare or to endure. Several people used different labels or changed them throughout their lives to better reflect their experiences, showing sexuality not as linear, but as ever-changing. The rejection of this “coming out culture” is a good reminder that the binary and heteronormative terms in which we understand sexuality today, has more to do with oudated and colonial ideas, rather than the actual nature of sexuality.
Even if faced with stereotypes, lack of representation, and biphobia (both external and internal), to start living their sexuality authentically was also a beautiful process. As Renu mentioned to me, we need to create alternative narratives in which LGBTQ+ folk can live fulfilling lives - not because there is no pain in them, but because pain is not everything there is. This does not take away from the very real issues that multisexual and LGBTQ+ people experience, which will be explored further in the second part of this article, but it frames sexual diversity not as something to fear, but rather as a world of possibilities.
*Fictional name to protect the identity of the person featured in this article.
Disclaimer: These accounts do not aim to represent those of the whole bi+/multisexual community. A range of diverse experiences was attempted, however, more experiences from people of colour, people with disabilities, working-class backgrounds, older people, different religions and cultures, and from geographically diverse locations should be explored.
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All illustrations courtesy of Karolina Jonc Buczek (@jajonc on Instagram)
Laura Roca Diaz
I’m Laura (pronouns ella/she/her) and I’m originally from the Basque Country in Northern Spain, currently based in Brighton. I speak Basque, Spanish and English - and hoping to learn Portuguese next! I work as Digital Communications Specialist for WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Organizing and Globalizing), an international workers' rights NGO. Previously, I also worked in digital communications in the charity sector, and before that I completed a graduate training programme with UN Women’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean in Panama, working as Campaign and Communications Analyst. I have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of the Basque Country (Spain), a master’s degree in Neuromarketing from the International University of La Rioja (Spain), and an MA in Gender Studies from the University of Sussex (UK). In my dissertation, and as part of my last MA, I explored the links between queer identity and media representation in the Spanish context, and was awarded for Highest Overall Performance. My interests include feminist/queer theory and activism, worker organising, and migrant’s rights, among others.