The road to accepting my sexuality has been rocky and filled with bear-traps.
When I first came out aged 12, I was met with only derision by my peers. School became a living nightmare, a constant hell of homophobic abuse and chewing gum being spat into my hair. My confidence was shattered, and I felt such crushing shame about myself and my sexuality that I began self-harming, and developed anorexia.
I kept my sexual identity a shameful secret for years, which had a hugely detrimental effect on my mental health. I felt confused and lonely – as though the romantic and sexual choices I wanted to make were problematic and would only result in more bullying and abuse. It was only at university that I felt able to come out for a second time, inspired by a friend whose own coming out was met with love and support.
Sixteen years on from those first playground taunts – and after relationships with both men and women – I’m engaged to a wonderfully loving, supportive, funny person. They are perfect for me. They also happen to be male – and I’m finding being a pansexual woman in a heterosexual relationship is a strange experience.
Of course, there is privilege associated with being a queer woman in a straight relationship: no one shouts at me and my partner in the street; no one sneers when we kiss; no one inserts themselves into our conversations asking if we’d be ‘up for a threesome’. I am no longer subject to homophobic abuse, and I acknowledge the huge privilege I have in being able to navigate the world more safely.
“I feel an acute loss of identity – as though my lived experience as someone who isn’t straight is being slowly erased.”
On the other hand, I feel an acute loss of identity – as though my lived experience as someone who isn’t straight is being slowly erased. I love my partner with all my being, but this feeling of erasure has been difficult and painful. After all, my struggle coming out and the bullying I experienced when I did means my identity as a pansexual woman has been hard-won. I’m not ready to give it up.
Pansexuality is defined as the attraction to people of all genders. It means that we don’t limit ourselves in sexual choice to people of a particular biological sex, gender or gender identity. The closest cousin of pansexuality is probably bisexuality – although they are not the same, they share traits, and they can both lead to questions from others about whether the bi or pan person in question has ‘picked a side’ when they choose to date someone of a particular gender.
However, whether you’re bi or pan, you are not defined by the gender of your partner. Your sexuality is still valid and real, whoever you decide to have a sexual or romantic relationship with.
Unfortunately, there is still stigma attached to being attracted to more than one gender. According to the Human Rights Campaign, bisexual individuals have higher risks of self-harm and suicide attempts than their heterosexual, gay and lesbian peers. Bisexuals experience higher rates of depression than our heterosexual counterparts, and bisexual women are more likely to develop mental health issues, like I did.
“There was an assumption among my peers that because I’d previously only had relationships with men, my time with my first ex-girlfriend was just a passing dalliance.”
There’s also the idea bi- or pansexuality is merely a period of ‘experimentation’, like our very real identities are mere ‘phases’. In my own life, there was an assumption among my peers that because I’d previously only had relationships with men, my time with my first ex-girlfriend was just a passing dalliance, and not an important relationship to be taken seriously, or even seen as valid. This kind of bi or pan-erasure is such an issue that some bi or pansexual folk don’t come out to those around them at all because they are worried their identity will be mocked or interrogated.
Even within the LGBTQ community, biphobia and bi-erasure remains rampant. We are often dismissed as ‘greedy’ or ‘attention-seeking’. Bi and pansexual individuals are ignored and stigmatised, even despite society’s growing understanding around LGBTQ+ issues. Despite bisexuals making up 52% of the LGBTQ population, they are sometimes shut out of the narrative at Pride and other LGBTQ celebrations. It’s lonely and invalidating to be seen as ‘not gay enough’ to be included in LGBTQ spaces, and taps into the wider narrative that bisexual, pan, fluid and queer individuals are overlooked and invisible.
Unfortunately, we still largely have very rigid ideas about sexuality and what it means to identify as bi. I think perhaps bi and pansexuality are still so stigmatised because there isn’t a fixed, stereotypical idea of what bisexual – let alone pan or fluid men, women and non-binary people – look like. We cannot be so easily placed into the boxes we are societally so fond of.
“The truth is my relationship status does not, will never, ‘change’ my sexuality. I will always be a pansexual woman, no matter who I choose to date.”
I remember being called by an acquaintance after the relationship with an ex-girlfriend ending. I explained that I’d met someone new, and that they were male. “So, you’re not a lesbian anymore?” they sneered down the phone. I was taken aback, unable to articulate that I’d never been a lesbian and that my new relationship was in no way a ‘change’ in my sexual identity.
The truth is my relationship status does not, will never, ‘change’ my sexuality. I will always be a pansexual woman, no matter who I choose to date. We bi, pan, queer and fluid individuals should never feel as though our identity is invalid simply because we are attracted to a wider spectrum of genders.
In the words of bi actor Evan Rachel Wood: “Bisexuality doesn’t mean halfway between gay or straight. It is its own identity.” So is pansexuality, and it always will be.
Harriet Williamson is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @harriepw
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