In a Word, What It Means to Be Pansexual

A high school student I've known most of her life came out to me a while back. (Seeing as I had just come out to her, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do.) Laughing that both of us thought the other knew, we finally got around to talking about just where we stood out of the closet, so to speak.

"Bisexual," I said.

"You could say bi," she wrote back about herself. "I identify with pansexual, but it's easier to say bi."

Huh? Pan-what?

After nearly four-and-a-half decades on earth, I had finally come to understand I was bisexual. Now there was another word I had to consider? No wonder I get headaches.

I was reminded of this when I saw last week that Miley Cyrus had told the world she was pansexual. As confused as most people are now, I was then.

As I so often did, however, I went and talked to some of my students in the GSA during lunch. Much more current on, well, everything, I thought they might know what this word meant. I got some interesting answers:

"You like everything."

"You like cookware."

"You like that Greek guy who's half horse."

"He's not half horse, he's half goat."

"I know that guy! He was in the first Chronicles of Narnia movie!"

At this point, I realized "more current" does not always apparently mean better. Not that I was much help, either: "If you like everything, wouldn't that be a globalsexual?"

And with that, lunch was pretty much shot to hell.

To her credit, however, one of my students wandered off into the Internet that week to discover just what pansexual meant. She came back to the next meeting with a number of things that began to clear it up:

• "Bisexual people are attracted sexually and romantically to both males and females, and are capable of engaging in sensual relationships with either sex.... pansexual people may be sexually attracted to individuals who identify as male or female; however, they may also be attracted to those who identify as intersex, third-gender, androgynous, transsexual or the many other sexual and gender identities."

• "Both bisexual and pansexual people might feel desire towards people of any amount of genders. People who feel desire towards people of more than one, more than two, many, multiple or all genders can identify as bisexual or as pansexual (or really anything else): The word people use to name their sexual identity does not predict or convey the number of genders they might desire."

I should note at this point that there are literally thousands of different websites where you can find this information. I liked these two because they discussed the topic in a clinical, non-emotional manner.

(Unlike sites like Yahoo Answers which seem to just as often be filled with idiots as intellectuals. You have to ask yourself: What kind of site allows people to vote on what is the best answer? If you're asking about a gumbo recipe, fine. But when the topics involve facts and information, there is correct and incorrect. Letting people -- many of them idiots -- vote on such things is the dumbest thing I've ever heard.)

Anyway, back to lunch. All of us sitting there listening, even when she was done we were fairly silent. Finally, one of us broke the silence: "There are more than two genders? Oh, come on! I just figured out I liked two of them!"

Yeah, that was me. In all fairness, however, some of the other people at lunch said it as well. They just weren't as loud. Or they didn't want to spit crumbs at people, so they waited until their mouths weren't full.

Whatever the reasons, however, the idea that there are more than two genders is not one you see discussed much. I teach in a fairly liberal school, and they certainly don't talk about more than two sexes in biology. In English classes, when there's the rare LGBTQ character of discussion, they're almost always gay or lesbian.

On TV and movie screens, there are straights, gays and bisexuals. Until Miley, however, I'd never even heard the word "pansexual" on TV, although I only get basic cable, so maybe that explains it.

So to hear there are more than two genders is sort of mind-blowing to some people. Honestly, it goes so completely against the grain that some people's brains just kind of stop. They switch over to less challenging things, like where to find a good gumbo recipe.

I hate doing that. (Not thinking, I mean; I love gumbo.) So I tried to understand the whole multi-gender thing in my own way. It wasn't simple. For the moment, however, it helped me to think of it this way:

If I were to ask you to raise your fingers to show me how many genders there are, you'd probably raise your hand in a "V" pattern. Two genders, two fingers, there you go.

Now raise two digits again, but this time using your thumb and your pinky. You are now fully prepared to "hang loose" and go surfing in Hawaii.

More, however, you can better understand more than two genders. Because just as there are now three fingers between your other two digits, there are other genders between just the two that you know. Too many to name here: It's all in there. Indeed, just about any issues of sexuality, identity or expression between consenting adults fits is in there somewhere.

Because gender is not a binary thing, consisting of just the plumbing in your persons. It's a function of many things, many choices and things that aren't choices at all.

And with that, I'm sure it's all cleared up!

Or not, as I'll admit it's still all rather a mind bender. Indeed, I understand now why my young friend originally said to me, "... it's easier to say bi." Because she's right.

Hopefully someday she won't be.