Pansexual Visibility & Undoing Heteronormativity
Pride was bittersweet this year. We are still devastated and grieving over the Orlando shooting of 50 people at Pulse, a LGBTQ night club, AND we continue to proudly celebrate who we are. The celebration of LGBTQ feels even more important with the violence that recently happened. Though greater strides have been made towards the acceptance of gay and queer people, we still have a long way towards changing perceptions, beliefs, and the safety of LGBTQ people. I want to acknowledge the intersections like race, gender, and disability that many gay or queer people experience. Thus, the fight towards more acceptance and safety of being queer or gay is also a fight to end all social oppressions.
In this post, I specifically want to talk about pansexualtity and heteronormativity. I’m focusing on pansexuality because I am a pansexual, and pansexuals are hardly acknowledged and represented. Today, being pansexual has a wider understanding than it did eleven years ago when I was first identifying as one. I’m thrilled to see how much of the awareness and acceptance of pansexuality has evolved though we still have a long way to go. Pansexuality is hugely underrepresented in the media, and it’s still not taken seriously enough in society at large. We need greater pansexual visibility and awareness of heteronormativity.
What Is Pansexuality?
First, I want to share what pansexuality means to me. Each pansexual can define what their sexuality means, and I do not claim to speak for all pansexuals. For me, I define pansexual as being attracted to multiple genders and/or being attracted to/fall in love with someone(s) irrespective of gender. When I first heard the term pansexual, I heard it described as falling in love with the person, not the gender, which resonated with me deeply.
To me, pansexuality differs from bisexuality because of “bi” meaning two, as in two genders. I prefer to use pansexual because it acknowledges more than two genders that I could be attracted to. However, I do want to acknowledge that not all bisexuals only define their sexuality within the binary, but for my love of deconstructing language, I prefer to use pansexual. Sometimes, when my sexuality pops up in conversation with someone who doesn’t seem to have an awareness of pansexuality, then I usually identify as bisexual. I’m fine with bisexual, but it doesn’t feel like the whole truth. Also, I don’t feel like I am attracted to both women and men because I’m not. I’m not attracted to one being a woman or a man. I’m attracted to the person underneath. It may sound like an ideal fantasy, but it’s true; my genuine attraction stems from the inside first and the outside second.
Heteronormativity Erases Pansexuality
A big part of the fight to foster greater acceptance of and to keep LGBTQ folks alive is to dismantle heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is deep seated in our society and we encounter its presence in our everyday lives. In order to help end oppression and violence against queer people, we must face the heteronormativity that we perpetuate. A huge part of this work involves awareness, education, and action.
People are assumed to be heterosexual unless their perceived gender has people believing otherwise. I don’t identify as “femme” but, sometimes, I present as more “femme,” and thus am assumed to be heterosexual. Heteronormativity assumes that when I am with a man, I am straight; it assumes heterosexual until proven otherwise. I’m not with a man because of my heterosexual “nature,” I’m with him because I fell in love with a human being who happens to “be” a man. I’m not going to walk around with a sign on my forehead that states “Pansexual,” thus the heterosexual assumption is important to change.
Heteronormativity treats pan, gay, or bi sexuality as a spectacle. When my ex-girlfriend and I would take neighborhood walks holding hands, people would drive or walk by staring and smiling at us. Granted, we were a cute couple, but after a while, I started to feel like a spectacle. This is two fold. On one hand, it was beautiful that people were responding positively to our love. But, on the other hand, my relationship was not on display for other people’s pleasure (or disgust). We lived in an open-minded neighborhood, so we rarely, if ever, encountered disgust or negative reactions to displaying our affection for one another in public. But, because we lived in an open minded neighborhood, I was surprised that people were reacting (even though positive) to us at all. If women being romantic with one another is normalized, then there wouldn’t be a reaction from others at all.
No one blinks an eye when they see a couple they perceive to be heterosexual walking down the street (at least in relation to sexuality/gender; racism, disability and other identities can still be a factor). This is heteronormativity and heterosexual privilege. Not being aware of heterosexual privilege perpetuates heteronormativity. When we perceive a couple to be heterosexual, we are engaging in heteronormativity. We don’t actually know if the couple we perceive to be heterosexual is actually heterosexual. We perceive a heterosexual couple to consist of a “woman” and a “man,” but what if the woman or man is bisexual or pansexual? When we perceive people as heterosexual, we are projecting our own social conditioning onto them because of heteronormativity.
Also, heteronormativity tends to assume that if you’re pansexual, then you’re automatically polyamorous. Polyamorous or monogamous, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to be with both a woman and a man at the same time to prove you’re pansexual. Being monogamous with a man does not erase pansexuality either, but society treats it that way. A pansexual woman being in relationship with a man does not all of a sudden make her heterosexual. And a pansexual (or bisexual) is never in a heterosexual relationship. Only someone who identifies as heterosexual is in a heterosexual relationship. Our pansexuality doesn't just disappear depending on what gender of the person we're with.
As a culture and society, we need to do a better job of unpacking heteronormativity. We can unlearn the assumptions we make about other people’s sexuality based upon their physical appearance. As pansexuals, we will not be erased. We are here; we are queer, and we’re not going anywhere.
The Lack of Pansexual Representation Onscreen
Pansexuals are hugely underrepresented in film and television, which isn’t a surprise since society is still catching up in understanding what pansexuality is, and even being introduced to the term. Heteronormativity allows for writers and directors to create characters heterosexual without questioning why they are creating a heterosexual character. Heteronormativity allows most, if not all, of the characters in a film to be heterosexual and have its one token gay character. If we didn’t live in a heteronormative world, then there wouldn’t be such a disparity, heterosexual would not be the norm.
Pansexual and bisexual representation onscreen is rare. While we have more lesbian and gay people onscreen than ever before, pansexuals and bisexuals pale in comparison. Off the top of my head, here are the TV shows and films that have at least one pansexual or bisexual character:
Lost Girl, Everyone in Sense 8 according to the showrunner., The L-Word, Dean Pelton in Community, Kate Bornstein on I Am Cait, Gia, Orange Is the New Black, How To Get Away With Murder, The 100, Bessie, True Blood, Imagine Me & You, Queen Sugar.....
Can we say that TV is doing a better job at queer representation? No doubt, we can. Films need to step up to the plate! But, both television and film needs to greatly improve their representation of pansexuals and bisexuals. The more we see pansexuals onscreen, the more pansexual will be normalized as a sexual orientation. But, we can’t wait for the media to change, we need to start now. It starts with deconstructing heteronormativity in our everyday lives. Notice the next time you make a judgment (whether it’s in your own head or out loud) about someone’s sexuality.
I know I’m leaving out other pansexual characters in film and television. Let me know in the comments who I missed and should be acknowledged!
For more information on what heteronormativity entails, this Everyday Feminist article breaks it down beautifully.
Food For Thought!
How does heteronormativity show up in your everyday life?
What are other ways we can undo heteronormativity?
Who are other pansexuals in films/tv?
If you identify as pansexual, what misconceptions do you encounter?
Share your answers in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you!