Coming Out to Myself: I’m Pansexual

by: Heather Stebbins

I have been trying for what feels like forever to write this. I’m not sure how to put it into words, but I’m going to give it my best shot in the hopes that it will be cathartic to “let it out,” or whatever it is I’m doing.

I am pansexual.

It’s been a long journey to get to this point, to type these words. I’m still having trouble assimilating my sexuality into how I view myself as a person. The label feels unfamiliar. It’s a part of me that’s separate; I keep it locked away and only take it out occasionally. For some reason I can’t seem to picture this queer girl as the girl I see in the mirror who is also a skeptic, a humanist, a tattoo enthusiast, an aspiring activist, an atheist. I’ve worn so many labels in my life, but none of them have been as uncomfortable as this.

I think I might be ashamed of my sexuality.

This feels like the most ridiculous problem in the world. I’ve never been homophobic, and I’ve always had gay friends. I’ve always supported the choices of those around me, straight or queer. And even when I was a conservative Christian, I never understood why being gay should be wrong. Why does it matter who someone’s interested in? If they’re lucky enough to find love in this world, who am I to take that away? And yet, I’m having trouble accepting this as something that’s part of me.

I think some of the problem is that so many of the people I know question how someone can be attracted to people of more than one gender. Even from those I consider intelligent, accepting and good friends, I’ve heard the question asked: “Why doesn’t [insert bisexual/pansexual friend here] just choose a side?” I don’t understand why this should bother me, because of course I have friends who are bisexual or pansexual and it has never even crossed my mind to demand to know why they won’t “choose a side.” But, in myself, I feel like it’s some kind of great shortcoming that I can’t just pick a gender. I mean, I guess I could technically limit myself to dating men or women and leave it at that. But I don’t want to. I feel like I would be losing something, somehow. It doesn’t feel honest to only say that I’m attracted to one group or the other. And what about people who aren’t just men or women? Should I discount them as partners just because they don’t follow a binary that makes people comfortable, even if I’m attracted to them? The obvious answer here is “of course not.” Even so, I feel like it’s my fault that I’m not making a choice.

I feel like the fact that I am not just a lesbian or a straight girl makes me look indecisive. Some of my friends have mentioned the possibility that I’m just “bi-curious” (a term I’m quickly learning to dislike). Maybe because of the stereotype that people “experiment in college,” I think some people would look at me and say this is a phase. I’m still insecure about calling myself pansexual because, honestly, I’m afraid those people will be right. What if I’m wrong and I’m not a “real” pansexual? What do I have to do in order to qualify to label myself in a particular way? I’ve never had a girlfriend, and I’ve only ever slept with one girl.

I’ve never dated someone who was outside of the gender binary. Does this make my claim to pansexuality illegitimate? How many girls or gender fluid people should I date/sleep with before I get to call myself not straight? It’s so easy to forget that I get to choose my labels. Regardless of my sexual and dating history, I identify with the label of pansexual, and that should be enough. But, somehow, I’m afraid that it isn’t.

I feel ridiculous because, honestly, I think I’m getting too old for this. It seems like everyone I know who isn’t straight figured it out at a young age. It seems so common to meet people who say “ever since I was a child, I knew I was different,” or “I started coming out to family/friends in high school.” I, on the other hand, am a 21 year old college senior who never even questioned my straightness until a few months ago. I do attribute some of this to my upbringing—I spent my middle- and high-school years in a Pentecostal Christian church.

For those of you who don’t know, this means I spent my adolescence in an environment where people spoke in tongues, believed that Barack Obama may actually be the antichrist, and preached that gay people are going to hell. As a teenager in a small Ohio suburb, it never even crossed my mind that I could be anything but straight. But still, I can’t help wondering, why now? How is it that I managed to put off this identity crisis, or whatever it is, for two decades? Everyone else seems to have this figured out by now—why don’t I?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a happy ending to close out my rant. I still haven’t explicitly come out to many of my friends (although if someone asks directly, I won’t lie). I don’t post about my sexuality on Facebook.

I have not come out to my family, and have no immediate plans to do so, although I guess that’ll eventually come up because someday I may want to bring a non-male person home to meet my parents. In the meantime, I’m just working on figuring out how to talk to my straight friends about my sexuality. I’m trying to learn how to assimilate “pansexual” into my identity. Most of all, I’m trying to remember that I get to choose how I label myself, and that’s all that matters.

Heather Stebbins is a fourth year undergraduate student living in Chicago. She is currently studying anthropology, but hopes to eventually do some sort of work in education reform. She spends most of her free time reading, planning road trips, and watching too much Law & Order: SVU.

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13 responses to “Coming Out to Myself: I’m Pansexual

  1. Hey– you’re okay. Thank you for sharing this– I know how hard it can be, coming from that environment and working out your own identity. I didn’t come out fully til I was 22, so, you’re not alone. Its your identity and your relationships, you get to choose how, if, or when you out yourself. Mostly, though, I just want you to know, you’re okay and you aren’t alone in this questioning

    • I really feel that there is too much pressure that people put on themselves to ‘come out’ to OTHER people. It is NOT a social requirement that you reveal to other people you’re not intimately involved with who it is you sleep with or don’t sleep with. For one, it’s rude for people to ‘pry’ into aspects of your life that are, inately, private. Between you and whomever it is you are involved with. For two, you don’t OWE anyone, not even family, such information. No one is under any obligation whatsoever to reveal the most private and intimate aspects of their lives. Especially as a legal, independent adult. You’re a grown woman now and can make your own decisions about who and who not is involved, even superficially, on areas of your life that you have a RIGHT to keep safe and private to yourself.

      Give yourself the freedom and permission to accept yourself and also allow yourself those same two things to change as you wish. You don’t have to make something that is fluid more concrete simply so others will be more comfortable with you. Personally, I feel it is a serious social faux pas, even amongst close friends, to snoop into the more private aspects of your life and you have every right to, nicely if you wish, let them know that your private business is just that: YOUR private business.

      Do not put yourself in a situation where you will be judged or shunned because you might feel like you are ‘supposed to come out’. That is an artifically created and driven expectation you are NOT required to comply with. If others wish to do so, that is certainly up to them to reveal but do not misinterpret that as something you too must adopt.

      I would never, ( read: NOT EVER ), ask someone a question that is essentially,”So, who do you like to sleep/fall in love with?”. That is, in my opinion, a highly intrusive thing to ask, even of a close friend. If someone wishes to discuss with me some personal aspect of their life, I will listen but it does NOT obligate ME to do the same. You are your own person; you are a grown woman; and, I assume, you pay your own bills. This absolves you, instantly, of revealing private areas of your life you might not feel comfortable just blarting out. I think with rapidly changing technologies and social networking, people have come to put these artificial expectations on themselves and so, by default, on each other. They ‘transfer’ such expectations sometimes without thinking about how intrusive they are. I don’t care what a person’s ‘orientation’ is. It has nothing to do with ME and as I’m not in their beds nor their partners in that way, it is none of my business. Nor mine, theirs.

      I believe in self-confidence. However, that comes from your character and ethics system as an individual which is a WHOLE, not just a part. Whoever you’re attracted to, date, f*ck, make love to, or co-habit with is only one aspect of your life, and, it’s a personal one. Just as what you do for a living does not define your entire person anymore than the car you drive does, your sexuality does not define you in entirety. So, maybe be careful about placing too many expectations on yourself that might be expectations you feel like you have to adopt just because other people do.

      Who I date is none of my family’s business. Whomever is with me when I see them is a person they can either like or not like. If they get ‘nosey’, I remind them that they are crossing a line that, since I’m an independent adult, they no longer have the ‘right’ to cross nor stick their noses into. Once you make that clear, then the inquiries will usually stop. If you place pressure on yourself to ‘tell’, sometimes that puts pressure on people you love to get into conversations that, honestly, after a certain point in Life are simply not worth the drama of getting into. If you know someone who’s mind is ‘set’ about what is right or wrong, moral or immoral, acceptable or not acceptable…my advice is not to bother YOURSELF by getting into it. Life is hard enough than to create drama that can be easily avoided. That’s just a way of saying,”Pick your battles wisely.” Look at it in terms of risk/reward. What is the return on investment if you do decide to discuss your private life. With ANYONE. If the payoff is minimal compared to the investment of time, confusion, etc etc then, imo, there’s no point in adding more stress to your life. You have a right to be and expect to be treated like an adult and that means your private business is YOUR private business.

      Really, the ONLY person(s) your orientation impacts are those you are intimately involved with. That’s it and that’s all. Think of it this way: Do you sit around with your Mom and discuss her heterosexuality all the time? Or your siblings? Probably not, because, again, it’s really none of your business anyway. Also, it would probably make YOU uncomfortable to talk about theirs, so that works in reverse too.

      I believe in Pride so long as it is not driven by participation created through even more social pressure to ‘behave’ a certain way; traditional or not. Just give yourself some breathing room on this subject that is personal to you and evolve naturally I’ve seen people ‘come out’ who did so more as a result of knowing others who ‘came out’ than as a result of them honestly weighing if it’s what THEY wanted for themselves. Don’t apply or accept pressures that you deem unecessary to living your life or deciding what it is you want for yourself and don’t ever forget that the individual things you do or whomever you love is only AN aspect of your self in its entirety.

  2. Me too! (Well, I identify as bi, but I don’t think bisexual means binary-only).
    You’re not alone in feeling like you need to “choose a side”. I often feel ashamed of my sexuality, though I’ve made some progress. There’s a strong cultural message saying that we don’t exist or we’re just greedy sluts or indecisive young things. The only way I’ve found to counteract it is to recognize it and actively resist that type of thinking. I also find it helpful to surround myself with positive messages about non-monosexuals though following feminist, bi-pride and queer blogs and befriending supportive people. It helps that I don’t have cable and use adblock to filter my internet so that I’m cut off from the general cultural misogyny that makes it harder to trust yourself as a woman. Not having people try to sell me stuff through my insecurities has increased my confidence and lessened my shame about everything, bisexuality included. also, here’s a link to some advice that might help you

    http://thehairpin.com/2012/08/racist-girlfriends-plush-closets-and-sufficiently-queer/

  3. And you absolutely have every right to ID as Pansexual, but… please don’t be one of those self-identified pansexual women who sleep with queer cis women, trans guys, FAAB transmasculine people, but “don’t happen to find trans women attractive” or “I haven’t found myself attracted to a trans woman yet.” Unfortunately, OK Cupid and many queer women’s spaces are populated by large numbers of people making/living such statements and they are NOT pansexual no matter what they want to believe. Saying one is attracted to the trans masculine or female assigned at birth genderqueer people doesn’t mean one is down with trans people… it means you’re down with a very specific part of the trans spectrum.

    Here’s why I think ID’ing as pansexual without practical life experience isn’t the same as ID’ing as straight without such. Straight is a very narrow, limited definition and it doesn’t take long to know to whom you’re attracted (whether you’ve had intimacy with them or not). But being pansexual means being attracted to a huge even infinite range of bodies and gender expression. By virtue of its very definition, one’s body, genital configuration and gender identity/expression shouldn’t even matter to one who is pansexual and, honestly, in the real world, I’ve met precious few people who actually fit that description. So, by all means, label yourself, but don’t be surprised if you meet people from different parts of the spectrum who remain skeptical of what pansexual means. Many of us have heard too many “I consider myself pansexual, but I don’t like… ” statements.

    • Yeah, this is why I never considered the “pan” identity. It is too infinitely broad to work for me. I don’t have a preference for the sex of partners but I do tend to prefer androgynous to masculine gender expression. “Bisexual” has its issues but I think that and “queer” come closest to the mark.

      • TJ, I really appreciate your honestly and self-reflection. I wish more people who thought about ID’ing as pansexual were as out front about that. Because I’ll tell you… it feels pretty shitty hearing someone say “I’m totally pansexual… except when it comes to people like you.” (of course, there’s a lot of hypocrisy in the queer community too especially as regards to trans women not to mention all women of color). I know “female-assigned-at-birth lover” sounds kind of transphobic and not nearly as hip but let’s face it, that’s where a large portion of the queer and pansexual community is really coming from. Again, a self-defined pan person who hasn’t had an intimate connection (I didn’t say necessarily sexual) to the full spectrum of the trans community is kind of making a theoretical label for themselves. If that’s what they wish to do, so be it, but don’t expect other trans and non-binary people, especially those the pan person doesn’t know from a hole in the ground, are going to respect it.

  4. I love this! A lot of this resonates with me, so thanks for putting it out there. It’s nice to see that other people feel the same things. Stay fab.

  5. Ugh you have no idea how much I needed to read this. I am also 21 and a college senior who has always considered myself to be heterosexual. But I keep finding myself in situations where, because I have only ever been with men, I don’t know if identifying as pansexual is right for me. I am a big believer in being attracted to a person and not their genitals and have often been attracted to various people on the LGBTQ* spectrum, and sometimes I wish I did not have to identify sexually at all haha. Straight always feels like such a narrow term and doesn’t explain that I’m open to being attracted to various types of people. When I like someone I like someone! Can I just identify my sexuality as “meh” and call it a day?

  6. I totally relate to this piece. You’ll figure things out in your own time. Lived experience may change the way you ID or it may confirm it. Don’t let people shame you into anything that doesn’t fit though. That goes for those who will inevitably say you aren’t gay enough and those for whom you won’t be straight enough.

    I laughed aloud to hear an early 20 something question coming out so “late.” I’m coming out at 35 and while I was busy feeling weird about that I met women who were coming out as lesbian or bisexual in their late 50s! Life circumstances and social/religious conditioning can make the journey longer or shorter for people but the journey is no less authentic because of it’s length.

    Best of luck to you!

  7. Thank you for writing this. It’s comforting to see other people going through the same things and makes you feel less alone. I totally understand how you feel about “coming out late” and questioning yourself because you “didn’t know since you were young.” I’m going through that now at 23. I came out to my close friends at 20/21 and just came out to my parents this past May. It’s definitely a crazy ride. But once you start to just let yourself be you, it gets a little easier to understand. When I started dating my first girlfriend, I kept telling myself she was the only girl I’d ever be attracted to. And then I told myself I was bi because I was confused and felt I needed a label. But after time, I just decided to be me and let the labels go. And if someone does ask about labels, I like to use the Kinsey scale to describe it a little better. I’m me and that’s all that matters. And coming from a girl who grew up in a small Ohio town, I really understand how you feel. After moving away for college and grad school, I was able to find myself and not get lost in the ideals of my small community. But anyway, best of luck to you!

  8. Lovely posting and great support in the comments. I’m almost 50 and 4 years ago when I “re-discovered” my sexuality after being married & having 3 sons I realized that gender no longer limited my choices. I found women just as attractive and desirable as men. True, not ALL women, but I think that even a straight person doesn’t find EVERY person of the opposite gender attractive, so I believe the qualifiers you hear the Pansexual person state may be about what PERSONALLY attracts them. Less about what type of gender attracts them.

    So label yourself as you feel best describes you and disregard what others say. And enjoy being who you are. You are one of the special ones. I truly believe there are some of us who are just more sexual than others. Our horizons are broader, our desires for experience extend beyond the norm and we tend to KNOW ourselves on a deeper level. When you take that and love it and own it there is a freedom and confidence that comes with it.

    Perhaps it is easier for us being girls. I know my boyfriend, who is bi-sexual, wishes he could come out but doesn’t want to deal with the hassles that would cause at work. If he was asked directly, I’m not sure he would lie, but I’m not sure he wouldn’t avoid the question. Although I think his work friends wouldn’t necessarily be surprised! lol

    But I meet many women and men who are exploring ALL parts of their sexuality at our age and it has less of the taboo it used to. Love and attraction are subjective to the person and sometimes no label or choice has anything to do with it.

    Great name btw :D

  9. Seconding earlier commenters in saying that early-twenties is not that late. I generally call myself “bisexual”, and I didn’t really come out until I started dating a girl at 23. I came to terms with my bisexuality while in my first relationship, which was a 6-year-fiasco with my male high-school-sweetheart. Originally I had planned to marry the guy, and so I figured that no one needed to know about my actual sexual preferences. When that relationship thankfully ended, I suddenly found myself with the option of dating women, and soon enough I got around to taking advantage of that.

    I was incredibly insecure when I first started dating women, because I was in my 20s and the furthest I had gone with a girl up to that time was a few kisses. What if I wasn’t *really* bi? What if I was just wanting to be special? Maybe I just wanted to look, not touch?

    But nope, as it turns out, it was totally not crazy to trust my own intuition about this. A year later, I’m still with my girlfriend. And I still enjoy sexy people of many genders. I skip the “pansexual” statement simply because it seems to get so many people bent out of shape. (See above commenters). I don’t personally KNOW many trans or genderqueer people. I find some of the non-binary people I see in queer porn or in other media attractive, but I can’t make any promises about who I would actually fall for in real life. I don’t think that should actually be a problem, I think my word should be enough… but it’s easier to go with “bi” or “queer” and not step on any toes.

  10. I’m probably gonna sound really lame right now, but thank you so much for writing this. I have been going through the exact same thing. I don’t feel so alone now. Thanks again.

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