In the culture I live in, society has tended to assume all people are straight and cisgender by default. But people can have a huge range of different gender identities (or no gender identity) and different orientations.
A person’s orientation has to do with who they’re attracted to. This is distinct from gender identity, which is about a person’s sense of self. You can learn more about the differences between those things here.
There are a lot of different orientations. Some of them often get confused with each other—especially the ones that involve attraction to people beyond just one other gender.
Bisexual and pansexual are two of the more well-known orientations that involve attraction to multiple genders. There’s also omnisexual and polysexual, which you may not have even heard of until just now.
If you’re new to this, it can be confusing. I understand this confusion first hand. When I first came out, I used the word “bisexual” to describe myself, but it turns out pansexual more accurately describes me, and I didn’t learn that until later.
All these terms have some overlap with each other, but each also has its own distinctions. In this post, I break each one down to help demonstrate their differences.
The prefix “bi” in the word bisexual comes from Latin, and it means “two.”
You may have heard bisexual described as someone who is equally attracted to women and men, or as someone who is attracted to both their own gender and a different gender.
While these are both ways to be bisexual, the word itself describes something more broad.
Bisexual describes a person who is attracted to people of two or more genders. This could include any set of genders (not excluding agender people, who have no gender).
A bisexual person could be attracted to women and men, men and agender people, women and feminine nonbinary people … you get the picture.
The thing that distinguishes bisexual people from pansexual people is that gender is a factor in their attraction (more on this in the pansexual section).
People of any gender can be bisexual.
This word is often shortened to just “bi.”
Because bisexual was the first of the terms on this page to come into being, it’s often used as an umbrella term to describe the community of everyone who experiences attraction to folks across multiple genders. It’s the “B” in LGBTQ.
When used as an umbrella term, you may sometimes see it as “bi+”.
The prefix “pan” in the word pansexual comes from Greek, and it means “all.”
A pansexual person can be attracted to anyone, regardless of their gender identity (or lack thereof).
This doesn’t mean they’re attracted to everyone. Pansexual people are attracted to people’s minds/souls, and gender is not a factor in their attraction. This is what distinguishes them from the others on this page.
People of any gender can be pansexual. I’m an example of a pansexual person, and I’m agender.
This word is often shortened to just “pan.”
Omni is a Latin prefix that means “all.” Yes, “pan” means all, too. Hang in there—the distinction does make sense.
An omnisexual person can be attracted to people of any gender identity (or absence of gender identity), but unlike pansexual, gender is a factor in their attraction. It’s not regardless of gender, like pansexual. Gender itself is a contributor to an omnisexual person’s sense of attraction.
People of any gender can be omnisexual.
Since bisexual includes people who are attracted to two or more genders, there’s an overlap between the bisexual and omnisexual definitions, and some people often identify with both labels. Omnisexual is just more specific, as it includes people who can be attracted to folks of all genders—and bisexual is more broad, since it extends that group to include people who can be attracted to two or more.
This word is often shortened to just “omni.”
What is polysexual?
The prefix “poly” in polysexual comes from Greek, and means “many.”
A polysexual person finds people of many genders attractive, but not all genders. Like bisexual and omnisexual, gender is an attraction factor for polysexual people.
This orientation is distinct from pansexual and omnisexual, but some people may identify with both the bisexual and polysexual label simultaneously, since attraction to many genders is included in the “two or more” definition of bisexual.
Polysexual people may be of any gender identity.
This word is sometimes shortened to just “poly,” but that gets confusing, because “polyamorous” is often shortened that way, too. That’s why many polyamorous folks are beginning to use “polyam” to distinguish them.
And now you know the differences between bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, and polysexual.
Is there information missing from this article? I’m always learning, too—so I welcome additional resources and context. Drop me a comment.