Why you should care
Post-millennials are challenging the gender binary when it comes to looking for love.
When Alyssa was growing up and trying to figure out her sexuality, she was never comfortable calling herself bisexual “for whatever reason,” she says. It was only when the woman she was dating came out as trans that Alyssa started learning about pansexuality. “I immediately felt like, ‘So this is what I am,’” the 23-year-old says.
When singer and actor Janelle Monáe came out as pansexual in April of last year, “pansexual” became the most searched word of the day on Merriam-Webster.com, with an 11,000 percent increase in lookups. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Asia Kate Dillon and others have brought the word into the mainstream, and forums like Tumblr and Reddit are full of discussions on pansexuality.
But this openness to sexual experiences outside of traditional gay or straight norms is generational … and it could indicate a future where, for more and more people, gender isn’t a factor in their decision about whom to date.
The proportion of U.S. young adults identifying as something other than entirely gay or entirely straight went up 17 percent between 2015 and 2018.
According to YouGov surveys, as of 2018, about 34 percent of young adults ages 18 to 34 identified themselves as something other than a 0 or a 6 on the Kinsey scale of sexuality, nearly five times the proportion of those age 55 and over. The Kinsey scale treats sexual desire as a continuum, 0 being completely straight with no same-sex attraction and 6 being completely gay with no opposite-sex attraction. The data in 2015 tracked a slightly younger age group, 18- to 29-year-olds.
In the same three-year time frame, the percentage of people in this group self-identifying as bisexual actually went down, from 10 percent to 7 percent, though that’s still seven times more likely to identify as bisexual than those in the oldest age group. Meanwhile, the 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report by the Human Rights Campaign found that the percentage of queer youth who identify as pansexual has doubled since 2012, to 14 percent, eating into the percentage that identifies as bisexual, which went from 38 to 34 percent. And this isn’t just stateside: Another YouGov survey, from 2015, found that 43 percent of British young adults identified as somewhere in the middle of the sexuality scale rather than as completely gay or straight.
“One of the reasons that the younger generation seem to be identifying as pansexual or fluid is to avoid the possibility that they’re excluding people by identifying as bisexual,” explains James Morandini, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sydney whose work has analyzed studies of how same-sex-attracted people identify themselves. “People are becoming more mindful of transgender issues and indicating that they’re open to partners who might not fall within the gender binary.” Indeed, a 2019 Pew Research Center study found that 35 percent of Generation Z respondents know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, compared with 25 percent of millennials. Morandini’s work, which surveyed thousands of nonheterosexual Australians on their identification, found that younger generations were more likely to identify themselves as queer or pansexual rather than bi.
Some who do identify as bisexual, however, have challenged those who see bisexuality as an enforcer of the gender binary. Faith Cheltenham, vice president of BiNet, posted on Facebook about what she calls the “label wars.” “I’m so sick of being told that I’m attracted to men and women and [living] inside a gender binary when my life and the lives of bisexuals are about busting binaries,” she wrote.
“When you truly love a person for who they are, it doesn’t matter what gender they identify with,” Alyssa says. For her, it’s all about human connection. Some dating apps are catching up too: OkCupid has offered pansexual along with a range of other orientation options since late 2014. But Tinder, which in 2016 rolled out myriad gender categories beyond male and female for users to identify with, has yet to expand the list of options for potential partners you want to view beyond male, female or “both.” Of course, there are dating options specifically for pansexual people — witness pansexualdating.org, though it will only help users meet other pansexual people.
According to a 2015 survey of teens in the U.K. and U.S., 81 percent agreed that gender doesn’t define people as much as it once did. “It is hearts, not parts,” Alyssa explains. “It is the human being you fall in love with, not what is in their pants.”
* Alyssa requested that OZY not use her last name.
Fiona Zublin contributed to the reporting of this article.