the voice and vision of a new generation
Image credit: Kenneth Cole

My journey to finding my pansexuality

May 10, 2018

My journey to finding my sexual orientation has been a long one. It’s complicated for me because, as a trans man, how I understand my sexual orientation has shifted based on my gender.

I first came out as bisexual when I was 14 years old. At the time, I was presenting as a girl and my coming out allowed me to explain my newfound attraction to women. Before then, I had dated boys exclusively. In fact, before I came out, my mother even supported me going to an all-girls school because she thought there would be “less distractions” for me there. (Spoiler alert: That didn’t work out so well).

When I fell in love with a woman for the first time at 14, I was very unsure what that meant about my sexuality. It was already a confusing time, because I was just beginning as a freshman in high school. I had dated boys and I thought I had enjoyed it, but when I was with a woman, I felt like an entirely different person. It was passionate, it was intense… it was right. It was so right, in fact, that once I found lesbian culture, I felt at home and jumped in head first. As the only out student in an all-girls catholic school, I found culture by consuming media like The L Word and seeking out others with the same experience. I had rainbow hats, shirts, pants, even shoelaces. Looking back, the reason I identified so strongly with lesbian culture was because it gave me a space to express my masculinity.

It wasn’t that I was never attracted to men (even though I wouldn’t have admitted that to myself at the time), it was more that, when I was with a woman, I could hypothetically be seen by others as the “man” in the relationship. I didn’t have the language around being transgender yet to describe my experience, so “lesbian” felt like the label that fit best.

And then, when I was 18, I learned what it meant to be a transgender person. I remember sitting on YouTube and searching the word transgender. All of these videos of trans guys popped up and as I watched them, I knew immediately it was me. I had no idea that I could align my inner and outer self and yearned for the day when I could find congruence between them.

In the beginning of my transition as I was beginning undergrad, I was very determined to be “just like any other guy.” I dressed conservatively, I dated women exclusively, and even wanted to join a fraternity. I wanted to fade in the background like a straight, cisgender man because, up until that point in my life, that hadn’t really been an option. I had been visibly queer for almost all of my teenage years, but now I was basking in the idea of the safety that comes with being read as “normal.” Because of this, I buried my attraction to men deep down inside. And even more – I continually asked myself: What gay man would want to be with me?

After a couple of years on hormones, however, my thoughts changed. The more I felt comfortable with myself and the idea of still being a part of the queer community, the more I felt empowered to express my attraction to men. And being with men this time around was different: I could still be a man when I was with other men. It opened up a whole new world of attraction.

Shane and his partner, Jess. Image credit: Caleb Essenthier

But it wasn’t just men… it was women, non-binary folks, trans folks, gender non-conforming folks, and agender folks. After my transition, genitals and gender began to seem arbitrary. I realized through my transition that gender and sexuality are complicated, and I feel best when I’m not limiting myself to a significant other with a certain gender or experience. I know I have the capacity to be attracted to all types of genders and experiences. Humanity is so beautiful and I can find something to admire in every person.

When people ask me about what it’s like to be pansexual, the best way that I can describe my pansexual identity is using a fun and helpful metaphor; it’s like how I feel about potatoes. No matter how you make potatoes, they are all delicious. Sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, French fries, home fries, tater tots, chips etc… I like them all! This is how I feel about genders. They are all unique and fantastic in their own ways.

For all of those who may have been struggling to find the word that matches their experience, they know now that pansexuality means the attraction to all genders and/or regardless of a person’s gender. I’ve been sitting with this experience of my sexuality for many years, and then Janelle Monáe comes out to the world as pansexual… and it rocked my entire world.

Almost every time I’ve come out to someone as pansexual (a person who has the capacity to be attracted to any and all genders), they haven’t known what it is or really been able to understand it. There has been little to no fair or accurate representation of notable pansexual folks in the media, so having someone as influential, talented, and well-respected as Janelle Monáe come out as pansexual is huge. Seeing her share her experience validated me in so many ways. Finally, we have a pansexual role model to look up to. For all of those who may have been struggling to find the word that matches their experience, they know now that pansexuality means the attraction to all genders and/or regardless of a person’s gender. Janelle helped launch pansexual representation to new heights.

For instance, the day that she came out, Merriam-Webster tweeted out that “pansexual” was their top search of the day.

So, to all of my fellow pansexuals, you are not alone! You are seen, you are heard, and you are loved. And Janelle – thank you for representing us and helping others understand what this experience is like. I’m so looking forward to the day when pansexuality is understood and accepted by all people.

Shane Henise is a Campaigns Manager at GLAAD. He focuses on creating campaigns that highlight and support the trans community. Shane recently received his Ed.M from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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