Today, singer, songwriter, rapper, producer, actor, and bisexual lighting auteur Janelle Monae came out as queer and pansexual in a cover interview with Rolling Stone magazine. Monae is known for her androgynous stage persona and more recent foray into acting, appearing in recent hits like Moonlight and Hidden Figures. Tomorrow, she is set to release her first album in five years, titled Dirty Computer.
The interview begins with a powerful definitive from Monae: “Being a queer black woman in America [as] someone who has been with both men and women, I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” She goes on to clarify that after originally identifying as bisexual, she later read and learned about pansexuality, realizing, “Oh, these are things that I identify with too. I’m open to learning more about who I am.”
While the terms “pansexual” and “bisexual” are often overlapped and sometimes even used interchangeably, the two mean very different things. While bisexuality is most commonly defined as being attracted to more than one gender, according to GLAAD, pansexuality means “being attracted to all gender identities, or attracted to people regardless of gender.” Or, as 17-year-old trans activist Jazz Jennings, who identifies as pansexual, told Cosmopolitan: “Being pansexual basically means to me that you are attracted to anyone, no matter their sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, everything. There’s no limits. I’ll date anyone.”
Monae joins a small but growing list of cultural figures, such as singer Miley Cyrus, rapper Angel Haze, and Texas House Representative Mary Gonzalez, who have also proudly come out as pansexual. While many have helped pave the way for greater pansexual visibility in recent years, pansexuality’s status as a sexual orientation is still largely misunderstood and often misrepresented in popular culture and traditional media.
According to “What’s in a Name? Exploring Pansexuality Online,” a study published in 2016 analyzing pansexuality and its mainstream representations, pansexuality does not have a “distinct identity in US culture” and is “often confused with bisexuality or portrayed negatively in media or popular press.” A 2013 study on pansexual identity also found that pansexuality was still a rare term within the LGBT community.
“Pansexuality as an identity has actually been around a lot longer than many would like to believe, we simply didn't give it a name,” explained Christopher K. Belous, an assistant professor at Mercer University School of Medicine and author of the “What’s in a Name?" study. “There are writings and stories going back millennia about people who were interested, attracted to, or had relationships with people regardless of gender or sexual expression.”
“Pansexuality needs to be normalized, it needs to be recognized, it needs to be validated as genuine, and Janelle Monae is another person who is going to help that happen"
In recent years, Belous has noticed that pansexuality as an identity and sexual orientation has grown more popular and he attributes that popularity in part to the growing list of mainstream actors and politicians who have come out as pansexual. “Pansexuality needs to be normalized, it needs to be recognized, it needs to be validated as genuine, and Janelle Monae is another person who is going to help that happen,” said Belous.
With pansexuality slowly gaining rank within societal consciousness, researchers are now attempting to learn more about the people who identify as pansexual. A 2016 study of 2,220 non-heterosexual individuals found that individuals “adopting pansexual identities were younger than those adopting lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities.”
When Miley Cyrus came out as pansexual in 2015, she told Paper Magazine that she is “literally open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn’t involve an animal and everyone is of age,” and she first called herself “fluid.” However, she later clarified to Elle UK that she identifies as “pansexual” and Google searches for the term subsequently spiked.
Once again, internet searches for “pansexuality” are on the rise. Only a few short hours after Monae’s announcement, Merriam-Webster revealed on Twitter that the term had become its top search query of the day as searches for the word had risen by 11,000 percent.
Though pansexual representation in media and pop culture may still be lacking, some who identify as pansexual say an offensive approach is needed to combat pansexual erasure, too. When Darius Hickman, a 22-year old Monae fan who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado and identifies as pansexual, learned about Monae’s pansexual coming out this morning, he was elated.
Hickman explained that since he has come out as pansexual, he hasn’t encountered many positive representations of pansexual individuals. “I frequent Tumblr and the internet blogspace and often I see pansexuality being treated more negatively than bisexuality,” said Hickman. “There’s often this stereotype that pansexual people are opposed to bisexuality, and a lot of that stems from how people view binary representations of sexuality.”
“It’s not common to hear people actively use the word pansexual and to have someone like Janelle Monae, who is already considered a queer icon, it’s just fantastic,” he said. “She is such a positive force for pansexual representation and with her coming out, I truly believe more people will not only learn about what pansexuality is, but also learn how to explore their own identities.”
Monae also sees her coming out as a positive force in the world. “I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you,” she told Rolling Stone. “This album is for you. Be proud.”