In 1990, I was seven years old. Disney had just released The Little Mermaid, which was the first in a line of films that would define my childhood. There is a scene in which Ariel flings her hair back after coming out of the water, which seven-year-old me was obsessed with and couldn't say why. I remember thinking, Prince Eric was OK. But Ariel? What a hot piece of tail! My unexplained love for Ariel would then spark a lifelong obsession with red-headed women.
In fact, my childhood crushes have always been confusing. Still on the Disney front, Belle from Beauty and the Beast was my ideal. Brains and beauty: the whole package. At the same time, I was also into the fox from Robin Hood. Handsome, resourceful, playful and generous. What a fox!
Little did I know back then, that the term for my attraction to someone’s personality regardless of biological sex, gender, or gender identity meant that I was pansexual. Back then I thought that my attraction to women meant that I was gay. And I knew that growing up in a very strict Vietnamese Catholic family meant I was most certainly not allowed to be gay. So as a teenager, I suppressed my attraction to women.
Little did I know back then, that the term for my attraction to someone’s personality regardless of biological sex, gender, or gender identity meant that I was pansexual.
Ironically, when Ellen came to dominate the daytime television screens, my mum loved her. She would watch Ellen interview celebrities and dance-walk downstairs and laugh and laugh. When she finished laughing, she would always ask, presumably God or the universe, “But why lesbian, Ellen?” Even though she loved Ellen, she couldn’t understand why she would “choose to be gay”. So I knew that if I came out as pan, (if I understood that about myself back then) that she would not get why I’d “choose to be attracted” to both sexes. What my parents couldn’t grasp, of course, is that attraction isn’t a choice. In the same way that heterosexuals can’t choose opposite-sex attraction; gay, lesbian, bi, queer or pansexuals can’t choose who they are attracted to, they just are.
I did go through a stage in my 20s where I thought I might be bi. I had met a new group of queer friends. At the time, I identified as queer. It was a term that I was comfortable with (even though I was still not comfortable enough to tell my parents). I knew for sure I did not identify as straight — so queer seemed to be entry-level appropriate. I was 21 and marching with my new friends in the Mardi Gras. My friend Tina*, who, at the time identified as a lesbian, asked me if I wanted to make out with her. I told her I did, and we kissed in front of a cheering crowd as part of the Mardi Gras parade. That, right there, was my first kiss.
Around the same time I was hanging out with Tina, I was also close to Sam*. A sweet, thoughtful, softly spoken boy, who just came out as gay. I knew he wasn’t going to be into me and didn’t expect my crush to be reciprocated. But here’s the thing with sexuality. These days, most of us realise it’s not binary. It’s not black and white. It’s not that you either are or you’re not straight or gay. In my experience, sexuality is fluid. For me, sometimes I meet a girl and might think, I am 100 per cent gay for you. Sometimes I meet a guy and think, I am 100 per cent straight for you. With Tina and Sam, ironically, they ended up together. They are now married years later with two beautiful children. But even though they are in a straight-presenting couple, they are far from heteronormative.
For me, sometimes I meet a girl and might think, I am 100 per cent gay for you. Sometimes I meet a guy and think, I am 100 per cent straight for you.
I ended up in a similar type of relationship. At 25, I met and fell in love with Andrew. He was and still is my best friend. We tell each other everything. He is my partner, my confidante, my lover, my friend. I would often tell him, if he woke up the next day a woman, I would still want to be with her. He unfortunately, would not reciprocate. Andrew is straight. He tells me, “You’re lucky you were born a woman because if you were a man I would not be with you. I can offer you friendship but that’s it.” If I were a man I would be secretly in love with my best friend in the hopes that one day he would reciprocate. I guess it worked out for both of us that I happen to have been born a woman.
But even when I thought I was bi, and in a straight-passing relationship, I still couldn’t say that out loud to my parents. It took both my parents to die before I felt comfortable enough to say I was bi.
And yet, deep down, I knew the term still didn’t feel quite right. It wasn’t until my 21-year-old cousin, upon hearing me tell her all the different people I currently have crushes on, suggested, “Hey I think you might be pan” — that rang a bell for me. So at 37, I felt I have found a term I identify with, that most fits my sexual identity. I’m even comfortable enough to say it out loud, “Dear world, I am pansexual”. If only Mum and Dad could hear.
*Names have been changed