‘Android’ Janelle Monáe comes out as pansexual

Cybergirl: For years, Janelle Monáe kept up the persona of an android named Cindi Mayweather.

Do labels matter? For years, singer Janelle Monáe insisted that she “only dates androids”. Now, in an interview with Rolling Stone, she has said that she is pansexual. What does that mean?

In the music video for her single Make Me Feel, Janelle Monáe is dancing with her rumoured girlfriend, Tessa Thompson. She then runs comically into the arms of a man. Then she runs back to Thompson, as if unable to choose between them. The scene is flooded in blue and pink light.

When it came out in February, the song was hailed by fans as a bisexual anthem. Now, Monáe’s album Dirty Computer has been released, accompanied by a science fiction “emotion picture”. And for the first time, Monáe has spoken openly about her sexuality.

In an interview with Rolling Stone on Thursday, she said that while she had once identified as bisexual, “later I read about pansexuality and was like, ‘Oh, these are things that I identify with too.’”

She said the new album was for “young girls, young boys, non-binary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality… Be proud.”

What is pansexuality exactly? The Merriam-Webster dictionary (which had an 11,000% increase of searches for the term after the interview was published) defines it as “sexual desire or attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity.”

But sexologist Carol Queen told Teen Vogue that “there is no exact definition” of the term. In general, she explained, pansexual people “just don’t rule a person out because of gender,” whereas bisexual people are specifically attracted to two genders or more.

For years, Monáe avoided coming out. But in a YouTube interview this weekend, she said the 2016 election had changed her perspective as a queer black woman. “I felt a deeper responsibility to telling my story... if we don’t tell our stories they won’t get told. If we don’t show us, we won’t get shown.”

In a YouGov survey in 2015, less than half of 18 to 24-year-olds in the UK said they were wholly heterosexual, but only 6% said they were gay. Increasingly, as Monáe once did, young people are refusing to label their sexuality.

Are labels important?

Outside the box

Not at all, say some. Monáe was not alone; celebrities from the singer Miley Cyrus to the playwright Alan Bennett have avoided labelling themselves in public. Forcing people to “pick a side” is unfair, and it ignores the fact that sexuality is often fluid and complex. In a way, we are all pansexual; it is the people we like that matter, not their gender.

Labels are useful, argue others. Firstly, they help people to find communities that understand them. Secondly, they play a big part in the fight for equal rights; for many years, being visibly “out and proud” was a way of challenging prejudices. Labels are the simplest way to do that, and rejecting them risks undoing decades of progress.

You Decide

  1. Why do so many people resist labelling themselves?
  2. Should society stop using labels for gender and sexuality?

Activities

  1. As a class, suggest all the labels you can think of that describe someone’s sexuality and write them on a board. Are there any you don’t understand? Look up the definitions and explain to the rest of the class.
  2. Much of Janelle Monáe’s work is set in the future. She is particularly interested in robots, androids and how technology can be used to control human emotions. Write your own song, short story or film script inspired by these ideas.

Some People Say...

“Homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man.”

Simone de Beauvoir

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In August 2015, YouGov asked Britons to rate themselves on a sexuality scale, with 0 being completely straight and 6 being completely gay. Only 72% of people rated themselves as 0. Among 18 to 24-year-olds, 49% rated themselves as such, and 43% put themselves somewhere between 1 and 5. “With each generation, people appear to see their sexuality as less fixed in stone,” said YouGov.
What do we not know?
What percentage of those who rated themselves between 1 and 5 would describe themselves as bisexual, pansexual or something else. We also do not know why more young people identify as queer or bisexual than older generations. Some say it is because they have more role models like Janelle Monáe to look up to. Others think that rejecting old labels is partly a political statement.

Word Watch

Blue and pink
A trend that some online have have dubbed “bisexual lighting”. (The bisexual pride flag is blue, purple and pink.)
Science fiction
The short film is about a dystopian future in which people are labelled “computers”, and their memories are erased in order to make them “clean”.
Non-binary
Someone who does not define as male or female. To read more about this, see our related article about 15-year-old Xanthe, below.
Queer
Often used as an umbrella term for any sexuality which is not straight. Although the word was once used as an insult to gay people, it has since been “reclaimed”.
Miley Cyrus
“We love putting people in categories, but what I like sexually isn't going to label me as a person,” Cyrus said in 2015. The next year, she came out as pansexual.
Alan Bennett
The playwright has been in a relationship with a man for many years, and they have a civil partnership. However, in 1993, he spoke about being in a relationship with a woman. In 2014, he said he had never officially labelled himself because he “didn’t want to be put in a pigeonhole” as a gay writer.

Subjects