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Can Androids Be Pansexual?

Answers to all your burning questions about Janelle Monáe’s momentous coming-out.

Janelle Monae attends the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party following the 90th Academy Awards at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California. She wears a red, tailored suit jacket, her short hair slicked into a curl.
Ta-da!
Jean-Baptiste Lacroix / Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Today in Epic Queer News, otherworldly songstress Janelle Monáe officially came out in a piece in Rolling Stone. Amid questions about her late mentor Prince, her new album Dirty Computer, and her meteoric career, Monáe finally answered a question that’s preoccupied fans for a decade: Is she into ladies? Instead of evading the personal subject, the notoriously private singer answered in the affirmative, calling herself “a queer black woman in America.”

Well that’s cool … but wait: I thought Monáe was an android?

Joke’s on you: She’s both. If you are particularly obsessed with Janelle’s albums The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady (like me), you already know that her Afro-futuristic android persona Cindi Mayweather offered Monáe her first foray into queerdom. In an MTV interview about The ArchAndroid, Monáe said, “I love speaking about the android because they are the new ‘other.’ People are afraid of the other … The first album [Cindi] was running because she had fallen in love with a human and she was being disassembled for that.”

Cindi reappears in The Electric Lady, which busts down the doors with a Prince collab before leading into Erykah Badu feature “Q.U.E.E.N,” a song that sports lines like, “Even if it makes others uncomfortable/ I will love who I am,” “Categorize me, I defy every label!” and “Hey brother can you save my soul from the devil/ Say is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?” Turns out “Q.U.E.E.N.” used to be even Q.U.E.E.R.-er, too, according to the revelatory Rolling Stone story: “The original title of ‘Q.U.E.E.N.,’ [Monáe] notes, was ‘Q.U.E.E.R.,’ and you can still hear the word on the track’s background harmonies.”

Basically, that discography plus Ms. Monáe’s penchant for suits made a lot of people think a coming-out was inevitable.

Gotcha. So why is she coming out now if everybody already sorta knew?

Coming out is a very personal decision, so it’s no surprise Janelle wasn’t out-out for a long time. In the interview, she says Dirty Computer is largely a reaction to her family members who say that all gay people are going to hell. Plus, coming out is a continuous process, not a one-time event—Janelle admits she’s not even totally out to her enormous Kansas family: “I literally do not have time to hold a town-hall meeting with my big-ass family and be like, ‘Hey, news flash!’ “

That said, we wouldn’t be reporting on this if it wasn’t fantastic news! Since Janelle is a person, she has to deal with the anxiety of coming out just like anybody else; but since she’s a celebrity, her outspokenness offers an important model for closeted admirers everywhere.

So what is she, exactly? The RS article says she “initially identified as bisexual,” but implies that changed after she read about pansexuality.

Let’s get one thing straight (er, or not)—Janelle is whatever Janelle wants to be. It’s not up to us to categorize her. Haven’t you been listening? She will defy every label! Plus, in the interview, she says she once identified as bisexual, but then also identified with aspects of pansexuality. In her words, “I’m open to learning more about who I am.” It sounds like she’s on a journey that may or may not end at a particular label. But, yeah, she “has been in relationships with both men and women,” so at the very least we can say she’s living under the broad non-monosexual umbrella.

But aren’t “bi” and “pan” effectively the same thing?

This is a well-worn debate in the LGBTQ community, and it ultimately depends on who you ask. Some people use “pan” because they believe it’s more inclusive of trans and non-binary identities, since the prefix “bi” could be read as suggesting desire for only the two genders of the male and female binary. According to Vera Papisova at Teen Vogue, though bisexuals can be attracted to both men and women, pansexuality is “transcendent of gender, meaning: it isn’t limited by gender … or sex.” Some think that’s an insulting definition that implies bisexual people can’t be attracted to trans or nonbinary people, in the process framing pansexuals as more politically enlightened than bisexuals. In a piece for the bisexual advocacy site bisexual.org, Eliel Cruz argues that “bisexuality isn’t binary. It means attraction that isn’t limited to one gender. If that sounds very similar to the definition of pansexual, that’s because it is.”

To wit: Some consider “bisexual” to be an umbrella term that encompasses all multi-gender-attracted individuals, while others feel limited by the label, particularly because of the overlapping and evolving conversation around gender diversity.

She also calls herself a “queer black woman.” Is “queer” another side of this bi vs. pan debate?

It can be. Lots of people use “queer” to simply mean “not straight,” however, and it seems that’s what Janelle is doing here. “Queer” is often intended as a non-labelling label. Still, for whatever reason, a lot of people seem to hear “bisexual” when they hear “queer,” so some people (like lesbian me) avoid using it.

This fluid terminology stuff kinda reminds me of Madonna “flirting” with bisexuality to be cool. Is there something about celebrity that turns you bi?

Is there something about being in the public patriarchal gaze that encourages you to enact the No. 1 PornHub search, fake lesbianism? Your local no-fun-allowed lesbian says, “Duh.”

But that’s definitely not what’s happening with Janelle. For one, there are plenty of female celebrities who are actually bi/pan, not just into women as a publicity stunt (see: Demi Lovato, Kehlani, Miley Cyrus, Angelina Jolie). For two, Janelle’s career strongly indicates she was always going to arrive here. Sure, she’s all up on Tessa Thompson in her latest videos, but this doesn’t look like “bi chic” to me. Janelle’s work has been about social difference, searching for utopian free love, and wearing bomb suits for the past decade. This is just her finally making it official.

OK! Thanks for the queer infighting rundown and android history lesson, but let’s get down to the most important part of this: Are Janelle and Tessa Thompson really a thing?

Sadly, she still will neither confirm nor deny. But, come on, we’ve all seen the “Pynk” video.