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Changing the Way We Think: Janelle Monáe, Pansexuality, and HIV Risk

*WARNING: This post contains some explicit language that some readers may find offensive. Please stop here and move onto a different story if you are easily offended.

Last week, Janelle Monáe decided to let the world in on a little secret. It’s a secret that many of us who are fans of hers had already assumed. Showcasing her androgynous style and beautiful spirit that we have come to love, Janelle Monáe declared to the world that she is a “free-ass motherfucker.”

This is how she described herself in Rolling Stone magazine after acknowledging that she is indeed a queer black woman in America. When I heard this news my first reaction was: YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSSS!!!!!! Come on through, Janelle!!! We have been waiting for you.

Like I said, this came as no surprise to many of us, as we clocked her T a long time ago. But to see her saying it out loud made my heart happy on so many levels. I’m so glad that now she is truly free. Free to be authentic in every aspect of her life. And I believe that’s when artists give us their best work. She was a great talent before, but all of her next projects are about to be fire! This is already evident with her latest album, “Dirty Computer.” In it, we have powerful songs, a short film, dope music videos, high fashion, and Tessa Thompson. Speaking of which, we really need to talk about Tessa Thompson. I don’t know if they are just friends or in a romantic relationship, but whatever it is I am here for it! Their chemistry is undeniable and I want more of them in my life.

While Janelle has always been a strong presence, she is moving into a space where she can have impact in a different way. She can be a part of the conversation and experience of queer people of color, specifically black women. We live in a time where representation still matters. When black girls see somebody like Janelle Monáe being a part of the LGBTQ community, and comfortable in her own skin, it is powerful and can save lives.

And she didn’t just come out: she came out as Pansexual. Before last week many people had never even heard of the term, including people that may now use it to identify themselves. Pansexual means having sexual desire or attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation. This is not a new concept, but still foreign for many until now. Pansexual was the most searched word on Merriam-Webster’s website after Janelle Monáe came out. In one moment she provided visibility to an entire community just by being herself. Do you realize how powerful that is? I am certain that this will open the door to more young girls and boys, and probably some adults being able to see themselves and realizing who they are. I already know who I am and Janelle Monáe sharing her truth with the world as a queer black woman has given me an extra boost of confidence and pride. It feels really good to hear people in popular culture use terms to describe themselves that also describe who you are.

In terms of representation, bringing pansexuality to the forefront can also allow for deeper conversations about romantic attraction and sexual behavior. It can dismantle this idea that sexual behavior and attraction are always aligned. It is the idea that if you look a certain way you must identify a certain way and if you identify a certain way then you must behave a certain way. Throw all of that out the window. Just because you see a man and woman together, you can’t assume that they are both straight. Just because someone identifies as straight, don’t assume they only have sex with people of opposite genders. This is so important when it comes to how we view sexuality but also how we view HIV risk. If assumptions are made and the right questions are not asked, then there could be significant information that is missed. It is so vital to understand how the LGBTQ spectrum and sexual behavior intersect. Sexual orientation is about attraction, while sexual behavior is about a physical act.

Sometimes our behaviors align with who we are attracted to and sometimes they don’t. When it comes to HIV risk, it is the behaviors that matter. A woman may identify as a lesbian but be having sex with men for a means of survival and income. A person can identify as bisexual or pansexual but maintain a monogamous relationship with one person at a time. Sexual history and risk assessment should be about what behaviors someone engages in, not who they identify as. If you only ask someone their sexual orientation all you really have is who they are attracted to. To get to the heart of understanding risk you have to ask the right questions. Who do you have sex with or what gender are your sex partners? What type of sex do you have -vaginal, anal, oral? What prevention method do you use, if any? From there we can start to help people understand their own risk and that of their partners.

I only hope that as more people start identifying as pansexual, bisexual, or queer, that more people will realize that attraction and sexual behavior exist on a spectrum. We have to go beyond our own assumptions and judgments, and let people live freely. I applaud Janelle Monáe for coming out publicly and choosing to live her best life. Every time we do that we allow for more visibility, more understanding, and healthier communities. May we all live as free-ass mutherfuckers!