"Not How Labels Work" Comic

With all the talk of marriage equality, gay comic book weddings, and even gayer flowcharts flowing around the web, people are getting ever more sensitive about using inclusive language when they can.

That’s great!  But more often than ever I am hearing folks use the term “non-straight” to refer to people who are lesbian, gay, bi-, pan- or even trans*.  That’s not so great.

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The phrase “non-straight people” is certainly well-intended (I am guessing), but there are several problems it presents (and intentions don’t matter, outcomes do).  And while people seem to be more than ever in the mood to be inclusive, let me quickly run through a few key issues with “non-straight” in hopes of persuading you and yours to ditch “non-straight” and start calling people by the labels they use for themselves instead.

(Psst… you can also replace “non-straight” with “non-white” or other “non-[insert dominant group here]” labels people often use)

1. “Non-straight” creates two possible identities: straight and other

Most people take at least a bit of pride in their sexuality, so why rob them of that by describing their identity as not the dominant one?  My little brother’s name is Zak and I can tell you with absolute certainty it would bum him out if people started calling him “Non-Sam” because he came second and happens to be smaller.  Sure, he technically is “non-Sam,” but he’s also a helluva lot more “Zak.”

2. “Non-straight” makes queer seem even queerer

The term “non-straight” is one I would refer to as “reinforcing heteronormativity.”  Another way of putting that is that when people say “non-straight” they are establishing that straight is normal and everything else is abnormal.  Sheer numbers, popular media, and major religious organizations do enough to marginalize diversity of sexuality, we don’t need to add to that.

3. “Non-straight” is sexuality specific, ignoring trans* folks altogether

Most of the time when I’ve heard people use the term “non-straight” they are referring to the queer community as a whole, which includes sexual identities and gender identities.  Being a genderqueer or transgender person is unrelated to sexuality (read more about sexual orientation for a genderqueer person) — it’s a gender thing, which is different.

4. “Non-straight” is occasionally confusingly broad

Unlike in the last point, I have also heard people say their friend is “non-straight” instead of using the term “gay” or “lesbian” (or whatever their friend might be).  If your friend identifies as [IDENTITY], then you should identify them by calling them [IDENTITY].  “Gay” isn’t a bad word to call someone if that someone is gay, but it’s turned into a bad word because (as I hear myself saying a lot these days) most people are just using it wrong.

So what should I say instead?

If you are talking about an individual, use the term that individual uses to self-identify.  If you’re talking about a group (e.g., “gay men”) use the label the group uses.  And if you’re just plain unsure, or are talking about the LGBTQQPIAA+ community as a whole, fall back on one of many broad options: “the LGBTQ community,” “the GSM community,” “LGBT people,” “people who are queer,” “the queer community,” or “queer folks.”

*A quick note: as with any “rule” this one isn’t perfect. Many individuals and some groups (e.g., many people of color) may not identify with the term “queer.”  While it’s a good start (and better than “non-straight”), when in doubt fall back on the platinum rule.
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4 Reasons You Should Stop Saying “Non-Straight” shares