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4 Reasons You Should Stop Saying “Non-Straight”

by Sam Killermann · 17 comments

in Sexuality

"Not How Labels Work" ComicWith 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.

Written by Sam Killermann

Sam is a writer and performer who uses those skills as an ally to advance progress in the realms of LGBT equality and social justice. He tours the country speaking to college students about stereotypes, prejudice, and oppression, and writes for this site when he's at home in Austin, TX.

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  • Hillary Carter

    Ahhhh! That’s like “unsweetened tea” and “non-smoker!” Hal Sparks has a great bit about that. Don’t define me by something that you do that I don’t.

    • Samuel Killermann

      Thanks for the comment, Hillary.  I’m watching Hal Spark’s chunk about this now — very funny :)

  • Biggkattj

    I would personally argue about even using the term “queer”.  I grew up in a time when that was a severe insult.  Many people I know grew up in a time slightly before that when it was even worse.  And no, I don’t buy the whole “reclaiming the word” idea either.  If that were valid, then why don’t we call ourselves “homos” or “faggots” or even “fops”, or possibly “fans of musical theatre”?

    I think the biggest problem here is, we are actively TRYING to label ourselves in such a way that we are the ones creating the most division and derision in our community.  I mean, really, LGBTQQPIAA+? What the hell is all that about?
    Of course, we could be simply using the term “queer” in its classic sense, meaning “different”.  But why would we do that?  That is just enforcing stereotypes as well.  I’m really not all that different from anyone else.  Nor are you,  Nor is the person living 6 doors down the street from me.  But at the same time, we are all, every human on this planet, different.  Why, in that case, wouldn’t everybody in the world refer to themselves as “queer”.

    No, I am afraid that, although you mean well, you need to research a bit more, and understand that, to many people not of your generation, the term “queer” is very hurtful and possibly consider things a bit more before suggesting such a blanket solution.

    That being said, I think I’m going to go eat some non-coleslaw.  I’ll let you try and figure out what I’m having, but I can guarantee it won’t be coleslaw. ;)

    • Samuel Killermann

      This is a really well-thought-out comment and critique.  I appreciate you sharing.  In the past 5 – 7 years my response to “queer” has gone from gut-wrenching to pleasant, so I can likely understand a bit of where you’re coming from.

      The problem with all of this stuff (this stuff = everything I write about on this site) is it happens so fast and so counter-culturally that there isn’t much time to sit down and establish ground rules.  If we could come up with a new word and somehow achieve universal understanding, that would be fantastic.  I’d be 100% behind that, and I’d make cute little graphics to help.  Unfortunately, that’s not really possible.

      I think queer is the only “reclaim the word” movement I can see working, and for a few reasons.  One, as you mentioned, is the classical definition, and the fact that we can build on and utilize heteronormativity to our advantage: being queer is being “different,” because as most people know it now “non-different” is straight and cis-.  And while it was certainly a hurdle to get over the “smear the queer” memories and imagery, queer genuinely brings up positive feelings for me and my friends now (never thought that would happen).  I’ve seen people hurl “queer” at others and watched them smile and say “yep!” to the dismay and confusion of the would-be bigot.  The final reason I REALLY like “queer” is that it forces would-be allies to confront the inevitable amount of homophobia within themselves.  In order to really make all this hate go away, we have to unpack our own baggage first, and this is a step that most people choose to avoid.  It’s almost impossible to say “queer” and not feel a little whoozy in your belly, so it’s a great barometer.

      It’s tough.  And there’s no right answer, just some that are better than others.  If you can come up with a better one that queer, I’m all ears.  

      Annnnd is it salad?  Are you eating salad?  That’s my guess.  Well, salad or fried motorcycle tires. Both are non-coleslaw :)

      • Biggkattj

        Nah, I’m far closer to a carnivore than a salad eater, to be honest.  Had some pulled pork leftover from dinner last night.

        And, alas, I don’t know of a “better” term to use in this instance.  Other than, I prefer to refer to myself as “person”. :)

        • Samuel Killermann

          Well that’s definitely non-coleslaw.  And “person” is great.  I’m pro-person.

          • anne marie

            I’m so glad this conversation is taking place!!! I appreciate your writing which is concise and incisive!

      • Raymond Barrett

        I’m not sure how I feel about “sexual identity” in general. Defining yourself by who you’d have sex with seems like a relatively new concept, and it appears to create division more than anything else. When did sex change from something we did, to who we are? (I understand the relevance, politically – fighting against discrimination, etc. – but matters of identity are *personal* first.)

        That being said, I’m a 40 year old male, and, yes, I’ve been on the receiving end of insults like “faggot” and “queer.” As a teenager these words had a particular sting, since I was still trying to figure all of this ‘sex stuff’ out. But, now, I’m perfectly comfortable with the word “queer” as shorthand for anyone who identifies with the LGBTQ community.

        Is this just contributing to the labeling of LGBTQ folk as Other, and therefore not ‘normal’? I don’t know. But I like the idea of taking the power away from haters who want to hurt others with words.

  • Ruadhán J McElroy

    And not to mention the fact that with the word “straight” comes implications of “normal”.  “Straight” comes from early-20th Century criminal subcultures, and became a euphemism for heterosexual back when sodomy was still criminalised in the Anglosphere, and it’s still prevalent in drug-related subcultures.  “Scared straight” programs are not about taking kids to prisons in hopes of getting them to turn their lives around to heterosexuality.  Lee Hazelwood never once meant to sing “Some velvet morning when I’m heterosexual”.  The “straight-edge” scene is not a hardcore-punk offshoot for kids who don’t feel they need to have GBL sex to have a good time.

    “Straight” can mean law-abiding.  “Straight” can mean sober.  And when it’s used to refer to heterosexuality, it implicitly means “normal”.

    • Samuel Killermann

      Ah! What a great comment.  I haven’t yet written an article about the issues with the term “straight,” but I have a rough draft in the works.  When I publish it, you will likely be cited as one of my sources/inspirations.  Thanks, Ruadhán!

  • Quinn

    I haven’t actually used non-straight yet when trying to explain my sexuality to other people but it would make it a lot easier. I identify as Queer and explaining that to people isn’t as easy as if I was a lesbian. They assume I’m a lesbian if I say I’m Queer or they think I’m calling myself something offensive. So after a few confusing tries I thought up some short sweet things I could say so people could understand. Not straight is on that list because that’s the only thing straight people can understand. But I can understand why it’s problematic and would love some advice.

  • Warren Isaac

    Just FYI, on point #3, you say, “transgendered person,” which is not generally accepted in the trans* community as an appropriate thing to say. A better substitute would just be to leave off the “ed” and say, “a transgender person,” as “transgender” works just fine as an adjective. (“Transgendered” used to be the more politically correct term. As few as five years ago it was popular, so I understand why people get confused.)

    Some people feel that adding “ed” to “transgender” is making “transgender” a verb, when it doesn’t work like that. I personally don’t have a problem, but I figured you should know and maybe want to change it before anyone gets offended.
    I also want to thank you for being such an amazing ally to not only folks of sexual minorities, but also gender minorities as well. Often trans* people are left behind by sexual minority advocates, and you are one of the few people who actually advocate for all queer people. Thank you for all the work you do to make the world a little bit better for us.

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  • Pinquot

    I feel differently about this. While I am not in the habit of referring to myself as non-straight (I prefer plain queer, which if anyone asked for a short working definition I probably would have said “Not straight” though I think the meaning is more complex than that) and have not heard the phrase used more than a few times, I think it establishes that the whole idea of “straight” is what’s definition-obsessed — you can get outside that without some other concept “taking its place;” the need to see that as an “identity slot” you have to fill in one way or another is, to me, part of the whole label problem. Much as some see the idea of being “atheist” as still a capitulation to religion, another way to fill your presumed “religion blank” and so prefer to be nonreligious. The non-straight term just seems to me to make the whole sexuality less of a spectrum (which, however complex, is always binaristic) and more the glorious rainbow-cloud that it is. (And I’d never assume trans people were included in “non-straight,” or not on the basis of being trans anyway.) I’m probably not going to use it though because I wasn’t anyway.

  • Ruadhán J McElroy

    And if you’re just plain unsure, or are talking about the LGBTQQPIAA+ community as a whole, fall back on “people who are queer,” “the queer community,” or, my personal fav, “queer folks.”

    I can’t believe I missed this the first time around, but NO. I will not stand for the watering-down of the word “queer” because people like you “like it”.

    Not all GBLT folk are queer. Hell, most mainstream gay and lesbian characters are so painfully “straight” that it makes my teeth hurt. While there are certainly historical reasons for it, the TS/TG community pushing the notion that they’re “just like everyone else”, is not a queer act –it is an attempt to, frankly, un-queer that community in the public eye.

    To be queer is to revel in one’s differences —not to gloss over them cos it makes hets and cissies more comfortable.

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