Non-heterosexual is an umbrella term for homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual and other people whose sexual orientation and/or identity is not heterosexual. The term helps define the "concept of what is the norm and how a particular group is different from that norm". Non-heterosexual is used in feminist and gender studies fields as well as general academic literature to help differentiate between sexual identities chosen, prescribed and simply assumed, with varying understanding of implications of those sexual identities. The term is similar to queer, though less politically charged and more clinical; queer generally refers to being non-normative and non-heterosexual. Some view the term as being contentious and pejorative as it "labels people against the perceived norm of heterosexuality, thus reinforcing heteronormativity". Still others note non-heterosexual is the only term useful to maintaining coherence in research and suggest it "highlights a shortcoming in our language around sexual identity"; for instance, its use can enable bisexual erasure.
Many gay, lesbian and bisexual people were born into cultures and religions that stigmatized, repressed or negatively judged any sexuality that differed from a heterosexual identity and orientation. Additionally the majority of heterosexuals still view non-heterosexual acts as taboo and non-conventional sexual desires are generally hidden entirely or masked in various ways. Non-heterosexual is more fully inclusive of people who not only identify as other than heterosexual but also as other than gay, lesbian and bisexual. Some common examples include same gender loving, men who have sex with men (MSM), women who have sex with women (WSW), bi-curious and questioning. Non-heterosexual is considered a better general term than homosexual, lesbian and gay, LGBT or queer for being more neutral and without the baggage or gender discrimination that comes with many of the alternatives. For instance, until 1973, the American Psychological Association listed homosexual as a mental illness, and it still has negative connotations.
Non-heterosexual is found predominantly in research and scholarly environments possibly as a means to avoid terms deemed politically incorrect like lesbian, dyke, gay, bisexual, etc. that lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people use as self descriptors. When used by those who don't identify as LGB or when used by LGB people disparagingly, the terms are generally considered pejorative, so non-heterosexual is a default and innocuous term unlikely to offend readers. For example, the Kinsey scale can be divided between those exclusively heterosexual and everyone else. The term has come into more prominence in the academic field starting in the 1980s and more prominently in the 1990s with major studies of identities of non-heterosexual youth and a smaller number of studies specifically looking at non-heterosexual college students. Non-heterosexual is also used to encompass transgender and intersex people, because although these are gender identities rather than sexual identities, they are within the LGBT and queer umbrella communities. Additionally, non-heterosexual encompasses a wide variety of terms used by different cultures whose own terms might never neatly translate to a homosexual or bisexual identity; for researching and extrapolating data it is a practical and accepted term.
In a 2004 book that integrates "the academic disciplines of cinema studies, sociology, cultural and critical studies" regarding the Big Brother phenomena, non-heterosexual was used as a universal term to help compare information from over thirty countries. In exploring and studying the emerging field of gay, lesbian and bisexual seniors, non-heterosexual is a default term to demonstrate that the "vast majority" of literature assumes that older people are heterosexual and makes "no effort" to explore the experiences and attitudes of those who are not. In Welfare and the State the authors describe the perceived advantages of lesbians in the workplace as they, in theory, wouldn't have children so would be advantageous to the labor force. The authors point out, however, that not only do many lesbians have children but they routinely identify as heterosexual through much of their lives or at least until their children are old enough that a non-heterosexual identity would not greatly impact their families negatively.
Non-heterosexual is also used when studying lesbian and gay families and family structures. It came into wider use in this context when the AIDS pandemic's impact on gay male communities was being explored as many gay men created families out of extended networks of friends and these became their support systems.
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