Who Is a Sexual Minority?

The term sexual minority is used primarily by people who work in social services and by social scientists studying different populations.  When these people talk about sexual minorities they are usually referring to people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender.

It’s a bit of a confusing term because sex and gender are not the same thing. A persons gender identity doesn’t tell you anything about their sexual orientation.  Which makes it a little strange that three of the four groups usually placed under this umbrella term have to do with orientation and one has to do with gender.

To make sense of it let’s move away from terminology and lingo and try to understand why the term exists in the first place.

Why Do We Need to Talk About Sexual Minorities At All?

Depending on your perspective and experience in the world, the idea that you can categorize a whole group of people based on being a minority was either introduced as a way to advocate for greater balance and equity in the world or as a way of controlling large groups of people whose interests were not the same as the majority.

The most common way we talk about minorities in the U.S. is in the context of race.  But once homosexuality was removed from the DSM and was no longer considered a mental illness by the medical establishment, social service providers and researchers began considering the health of people who were gay, lesbian, and bisexual (although in reality usually ignoring bisexuals altogether), and asking questions about what impact being a minority had on ones health and wellbeing.

More recently the term sexual minority has come to include trans people because their gender identity is also, statistically, in the minority.  Because gender identity isn’t the same as sexual identity, some people have started using the term “gender and sexual minority” instead  of just sexual minority.

Pros of the Sexual Minority Framework

The way that a society and culture systemically discriminates against and restricts access to basic rights for some individuals is not, in fact, an individual matter.  It happens to entire groups of people, based on things like their race, class, and religion, as well as their gender and sexual orientation.

The main benefit of talking about sexual minorities is that it allows us to see perhaps more clearly the way that people who do not read or fit in as gender normative and heteronormative are routinely discriminated against and subjected to greater violence in society.

it is also probably the case that creating a framework of sexual minority has given more weight to the health disparities and other systemic disadvantages of millions of people while at the same time legitimaizing research about them in science and medicine.

Cons of the Sexual Minority Framework

Maybe the biggest problem with the term sexual minority is that while it may be used in the interests of helping people, it’s not a term that anyone would probably choose to describe themselves, and it certainly isn’t a term that was developed from inside a particular community.  Instead, more or less, it’s a term used by majority culture to describe others.

This may be politically useful, but it’s rarely empowering, and when it comes to sexual and gender identities, one of the main ways people are made to feel marginalized and ashamed is by denying their right to describe their own experience.  This is one of the reasons why acronyms like “LGBTQ” are much more commonly used by people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, among other identity labels.

Another problem with the term is that it doesn’t account for the fact that gender identity and sexual orientation are independent and separate (although related) experiences of who we are.  Trans activists have written and spoken out clearly about the ways that their experience of being marginalized are quite different from the ways gays and lesbians have been marginalized.  It is not a question of one group being more or less oppressed than another, but rather that the way systems deal with sexual orientation are different than the way they deal with gender.

Another problem with the term is that it leaves some groups out without really addressing why.  Groups like people who identify with BDSM are at higher risk of losing employment, having their kids taken away from them, and losing custody following divorce.  Another group of people who identify as polyamourous face similar discrimination and may also identify themselves as a sexual minority, despite not being included in the term by those in power who use it.

So, Is the Term Sexual Minority Okay?

It’s helpful to know the term and understand a bit of the history of it, but if you are talking about an individual, or even a group, I would still recommend using a term that the person or group themselves use.  Even though the word gay is still used as an insult and slur, gay men have clearly chosen to use that word, and use it with pride.  The same can be said for lesbian, queer, trans, and others.

The term sexual minority may be useful in certain contexts but if your goal is to speak with respect, and to use language in a way that helps individuals and groups, it’s your responsibility to know something of why the language you use may be minimizing or hurtful.

This article has been originally published by Sexuality About Com.

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