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DVD Cultural Diversity: Treating the LGBTQ "Coming Out" Conflict
LGBTQ continuing education counselor CEUs

Section 25
Using "Politically Correct" Sexual Preference Language
with Your Clients

CEU Question 25 | CE Test | Table of Contents | Homosexuality
Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, MFT CEUs

Problems of Terminology
Problems occur in language concerning lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons when language is too vague or concepts are poorly defined. There are two major problems of designation. First, language may be ambiguous in reference, so that the reader is not clear about its meaning or its inclusion and exclusion criteria. Second, "homosexuality" has been associated in the past with deviance, mental illness, and criminal behavior, and these negative stereotypes may be perpetuated by bias.

1. Sexual orientation is a preferred term for psychological writing over "sexual preference" and refers to sexual/affectional relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual people. The word "preference" suggests a degree of voluntary choice that is not necessarily reported by lesbians and gay men and that has not been demonstrated in psychological research.

The terms "lesbian sexual orientation," "heterosexual sexual orientation," "gay male sexual orientation," and "bisexual sexual orientation" are preferable over "lesbianism," "heterosexuality", "homosexuality", and "bisexuality", respectively. The former terms focus on people and some of the latter terms have in the past been associated with pathology.

2. Lesbian and gay male are preferred to the word "homosexual" when used as an adjective referring to specific persons or groups, and lesbians and gay men are preferred terms over "homosexuals" used as a noun when referring to specific persons or groups. The word "homosexual" has several problems of designation. First, it may perpetuate negative stereotypes because of its historical associations with pathology and criminal behavior. Second, it is ambiguous in reference because it is often assumed to refer exclusively to men and thus renders lesbians invisible. Third, it is often unclear.

The terms "gay male" and "lesbian" refer primarily to identities and to the modern culture and communities that have developed among people who share those identities. They should be distinguished from sexual behavior. Some men and women have sex with others of their own gender but do not consider themselves to be gay or lesbian. In contrast, the terms "heterosexual" and "bisexual" currently are used to describe identity as well as behavior.

The terms "gay" as an adjective and "gay persons" as a noun have been used to refer to both males and females. However, these terms may be ambiguous in reference since readers who are used to the term "lesbian and gay" may assume that "gay" refers to men only. Thus it is preferable to use "gay" or "gay persons" only when prior reference has specified the gender composition of this term.

Such terms as "gay male" are preferable to "homosexuality" or "male homosexuality" and so are grammatical reconstructions (e.g., "his colleagues knew he was gay" rather than "his colleagues knew about his homosexuality"). The same is true for "lesbian" over "female homosexual", "female homosexuality", or "lesbianism."

3. Same-gender behavior, male-male behavior, and female-female behavior are appropriate terms for specific instances of same-gender sexual behavior that people engage in regardless of their sexual orientation (e.g., a married heterosexual man who once had a same-gender sexual encounter). Likewise, it is useful that women and men not be considered "opposites" (as in "opposite sex") to avoid polarization, and that heterosexual women and men not be viewed as opposite to lesbians and gay men. Thus, male-female behavior is preferred to the term "opposite sex behavior" in referring to specific instances of other-gender sexual behavior that people engage in regardless of their sexual orientation. When referring to sexual behavior that cannot be described as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, special care needs to be taken. Descriptions of sexual behavior among animal species should be termed "male-male sexual behavior" or "male-female sexual behavior" rather than "homosexual behavior" or "heterosexual behavior," respectively.

4. Bisexual women and men, bisexual persons, or bisexual as an adjective refer to people who relate sexually and affectionally to women and men. These terms are often omitted in discussions of sexual orientation and thus give the erroneous impression that all people relate exclusively to one gender or another. Omission of the term "bisexual" also contributes to the invisibility of bisexual women and men. Although it may seem cumbersome at first, it is clearest to use the term "lesbians, gay men, and bisexual women or men" when referring inclusively to members of these groups.

5. Heterosexual
as an adjective is acceptable for people who have male-female affectional/sexual relationships and who do not engage in sexual relationships with people of the same gender.

6. Use of gender instead of sex. The terms "sex" and "gender" are often used interchangeably. Nevertheless, the term "sex" is often confused with sexual behavior, and this is particularly troublesome when differentiating between sexual orientation and gender. The phrase "it was sexual orientation, rather than gender, that accounted for most of the variance" is clearer than "it was sexual orientation, rather than sex, that accounted for most of the variance."

In the latter phrase, "sex" may be misinterpreted as referring to sexual activity. It is generally more precise to use the term "gender."

Goals for Reducing Heterosexual Bias in Language

1. Reducing heterosexual bias and increasing visibility of lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons. Lesbians, gay men, and bisexual men and women often feel ignored by the general media which take the heterosexual orientation of their readers for granted. Unless an author is referring specifically to heterosexual people, writing should be free of heterosexual bias. Ways to increase the visibility of lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons include:

-Using examples of lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons when referring to activities (e.g., parenting, athletic ability) that are erroneously associated only with heterosexual people by many readers.

-Referring to lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons in situations other than sexual relationships. Historically, the term "homosexuality" has connoted sexual activity rather than a general way of relating and living.

-Omitting discussion of marital status unless legal marital relationships are the object of the writing. Marital status per se is not a good indicator of cohabitation (marital couples may be separated; unmarried couples may live together), sexual activity, or sexual orientation (a person who is married may be in a gay or lesbian relationship with a partner). Further, describing people as married or "single" renders lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons as well as heterosexual people in cohabiting relationships invisible.

-Referring to sexual and intimate emotional partners by both male and female pronouns (e.g., "the adolescent males were asked about the age at which they first had a male or female sexual partner").

-Using sexual terminology that is relevant to lesbians and gay men as well as bisexual and heterosexual people (e.g., "when did you first engage in sexual activity?" rather than "when did you first have sexual intercourse?").

-Avoiding the assumption that pregnancy may result from sexual activity (e.g., "it is recommended that women attending the clinic who currently are engaging in sexual activity with men be given oral contraceptives" instead of "it is recommended that women who attend the clinic be given oral contraceptives").

2. Clarity of expression and avoidance of inaccurate stereotypes about lesbians and gay men. Stigmatizing or pathologizing language regarding gay men and lesbians should be avoided (e.g., "sexual deviate," "sexual invert"). Authors should take care that examples do not further stigmatize lesbians, gay men, or bisexual persons (e.g., an example such as "psychologists need training in working with special populations such as lesbians, drug abusers, and alcoholics" is stigmatizing in that it lists a status designation (lesbians) with designations of people being treated.

3. Comparisons of lesbians or gay men to parallel groups. When comparing a group of gay men or lesbians to others, parallel terms have not always been used. For example, contrasting lesbians with "the general public" or to "normal women" portrays lesbians as marginal to society. More appropriate comparison groups might be "heterosexual women," "heterosexual men and women," or "gay men and heterosexual women and men."
- Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concern (APA), Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language, http://www.apastyle.org/sexuality.html, 2003

Personal Reflection Exercise #11
The preceding section contained information about using "politically correct" language regarding sexual preference. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Bender, A., Beller, S., & Klauer, K. C. (2018). Gender congruency from a neutral point of view: The roles of gender classes and conceptual connotations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 44(10), 1580–1608.

Friedrich, M. C. G., & Heise, E. (2019). Does the use of gender-fair language influence the comprehensibility of texts? An experiment using an authentic contract manipulating single role nouns and pronouns. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 78(1-2), 51–60.

Hegarty, P., Donnelly, L., Dutton, P. F., Gillingham, S., Vecchietti, V., & Williams, K. (2021). Understanding of intersex: The meanings of umbrella terms and opinions about medical and social responses among laypeople in the United States and United Kingdom. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 8(1), 25–37.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 25
What are three goals for reducing heterosexual bias in language? Record the letter of the correct answer the CE Test.

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