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umbrellas and domains of discourse (complete with venn diagrams!)

Based on the post by some disgruntled white queer, I’ve come to realize that my way of viewing these umbrella/community terms isn’t quite in line with a lot of people (particularly, its seems with white trans and/or queer people). Given my background as a logician, this isn’t entirely surprising.

My view of umbrella terms is that they are sets. Some people use ‘class’, ‘category’, and once in a while ‘set’ as interchangeable terms. But this isn’t quite right. ‘Class’ and ‘category’ are older terms/concepts than sets. A set theoretic interpretation of classes or categories is likewise new. But the two terms have a long history in philosophy and their ontology is generally up for debate (inclusive of the ontological interpretation that classes/categories are sets).

And, yeah, set theory is only one of many ways to conceptualize classes and/or categories. Its my preferred one because of my educational background and because the nature of sets is clear and mathematically precise, rather than the more vague/general understandings. Neither of which is necessarily right or wrong, they’re simply different ontologies.

As such, when I posted about queer being a slur and wrote things like this:

But ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ ‘lesbian’ ‘trans’ ‘bisexual’ ‘asexual’ etc aren’t interchangeable. You can be gay and not queer. Indeed, I know ppl who are this. The same applies for each respective community.1

I was working within a set theoretic understanding of classes/categories (and umbrellas which, imo, is just a more colloquial way of saying ‘class’ and/or ‘category’ – but it might be interesting at some point to explore how ‘umbrellas’ as a community term may or may not be different from class/category).

See this venn diagram for a visual way to conceptualize what I’m discussing:

An image of a large, black rectangle with two overlapping circles within. The text of the area within the triangle but without of the circles says 'both cis and het'. The area within the left-most circle excluding the overlapping area, is labelled 'neither cis nor het'. The right-most circle's area excluding the overlap is labelled 'queer'. And the overlapping area between the two circles is labelled 'queer and neither cis nor het'.

Within this conceptual framework, the box represents the total domain of discourse (as in nothing exists outside of it). Since we are talking about people, this means that the domain of discourse is everyone. There are six sets being visualized in this diagram:

A. The set of every individual (eg the box).

B. The set of people who are both cis and het (eg the area within the box but not within the circles).

C. The set of every person who is neither cis nor het (eg the area within the left-circle excluding the overlap).

D. The set of every queer person (eg the area within the right-circle excluding the overlap).

E. The set of every person who is both queer and neither cis nor het (eg the overlap between the two circles).

F. The null set (which is part of every set).

To revisit the paragraph I quoted above, all that I was saying is that there exist people who are in C but not in D. Conversly, there are people in D who are not in C. And, of course, there are people who are both and people who are neither.

Now… one of the ongoing contentious issues with teh ~community~ is what to call set C. At present, the popular media generally uses ‘LGBT’ which is a partial and incomplete enumeration of everything contained within the set. For obvious reasons, people have problems with this. Historical and within poc communities today, ‘gay’ was/is the name for C. Nowadays, there are also a bunch of people who use ‘queer’ as the name for C.

The proposition that C is equivalent to D means that all people who are C must also be D and all people who are D must be C. Is this true? No.

Because there exists at least one person who is C but not D, thus they are not equivalent classes, categories, and/or sets. The reasoning of the C but not D person is because queer is a slur. So long as there exists a person who is C but not D because queer is a slur, then queer remains an active slur and, as such, is subject to the general discursive rules we have for reclaming slurs. Which also means that only some peole are able to reclaim while others are not.

I know this sounds all abstract and theoretical, but when I was writing ‘there exists one person who is C but not D because queer is a slur (to them)’ I actually had a specific individual in mind who exists in the real world. Moreover, I know this one particular gay man has explicitly stated that no one should call him ‘queer’ because its a violent and traumatizing word for him.

All of which is to say that, equivocating between C and D is simply wrong. And its wrongness isn’t just based on set theory and logic, but because the equivocation reinscribes violence onto people who don’t deserve it (because no one deserves violence, btw).

None of which is to say that people ought not to either identify as queer or refer to a queer community. Since there are people who identify as queer (for whatever reason), then there is also a set of queer individuals who some call a community (I’ll admit to there being a set of queer individuals but my experience has taught me that the equivocation between a category of people and a community is also harmful).

This shouldn’t be surprising information for anyone. Especially since queer as identity and community was intentionally created to make a distinction between ‘queer’ and ‘all people neither cis nor het’. Once upon a time the main motivating factor was political, which still exists but there is a strong personal element to it as well nowadays.

  • I think the most amusing thing about the post I'm responding too is that, by and large, we don't actually disagree about what queer is and how it is used. We have different conclusions, but aren't disagreeing over the general premises of the argument.  </fn></footnotes>