Umbrella erosion

In Coyote’s timeline of “quoiromantic”, there’s a certain conflict that persisted for many years. Cor, who coined “quoiromantic”, has repeatedly asserted a broad meaning, as in “What even is romantic orientation?” Nonetheless, there has been a persistent misconception that it has a narrower meaning, as in “can’t tell the difference between platonic and romantic attraction”.

This is a historical pattern that repeats again and again. A term is intended as a broad umbrella to describe a large number of experiences, but the term acquires more narrow connotations. You can find examples in Coyote’s timelines of “queerplatonic” and related concepts. It happens to “gray-asexual”. It happens to “queer”. It even happens to sandwiches.

Note: Coyote has discussed the same historical pattern, with extensive links to examples.  But my article was already written before Coyote’s was published, and I left it unchanged to show how we’re independently coming to similar conclusions.

I’ll discuss “quoiromantic”, “queer”, and sandwiches–but not in that order–and then at the bottom I’ll try to establish some rules for how to deal with it.

Queer

Queer is often intended as an umbrella term to describe people of all sorts of orientations and genders. But my husband (who is gay) doesn’t identify as queer, because of these three narrower connotations:

1. Queer as a slur. Sure, queer has been reclaimed, but to him the slur is still in living memory.*
2. Queer as political. Queer has a connotation of being radical and liberationist, as opposed to assimilationist.
3. Queer as an enigmatic orientation. In my experience with LGBTQ people, I’ve found that the people who most vocally identify as queer are those who have trouble fitting themselves into other established boxes. So, usually fluid pansexuals, not gay men.

His reasons are legitimate, but consider the consequences when lots of people go through the same process of deciding how to identify. If queer is always thought of first and foremost as a reclaimed slur, then the people who gravitate towards it will always be political radicals and activists. And if queer is a broad umbrella term, then the people who will make the most use out of it are people who don’t have a more specific umbrella term available to them, such as “gay”.

This poses a problem. Queer is a useful umbrella term. But some people under that umbrella (like my husband) disidentify with the term. So, do we just continue using the umbrella, in violation of the general principle that people have the right to determine their own labels? Do we come up with another umbrella term? Or do we deny that there is any legitimate use for an umbrella term at all?

In practice, we usually use other umbrella terms. For example, LGBTQ is clearly about queer people, but also specifically includes LGBT in case anybody in those groups doesn’t identify as queer. There are also MOGAI and GSRM, and probably a bunch of others.

But I would argue that these alternatives do not solve the problem, they just hit the reset button. New umbrella terms are also subject to erosion. LGBTQ has the issue that since it names specific groups, the rest of us who are not in those groups are left wondering if we’re included. MOGAI and GSRM have their own set of politics, which I don’t really understand.

Sandwiches

Okay, everyone is wondering about the sandwiches thing, so I’ll put it here, er, sandwiched as it were between the two more serious examples.

Is a hotdog a sandwich? The definitive study of this question was done by Existential Comics, as excerpted below.

Carnap holds up a sign diagramming the properties of sub sandwiches. He says, “Each of these [six sandwich types] can be defined in a more rigorous way. And as you can see, a ‘hotdog’ clearly holds every trait of a ‘sub sandwich’, so is therefore included in the umbrella category of ‘sandwich’.”

Above, we see philosopher Rudolph Carnap argue that a hotdog is a sandwich on the grounds that it has all the properties of a sub sandwich. “Sandwich” is a broad umbrella term, and it seems clear that hotdogs are in fact encompassed under the umbrella.

However, Wittgenstein provides the following rebuttal:

Wittgenstein says, “Will you hand me that sandwich?” And though there is a hotdog clearly visible, Austin responds, “What sandwich?”

We can see that even though hotdogs appear to be included in the sandwich umbrella, in practice people will be confused if you refer to a hotdog as a sandwich. This is because hotdogs are part of more specific category, “hotdog”, and it’s rarely necessary to refer to them by the broader category that they’re theoretically part of.

So is a hotdog a sandwich or not? Well, if we learned anything from “queer”, then the solution is to let the hotdog decide for itself.

Quoiromantic

Let’s return to our very first example, quoiromantic. Cor has defined it as the feeling of “what even is romantic orientation?”, but others have defined it more narrowly as “can’t tell between platonic and romantic”. And for the record, I’m on Cor’s side here. But where does this misunderstanding come from in the first place?

I speculate that the people who most strongly identify with “what even is romantic orientation?” are often coming from a personal experience of not being able to distinguish platonic and romantic relationships. And good for them, if they needed to fill a lexical gap, then “quoiromantic” was there for them.

But once a lot of people use “quoiromantic” to describe that particular experience, it becomes natural to think that that’s all the word means. People start having trouble imagining any other quoiromantic narrative. They may wrongly impose the “can’t tell between platonic and romantic” meaning onto quoiromantics who have had an entirely different experience in mind.

Dear readers, did you know? There are other terms to describe the experience of “can’t tell the difference between platonic romantic”. Going by the Aromantics wiki, “platoniromantic” means “not experiencing the distinction between platonic and romantic feelings.” “Idemromantic” means “not feeling the difference or being unable to distinguish the difference between romantic and platonic attraction but still differentiating between the two.” Both of these are under the quoiro umbrella.

These terms are fairly obscure and I’m not telling anybody whether or not to use them, I’m just bringing them to your attention. They’re part of a strategy to prevent umbrella erosion, by having narrower words that can be contrasted with the broader umbrella of quoiro.

Umbrella Etiquette

We have to balance two interests: the need for broad umbrella terms, and the needs of people who fall under an umbrella but disidentify with it. I will lay out some general rules:

  1. If there is an umbrella, and you fit under its description, you may choose to identify with it or disidentify with it, or anything in between.
  2. If you disidentify with an umbrella, you should be cognizant that people with similar experiences may identify with the umbrella.
  3. If you identify with an umbrella term, you should be cognizant that other people with different experiences may identify with the umbrella.
  4. If you hear someone describe their experiences and then put it under an umbrella, do not assume that this is what the umbrella means, or that all people under the umbrella have a similar experience.
  5. If you’d like to use an umbrella term to advertise a group (e.g. “this is a queer space”), then you shall accept that accept that some people won’t show up because they don’t identify with the particular umbrella term you chose. You shall accept that some people will show up who fit the umbrella but don’t necessarily identify with it.
  6. If you do not mean to include the whole umbrella, then use narrower language when able. For example, if you’re not talking about trans people, use LGB instead of LGBT.
  7. You shall not argue that an umbrella term is invalid just because you yourself disidentify with it. Umbrellas always have people who disidentify with them.

What do you think?



*I know this echoes some arguments that have been made by ace exclusionists on Tumblr, where they say we should censor the word “queer” because it’s a reclaimed slur. But the exclusionist argument feels disingenuous to me, because it’s mostly coming from younger non-men.  The people who have most personal experience with “queer” as a slur are older men, like my husband, and they don’t make quite the same arguments. (return)

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in Articles, Gray-A, greyromanticism, Language. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Umbrella erosion

  1. Sve says:

    I just wanted to make a minor comment on your “Umbrella Etiquette” rules. №6 is good in principle but LGB as an acronym has a transphobic history and is widely used by TERFs and everyone else who was on board with the transphobic “Take the T Out” campaign. So I think people should be very, very careful when using it.

    • Siggy says:

      To give an example of what I was thinking about, suppose a news story is reporting on a study about cis LGB people. The story reports it as a study of the LGBT community. Why? It’s a perpetual annoyance to me that news stories think it is more important to give the appearance of including trans people, than checking whether they are actually included.

      Put another way, I want the labels to accurately reflect when trans people are included, so that we might put in the work to include them. TERFs just want trans people to be excluded from the umbrella entirely

  2. Coyote says:

    Good etiquette tips. My post may have more links, but your post has some actual suggestions on what to do, which I appreciate.

    I also appreciate that I can always count on you to catch me off guard with sentences like “the solution is to let the hotdog decide for itself.”

    • Siggy says:

      One difference between our essays is that you portray it as a historical trajectory, where new umbrella terms are created, and old umbrella terms get “crunched”. And that does seem to be the historical trajectory among ace & aro labels. However, I used “queer” as one of my examples, and “queer” has a rather different trajectory going from something narrow to something much broader. So rather than portraying it as a historical trajectory, I was thinking of umbrella erosion more as a state of affairs.

  3. Lee says:

    Really good post. The only thing is that I tend to see “LGB” as a big red flag due to its history of use and promotion by terfs. I’d probably recommend people use a different but equivalent term. (“Cis queer people” maybe? Or where the term queer simply isn’t accurate or appropriate, maybe just typing out “gay, lesbian, and bisexual people”?)

    • Siggy says:

      Well if that’s the association that at least two commenters have, then perhaps it wasn’t the best example. To me, it was simply an example I had on hand, because I am used to spaces that loudly proclaim trans inclusion, but in practice treat trans people like an afterthought (see my discussion of gatekept vs oppressive spaces). TERFs talk big on the internet, but IRL they mostly don’t show up, and they are far from the biggest source of transphobia.

      But anyway, here’s another example. Talking about aspec spaces, when you’re really just thinking of ace spaces, or just aro spaces.

      • Coyote says:

        I’m… not convinced that “IRL they mostly don’t show up” is true. Could be more common in woman-only spaces, though? They’re definitely not just an online phenomenon.

        In any case, I like the “aspec” example — on the flip side I’ve definitely seen a lot of people talking about “aphobia” when what they meant had nothing to do with aromanticism.

        • Sennkestra says:

          I feel like “aphobia” is a bit of a different issue, though, in that the use of “a”-phobia for hostile reactions to “a”-sexuality iirc long predates the suggestion to use of aspec or other “a-” prefixes as an umbrella term for both communities. It’s not a matter of people incorrectly using an umbrella word to refer to a narrower subset; it’s more a matter of some other people trying to re-define an older word to be more of an umbrella term but failing to make it catch on.

          • luvtheheaven says:

            This history of aphobia is news to me. I always saw it like Coyote did, where it was only a term once people started the aspec term to link aro and ace with an umbrella term. I heard acephobia before that but not aphobia.

          • Vesper says:

            i agree with Sennkestra re: usage of “aphobia”, as that has been my experience as well.

            usage of “a-” as an umbrella prefix inclusive of both asexuality and aromanticism is very much a relatively recent thing, the existence of a word to describe what is now more commonly referred to as “acephobia” is very much not.

            i remember this all too well because i was there, amidst the search for a word to describe acephobia. it was in the absence of a commonly decided upon word to describe acephobia that i decidedly took it upon myself to start using ‘aphobia’ in a rather obnoxious and utterly ridiculous manner that is now really realllllyyy goddamn embarrassing and i was rather loud about it…

            see: this 2013 post on AVEN

            i also remember this all too well because it a year(s??) after the fact specifically on Tumblr that the Tumblr equivalent to my AVEN post was unearthed and recirculated with strong pushback from people over my usage of the “a-” prefix specifically in reference to asexuality.

            the image / posts themselves are embarrassing for obvious reasons beyond my clear lack of consideration of aromanticism at the time, but the pushback that i received on Tumblr only well after the fact (which subsequently had me revise my original Tumblr post to encourage people to STOP reblogging it) made it clear to me not only that the meaning and usage of the “a-” prefix had shifted within ace spaces, but also that people are seemingly unaware of the historical context behind its usage in the ace spaces (not to mention the historical relationship between ace & aro communities themselves) and that in that unawareness, they are also unaware of when a word has been redefined and how this can and has lead to revisionist history and false claims of appropriation….

  4. luvtheheaven says:

    In reaction to those LGB comments, I think it can be good to say “non-straight” in some cases discussing sexual orientations because it doesn’t leave out us aces or leave out pan people etc… But it depends on what you mean. If you’re talking about lgbt representation in books but it’s only gay men and bisexual women in your particular list then yeah i think rethinking the LGBT in your title. On the other hand, if you include more than lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people on the ought hand (like aces as well) in your book reccomendation list maybe consider instead a broader umbrella term than LGBT.

  5. luvtheheaven says:

    I think for the term quoiromantic in particular, the “umbrella erosion” or to use Coyote’s analogy of “crunching” has occurred in part because the concept of what the umbrella contains is really abstract and maybe hard for people to wrap their heads around. They latch onto the narrower definition because they can imagine what that would feel like more than they can understand the broad and abstract definition? Maybe.

    • Siggy says:

      That sounds about right. Although, it sure seems like the words people are coming up with are increasingly abstract (e.g. “alterous” to denote feelings between queerplatonic and romantic), so that makes me think that what’s causing people problems is not really abstraction per se.

      • epochryphal says:

        yknow i never thought of quoi as an “umbrella” as much as, i guess, *broad* – and that felt different? but i can certainly see how it’s umbrella-y, now for sure, and that’s interesting to reflect on.

        i think it’s not so much about abstraction as it is about resistance to models, and the anti-assimilationism kind of thing; very similar stuff keeps happening to words around being exobinary, as they keep getting tied back to the m/f binary. and maybe people were really looking for that lexical gap inside the model of “romantic attraction is a thing” to be filled.

        it’s also very much that it took off way far away from me before i’d ever really articulated a vision for it, and that initially i was very “go forth! this isn’t for me!” i totally had a moment of aw, frick, it’s more for me than i had thought about (shakes fist at amatonormativity) and can i drag it back, i dunno. (seems like Not Really but also like it’s been worthwhile to several people as i try to rebroaden it, even if i can’t shift the center anymore.)

        • Siggy says:

          yknow i never thought of quoi as an “umbrella” as much as, i guess, *broad* – and that felt different?

          For context, I think of basically every identity term as an umbrella. I mean, if a term describes at least two people, those people have distinct experiences, thus the term is an umbrella for multiple distinct experiences.

  6. Vesper says:

    i agree with Lee and others regarding the need to be cautious of using ‘LGB’ for historical reasons. furthermore, i have never seen anyone shorten LGBT down to LBT, BT or any other combination of abbreviations to denote specifically what group of people are or aren’t being referred to or included in something, so to only drop the T would easily be read as malicious or at the very least disingenuous even with historical usage of LGB aside.

    that aside, i appreciate the inclusion of umbrella etiquette in this post and find the conceptualization of the current (and repeated) happenings re: umbrella terms as “erosion” interesting. it’s never occurred to me to conceptualize it that way, but i’m finding that for me, that conceptualization & wordage works more for quoiromantic than it does for queer…? because it feels like what’s happening / has happened with queer and quoiromantic are two similar yet different things?

    that is, quoiromantic, which was intended from the beginning to be a broad, inclusive (umbrella) term, has—as you and Coyote have pointed out—since gained much narrower connotations & usage. whereas queer originally had a narrower, more specific meaning and usage as a slur (disregarding its original, literal meaning, ofc), only later gaining additional meanings and connotations with time, thus becoming the umbrella term that it is today—as opposed to having originally been one and now being narrower.

    regardless, rules of etiquette are definitely helpful to balance the differing needs & interests of [at least] three necessarily distinct groups of people:

    1) those who personally need these terms to remain open-ended, umbrella terms, without overarching narrow connotations.
    2) those who personally need these words to have narrower, yet unspoken connotations.
    3) those who technically fall under an umbrella, but disidentify with it and need people to recognize and acknowledge that.

    i think that what you’ve listed here is a good step towards that.

    • Siggy says:

      i have never seen anyone shorten LGBT down to LBT, BT or any other combination of abbreviations

      Yeah… I do that. At least, I say stuff like “LG” or “LGBA”. I would rarely have reason to group bisexual and trans people together, and if I did, I would probably say “bisexual/trans” instead of “BT” because the acronym isn’t recognizable at that point.

      i appreciate the inclusion of umbrella etiquette in this post and find the conceptualization of the current (and repeated) happenings re: umbrella terms as “erosion” interesting. it’s never occurred to me to conceptualize it that way, but i’m finding that for me, that conceptualization & wordage works more for quoiromantic than it does for queer…?

      Yeah, I’m not sure the “erosion” or “crunching” metaphors are particularly great, because they suggest a historical trajectory from broader to narrower meanings, and they also suggest that the “correct” side is the side of the broader meaning.

      I think what it is, is that for both Coyote and me, ace and aro examples are particularly prominent in our minds. These examples tend to fit a certain historical pattern, and we also happen to take the view that the “broader” definition is more appropriate in these cases. But I think it’s important to look at a broader range of examples, so that we may see that:

      a) the “broader” definition is not necessarily the one with a longer history
      b) the side that prefers “broader” definitions is not necessarily the “right” side, it is just one side
      c) the side of history is not necessarily the “right” side either. Nobody here wants to go back to using “queer” as a slur.

      • Vesper says:

        Yeah… I do that. At least, I say stuff like “LG” or “LGBA”. I would rarely have reason to group bisexual and trans people together, and if I did, I would probably say “bisexual/trans” instead of “BT” because the acronym isn’t recognizable at that point.

        ahhh, i see… still odd to me personally, but duly noted.

        either way, i understand what you mean re: ace and aro examples following a certain pattern, but do agree that it is important to also look to a broader range of examples, as it’d be great if these rules of etiquette had a broader range of potential application.

  7. elainexe says:

    I wonder if the ace community might be more prone to this sort of erosion due to size. We don’t have enough of a presence to get much mainstream mention, dissemination of ideas, or representation. But we’re large enough that we have multiple nexuses of community activity. We don’t always know what’s going on in other ace spheres, and our exposure to different kinds of narratives associated with an identity is limited. More limited than some other LGBT+ identities.

    On the side-discussion of LGB. I find it uncertain as to what exactly someone might be referring to if they used that phrase. Like. LGBT is used so commonly that many people would take it as interchangeable with LGBT+…that is, they might just assume a wider definition. Like, of course asexuality, pansexuality, nonbinary, intersex, etc are included. But if it was shortened to LGB I might not be so sure. I might think it’s only referring to those specific identities.

    P.S.–controversial new sandwich criteria. A sandwich must be horizontal. The opening of a hotdog is vertical therefore not a sandwich.

    • Siggy says:

      Yeah I would say that the existence of multiple ace spheres is a part of it. But like, that’s the natural state of language. Think about all the far-flung spheres of English speakers.

      I don’t think it is true that ace community terms are any more prone to erosion, it’s just a difference of expectations. We’re very deliberate about coining words. We have lofty ideas about what each word will mean and who fall under the umbrella, but then our lofty ideas collide with the reality of who actually wants to use the language and in what way. When our lofty ideals about sandwiches collide with the reality that hot dogs are not sandwiches, nobody really cares.

      • elainexe says:

        That’s true. Though might that be the same for other people who coin words? I can’t say I know much about other word-coiners though. The ace community is so comparatively new to many other LGBT communities that we seem to evolve so fast. And I wonder if that itself may drive more people to create more words. Well, I think it’s been true for myself anyway. I’ve felt more drawn to participate in the ace community because I feel like it’s somewhere I could actually have an impact with what I have to say, rather than in some larger, long-established space, where I’d be intimidated by the size of the history and big name people with big ideas…and what are my ideas next to that?
        Er, but anyway, what I was meaning to say is since we’re newer…most of the word-coiners are still out there somewhere and possibly still putting their thoughts out there. And probably in a more accessible way, online, as compared to word coiners in older communities. In that way, we can know what the coiners think, and the coiners can easily notice how their words are being used and respond.

    • Siggy says:

      I regret the “LGB” example, since that’s become such a distraction, and I feel the need to justify it every time. But there are in fact many use cases. For example: a law that only protects sexual orientation. A study that only looks at gay and lesbian people. Media representation that is limited to gay men. In what sense is a cis male gay character “LGBT” representation? As the old joke goes, LGBT? more like GGGG.

      I have, in fact, been using this language all along. You’ve seen me blog plenty about gay male communities, or gay/bisexual men. The specificity is deliberate, and very important. Gay male spaces are in fact different from generalist LGBT spaces (to the extent that such spaces even exist). Using “LGBT” all the time to refer to groups that are basically just cis men has had the effect of centering gay men as the rightful “owners” of the umbrella, and contributes to erosion. It’s the same as when people say “aspec” but really we just mean aces.

      • epochryphal says:

        fwiw, i have seen and used this language before and appreciate it, and that makes me think it might be a university/specifically UC thing? at UCD we had a lot of discussion around “don’t tack on the T” and how it was important to only say LGBT if you’ve done the work to really include and incorporate trans issues; otherwise, it should indeed just be LGB to be honest. obviously strive to include trans people, but don’t just add the tokenizing letter and be done.

        and especially within a larger context of an LGBT+-aimed organization, naming a program as LGB is clear (to me) that it isn’t the org excluding trans folks, it’s that the program is focused on sexual orientation not gender identity, for instance. i dunno, maybe it pings more for others when it’s “lesbian, gay, or bisexual” but then that for me feels less quickly-read and also more exhaustive of who all’s being thought about, whereas LGB might be shorthand for LGBQA+ and pansexual folks and on and on.

        anyway your point is 100% and so is your comment here yes.

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