Kate Borstein and Chris Bartlett just had a wonderful discussion on terms used to describe people and how umbrella terms always seem to exclude groups. They were talking in particular about how MSM as an umbrella term makes invisible black gay culture but how using gay as an umbrella term makes ‘t invisible those people who identify as MSM or WSW. It isn’t just those terms that are problematical, transgender, transsexual and gender queer can all be used as umbrella terms and all are inadequate in one way or another.
I can see a few problems here; one is that umbrella terms always tend to homogenize the group the term is being used for hiding the diversity within the group. As an example take the term ‘White America’. Which White America, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Midwest, the Southwest, the west coast or the Northwest? Even that list overlooks the profound differences within those regions. Another problem is that our language is inadequate to describe the vast and subtle reality that is sexual orientation and gender identity. Look how recent most of the language used for this is, homosexual wasn’t used until 1869 and most of the rest of the terminology is considerably newer than that.
Our language for dealing with this is still evolving and will continue to evolve as our understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity grow. Language and descriptive terms do matter and we must have the right to define them for oursel