Today’s Bizarro, on categories in the domain of sexuality and gender:


(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

Some brief introductory words on homosexual, gay, and queer. Then on LGBTQ. And on to a recent NYT Magazine article on queer. Which leads, remarkably, to the Penrose triangle (of interest to scholars of both perception and art).

H, G, and Q: an extremely abbreviated story about labels and categories. Start with the label homosexual ‘same sex’, initially used as a medico-legal term to describe certain behaviors or acts, and then to refer to people who engaged in those acts; already there is some tension between engaging in the acts (the criterion of the famous Kinsey studies, for example) and seeing engaging in these acts as one criterion for being a member of a social category (of homosexuals).

Then gay rises, from within the world of homosexuals,  as a label for this category, which comes to be seen as one centered on same-sex desire (rather than behavior), with an accompanying (psychological and social) identity, serving as the unifying element of a community, with its own social and political institutions, places, events, and so on.

Meanwhile, the label queer served as a slur, a term of abuse, used against gay people (especially gay men), until it was defiantly reclaimed in the early days of gay liberation (in Queer Nation, the manifesto “Queers Read This!”, and so on), and then in academic programs in Queer Studies and the like, and so becomes, for some speakers, merely an updated, more in-your-face version of gay.

But queer is then available not just as an alternative to gay, but as an extension to a new larger category, centered not so much on desire as on gender expression, in particular on the rejection of gender normativity. LGB is a desire-based category, but Q adds gender identity to the mix and opens the door to an understanding of queer as what’s come to be known as genderqueer.

Initialism time. The initialisms are then extended to take in people well beyond the older category of LGB folk, at first to LGBT and then LGBTQ, where the Q stands either for questioning (welcoming those who are exploring their sexuality or gender identity) or for queer ‘genderqueer’. For some discussion of these extensions, see my 2011 handout “Categories and Labels: LGBPPTQQQEIOAAAF2/SGL …”, on labels in the domain of sexuality / sexual orientation, gender / sexual identity, and sexual practices, as used to construct an initialism for the entire domain.

Jenna Wortham in the NYT. On the 17th, “When Everyone Can Be ‘Queer,’ Is Anyone?”

Earlier this year, Vice published an essay that posed the question “Can Straight People Be Queer?” The article includes an image from Jaden Smith’s Facebook page of the musician looking petulant in a skirt, alongside the caption “My mood when they try to hate.” It also makes reference to the model Lily Rose Depp, who once compared sexuality to dietary habits: “You could think peanut butter is your favorite food for, 5,000 years and then be like, ‘I actually like burgers better,’ you know?” Vice, unsurprisingly, never settled on an answer, but a reader captured the article’s sentiment in a succinct and sarcastic comment, writing, “Queer is SO HOT right now.”

The speed with which modern society has adapted to accommodate the world’s vast spectrum of gender and sexual identities may be the most important cultural metamorphosis of our time. Facebook, which can be seen as a kind of social census, now offers nearly 60 different gender options, including “questioning” and “bigender” — or no gender at all. In a new commercial for Calvin Klein, Young Thug, a slender rapper prone to wearing dresses, states that he feels “there’s no such thing as gender.” … Plainly, we are in the midst of a profoundly exhilarating revolution. And “queer” has come to serve as a linguistic catchall for this broadening spectrum of identities, so much so that people who consider themselves straight, but reject heteronormativity, might even call themselves queer. But when everyone can be queer, is anyone?

… Increased acceptance of queerness has only led to increased commodification. Every June, the month of most gay-pride celebrations, companies like Netflix, McDonald’s, Apple, Salesforce and Walmart spend tremendous amounts of money to include their branded floats in the parades.

… The radical power of “queer” always came from its inclusivity. But that inclusivity offers a false promise of equality that does not translate to the lived reality of most queer people. Anti-trans bathroom laws and the shooting at Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, are the latest reminders that equality has yet to arrive. Seen this way, such a sunny outlook can, in fact, be counterproductive.

… Maybe we are relying on a single word, a single idea, a single identity, to do too much. After all, “queer” never belonged to us; it was foisted upon us, and we reconfigured it to make it ours. The future will bring new possibilities and ideas — and new terms for them. Scientists are still learning about the vast and complex components that interact to create human sexuality. … Someday, maybe we’ll recognize that queer is actually the norm, and the notion of static sexual identities will be seen as austere and reductive.

The illustration. Wortham’s piece is illustrated by this image by Javier Jaén:


A rainbow Penrose triangle: a 2-dimensional representation of an impossible 3-dimensional figure — impossible because it has no consistent orientation (that’s the connection to the idea of queerness): if you look at it part by part, each part is entirely plausible, but there’s no way to make the parts fit together. More below.

On the figure, from Wikipedia:

The Penrose triangle, also known as the Penrose tribar, or the impossible tribar, is an impossible object. It was first created by the Swedish artist Oscar Reutersvärd in 1934. The psychologist Lionel Penrose and his mathematician son Roger Penrose independently devised and popularised it in the 1950s, describing it as “impossibility in its purest form”. It is featured prominently in the works of artist M. C. Escher, whose earlier depictions of impossible objects partly inspired it.

A purer form of the triangle (without the rainbow colors) :


Any two adjacent sides make a coherent whole. And each pair of sides is oriented towards the front. There’s a white pair (top, on the right), a gray pair (top, on the left), and a black pair (bottom, on the left).  But there’s no way all three pairs can be simultaneously in front.

In #2, this fact is made more vivid by the blocks. The colors aren’t important (except for the queer connection), but the fact that the blocks are cubes is: each pair of adjacent sides out in front makes a right angle (because the blocks are cubes), but three pairs of right angles can’t add up to a triangle. The parts are locally coherent, but they don’t make a coherent whole.

As for identities, many social psychologists have long argued against the idea that there is a single, enduring, context-independent, fully consistent Self. No one’s claiming that we’re just jumbles of unrelated shards of Self; our actions, beliefs, attitudes, abilities, tastes, and so on hang together pretty well on a local scale — at particular times, in particular contexts, for particular purposes — and sometimes on a larger scale, but they don’t necessarily resolve into a single big picture. Not in general, and not in the domain of sexuality and gender identity.



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