In steampunk, as with any world of fantasy, when someone asks me for a definition, I tend to get the broadest definition possible.
Why would I want to do that?
Because inclusivity is part of the power of worlds of the imagination. Yes, obviously, we need to have a framework from which to start. But that framework can very much be open to interpretation–hell, geeks have been debating the interpretations of scifi, fantasy, and fandom classics for over 50 years now. But the power isn’t precisely in how strongly someone has defined the boundaries of a world; it’s in how much that world impacts us.
I could take a lot of examples from Steampunk – the simplest being that if you go to any Steampunk event and find two people who both have chosen Steampunk personae, I’ll guarantee that their personae will come from slightly different Steampunk “worlds”. That’s because there IS no one Steampunk world.
But I’d rather use an outside framework for our sample – say, Harry Potter, wherein J.K. Rowling makes magic absolutely magical by essentially giving us very little of the metaphysics behind it. We get lots of pieces of magical ideas and theories and spells–but no coherent magical system; “Magic happens when you do magic things, and it produces magic effects which are sometimes predictable and sometimes otherwise”. And it works – because the world is so deep and rich that we want to get lost in it, and we don’t worry that JKR didn’t tell us how it happened – we spend our time creating our own ideas of what was going on in the cosmology of that Universe.
(Here’s a fascinating article which discusses the effects of Harry Potter books on measured neurological response. I’d argue that Steampunk does the same thing.
Sure, you could theoretically invent a definition of Steampunk which makes no sense; “Steampunk is wearing an elephant on your head” for example. But you know what? If you do it to create something funny or interesting or interestingly surreal, people just smile and enjoy it. If you d it tot mess with people in a mean, unkind way, they’re just going to ignore you, and possibly ask you to leave. You’re not going to break Steampunk, or any other genre, by messing with its “logic”. This is a world of imagination; it’s everyone’s imagination, not just yours!
And that means that, with every action you take inside the genre, the community will tend to seek things which will make the community better and happier, and tend to reject things which are like the make you less happy. (There are of course examples of politics, drama, and people acting quite badly. I don’t mean to suggest that every scene is idyllic. But I do genuinely both believe that worlds of the imagination, given the choice, will go positive; and that if there’s negative and pain, our response should be to fight the causes of that pain–not to give up and just say, “Well, it’s drama, so I don’t want to be a part of it”.)
If I was the imagination are not yet as free and open accepting as they could be, then let’s focus on getting them to that place!)
What kind of Steampunk do you want to be a part of? What kind of Steampunk community do you want to see? That choice rests, not on some unknown mass of people or even on local politics. Ultimately, in the age of information and the Internet, that choice rests solely with you.