Today we will be briefly covering intersectionality and how intersecting identities in the LGBTQ+ community can create a variety of experiences and potential differences in needs. It’s important to remember that not all queer experiences are the same, just as not all straight, cisgender experiences are the same. However, understanding intersectionality can help inform your interactions with and create progress for the LGBTQ+ community.
What is Intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a framework for understanding the connections between systems of oppression (e.g., gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, etc.) and how individuals experiencing those intersecting identities might face unique forms of discrimination. It helps us explain how our different identities can create unique experiences for all of us, including power/influence, the likelihood of life opportunities or barriers, and more. Check out this short video that explains intersectionality with a few examples.
The term was first established by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 to explain the complex experiences of power and oppression black women experience in law and governance. Crenshaw understood intersectionality as a way to capture the multiple, sometimes layered, aspects of discrimination that black women face. Race and gender, or sexual orientation and race, or ability and race, are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they inform the cumulative effect of being both, and.
An Example of Intersectionality
The context of one’s power or privilege in a given situation is dynamic and can change from environment to environment given the identities of everyone present. A woman interacting with coworkers who is an educator will have different interactions than a woman who is a construction worker.
Statistically, women comprise the majority of K-12 educators, making it more likely that they experience fewer barriers based on their gender as a woman/female. Conversely, construction sites are highly populated by males/men, and there are statistically frequent examples of sexism and inequity in those construction spaces. This is not to say that women do not experience sexism or barriers in the education environment, but that the experiences are contextually, and often statistically, different on a generalizable scale.
Now if that educator/construction worker were a lesbian, there would be another compounding complexity added to the potential experiences of the individual. Experiences are not necessarily shaped by one part of a person’s identity, but their identity as a whole. A straight female educator, or construction worker, can still encounter barriers. However, for a gay female in those career examples, there are different and greater potential barriers to encounter (e.g., compounding sexism and homophobia).
What Intersectionality is Not
Intersectionality is not a tool meant for exploring who may have it worse or easier, but to explain the potential differences in experiences, opportunities, and needs of individuals in the diverse world we live in. It also does not mean that certain experiences are inevitable or inherent for someone of a certain identity, but that there are generalizable ways that we tend to walk through the world differently.
Understanding how identities for more impactful change
With intersectionality as a framework, we can better understand and engage with others in ways that are more personal and individualized, and we may be less likely to offend or oppress others unintentionally. Furthermore, we can use the framework of intersectionality to inform deeper community change.
Let’s say Janel just started a job working to address the needs of youth experiencing homelessness. She quickly learns the sobering fact that 20%-40% of all youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ+. Understanding the intersection between being LGBTQ+ and homelessness is important to meeting the needs of those youth. It doesn’t just change how you approach or interact with the population, it reveals additional barriers these youth might face. They are battling the combined challenges of homelessness and LGBTQ+ discrimination. One challenge intersects/impacts the other.
Janel understands that she needs to do some further research on this topic. During that research, she discovers that of those LGBTQ+ youth who are experiencing homelessness, a significant percentage of them identify as Black and Latinx. She now understands that these youth could be battling the combined challenges of homelessness, LGBTQ+ discrimination, and racism.
It is impossible to just address youth homelessness. Sure, there are approaches that Janel can take to address youth homelessness as a whole. However, to create even deeper and more impactful change, Janel has to address youth homelessness through the additional lenses of 1) LGBTQ+ identities, 2) racial identities, and 3) the combined lens of being both LGBTQ+ and a person of color.
Solutions have to take into account how two (or more) marginalized identities can intersect within the context of the challenges you are trying to approach. But, it’s not as simple as just adding up identities or oppressions. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and other forms of oppression exist on their own. However, when they intersect, they transform the experience of oppression. How they change in combination creates a new set of challenges.
The LGBTQ+ community encases many identities in one acronym. The barriers that LGBTQ+ people of color (POC), especially trans/gender diverse POC, face in the community are often more complex than that of the LGB, white, cisgender individuals. As you progress through the remaining weeks of this challenge, it is critical to view these issues through the lens of intersectionality.
Queer 101 – What is Intersectionality (3 minutes) A fun take on intersectionality with a queer lens.
Black Trans* Lives Matter | D-L Stewart, TEDxCSU (April 22, 2019). (15 minutes)
Exploring the Roots of Chicago’s Queer South Asian Community, NBC (June 26, 2018). (8 minutes)
What are some of the identities you hold that you think about often?
Consider which identities affect your regular opportunities, choices, judgments you face, experiences, setbacks, advantages, etc. in comparison to others.
What are some of the identities you hold that you think about least?
Why do you believe you do not think about those identities as much?
Can you think of any ways in which your identities may intersect and create a unique experience or set of circumstances?
Does being X affect your other identity of being Y in some fashion?
Example: If you do not have a college degree and have been denied certain job pay levels because of it, could that have an impact on your economic class in some way? If you have a college degree, has that allowed you to access jobs and pay that are inaccessible to those without a degree?
Can you think of any ways intersectionality may impact the potential experiences and opportunities of LGBTQ+ folks?