Today, I want to discuss what Intersectionality is, and why it’s so important to practise it in our advocacy work. We’ve all heard it. “All lives matter” in response to Black Lives Matter. “When’s the Straight Parade” when Pride Festivals happen. “But white women get assaulted too” when we talk about the prevalence of sexual assault among Indigenous populations. I thought it would be helpful to have a toolkit for these “yeah, but…” phrases.
Intersectionality was a term coined by a black feminist scholar named Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. She is an amazing human! If you have a moment to peruse her credentials, read her papers, or just listen to her Ted Talk, DO IT.
Intersectionality is “the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect“. Basically, it is silos of prejudice and discrimination which, like a Venn diagram, overlap to create people who exist in spaces that are far more discriminated against than others who belong to the same identifier. For example, a queer woman of colour would exist in the inequality silo of female AND a person of colour AND queer. She has more than just being female stacked against her, and faces discrimination from more sides than just being a person of colour, too. In contrast, a cis-gendered white male queer person fits into the discrimination silo of queer.
Do you remember those jello cakes that folks used to make in the 80s? You know, the ones that were layers of jello, with layers of gelatinous milk sandwiched between them? (I searched and searched for a free photo of this, but I couldn’t find one, so you can go HERE to check one out — and find a recipe if that’s your thing) Think of each layer as a layer of oppression. At the bottom are the folks with the most stacked on top of them.
Intersectionality first came to my personal attention when I was watching a documentary called The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson. I’d always known about my own personal struggles as a woman, and I’d always known that women of colour faced a proven steeper hill to climb as far as prejudice and marginalisation. But it didn’t really dawn on me how prevalent those attitudes are across the board. Marsha P. Johnson was a queer woman of colour and LGBTQ+ rights activist, who partook (and led) the historic Stonewall Riots in 1969. She was later found murdered, and her murder was never solved. There have been accusations that the police did not actively pursue justice for Marsha because she was a trans woman of colour.
While Marsha and her fellow trans marchers led the way for LGBTQ+ rights, within three years, folks who marched alongside them during the Stonewall Riots had largely turned against them. In fact, her fellow LGBTQ+ leader and trans activist Sylvia Rivera was booed for calling out transphobia within the LGBTQ+ community during the Christopher Street Day rally in 1973. The video is gut wrenching, watching a woman who literally led the marchers for LGBTQ+ rights, be disrespected and booed and heckled and yelled at and jeered at by people who she actively helped gain a measure of equality, all because she demands the same rights and respect. And trans rights have lagged significantly behind sexuality rights, both in the USA and Canada, despite trans people being on the frontlines of protests. While homosexuality was decriminalised in Canada in 1969 (although the addition of sexual orientation to the Canadian Human Rights Act didn’t happen till 1996), it took until 2017 for discrimination on the grounds of “gender identity and expression” to be outlawed.
The idea that intersectional justice is needed should be a no-brainer. And as much as I’d love to think that marginalised people would understand the insidious nature of marginalisation, and that marginalisation can be greater for different people, that just isn’t the case. That queer people of colour have to stand up and say, “We are marginalised at a greater rate than white queer people”, and that a group of people shout back, “We are ALL marginalised”, is wrong. Full stop.
And it exists in our community today. Gay men of colour were murdered for YEARS in Toronto’s Village neighbourhood. Despite pressure from the community and many folks coming forward with information and suspects, the murders went unsolved until a white gay man’s murder spurred the creation of a taskforce, which ultimately cracked the case.
Now imagine if some of those queer men of colour were queer women of colour. Imagine if they were trans women of colour. Imagine if they were differently-abled trans women of colour. Stack up those layers. Try to keep the image in focus.
There’s a saying that my fellow board member, Candice, said to me this past week. “Unless your feminism is intersectional, it’s not feminism”. Unless you protest for equal rights for all women, and recognise that some women’s road is steeper because their road includes discrimination based on their colour of skin or their sexuality or their employment status or any other number of boxes we can tick, we aren’t really defending all women.
I have clinical depression. When I was explaining to my children what that means, I said, “Think of the happiest you’ve ever felt, and the saddest you’ve ever felt. Now shift both of them down. My happiest I can feel is less happy than the happiest you’ve felt. And the saddest I can feel is more sad than your saddest”. Now I have the wonders of modern medicine and a fantastic therapist to help pull me up to an equal spot. Imagine if I didn’t. Imagine if my depression wasn’t something I could take away with a simple pill every morning. Imagine if it was visible on my skin and people judged me for it.
Intersectionality is just that. It’s taking those visible (or indeed, invisible) things that silo us, and recognising that we need to pull each other to equal. Only by ensuring that we are on equal footing can we protest for everyone’s rights. Otherwise, we are leaving some of us behind.
We are blessed in this world of technology. With the click of a button, and the typing of a few words, I can access any number of scholarly articles, evidence, and anecdotes. I can be reminded to check my privilege. Unfortunately in this world of technology, we can also build ourselves echo chambers. I could surround myself with only straight, white, cis women, who had jobs and husbands, and middle-class incomes, and wore the same clothes, and vacationed in the same places, and had precisely two children, and instagramed their breakfast every morning. It’s so easy to wrap yourself in the cocoon of sameness and move through your life without being confronted and made uncomfortable.
I’m reading a book called the F*ck It Diet (not actually a diet, but I digress), and there’s a great quote in it that I would love to share with you.
People are sometimes resistant to the idea of privilege, because they fear that admitting privilege will invalidate the hardships they do face. But that’s not how it works. You can have privilege and still have problems Your life can be hard even if you were born with certain privileges, like having a naturally thinner body, or being born white, straight, rich, or whatever. All of those privileges are luck, luck of fitting in with ease, and they come with benefits that other people don’t experience — and that we often take for granted. Becoming aware of the things we have taken for granted will help us create a kinder, more empathetic and aware society.
That’s what I will leave you with. You beautiful, wonderful humans. We all deserve a world that is kind and aware and empathetic. But to have that, we have to BE that. You need to be aware of others’ struggles. You need to be empathetic for them. And WE ALL need to stand up and demand equality for folks, regardless of our own personal struggles. Theirs do not negate ours. We do not negate them. We recognise each other, and we move forward.