We’re all intersectional (just some more than others).

July 6, 2018

I mentioned that I was developing a workshop on intersectionality on Twitter and one of my social justice-minded followers replied, “Why do you see yourself as a person who is qualified to lead a workshop about it?” The implication was, what would a straight white male know about intersecting forms of oppression? I deleted my snarky defensive reply that I almost posted, reigned in my white fragility, and worked her valid question into my workshop.

Intersectionality refers to the way forms of oppression can combine for people to create obstacles that are missed if we just look at things like racism or agism or homophobia in isolation. I’ve been lecturing about it for 20 years but recently learned it has an illustrative origin, which, like many important theoretical ideas, was born on a factory floor.

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Kimberly Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor was reviewing a discrimination suit filed against General Motors by a group of black women. GM had the case dismissed because they argued that they actively hired both African-Americans and women so, you know, they were good. But Crenshaw learned that the African-Americans that were hired were black men on the factory floor and the women that were hired were white women in the clerical pool. Attempts to remedy racism and sexism didn’t help black women. Their experience was something else, the intersection of racism and sexism.

Sometimes I will ask my students to describe the experience of Asian-Americans. It’s a prompt that is not meant to have a response. There is no Asian-American experience because there is no monolithic Asian experience in America. To equate the lived experience of a fourth generation Chinese-American to someone whose family came from Cambodia in the 1970s or a Muslim from Malaysia or a Shinto from northern Japan is just silly. There are too many important variables to conceive of for even one unifying theme. Throw gender into the mix and it gets even more complex.

Speaking of, the roots of this idea were in the 2nd wave feminist movement when it became clear that “feminist issues” were really just the issues of middle-class white women who wanted to take on sexual harrasment in the workplace and the empty promises associated with suburban housewife drudgery. When women of color said, “Hey, we want to talk about our experiences, too, so we need to discuss racism!” the core (white) feminists said, “No, this is about sexism not racism. That meeting is down the hall.” This led scholar bell hooks to write the founding text of the issue in 1981, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. In it she points out the convergence of racism and sexism was a key weapon of the slave traders to further devalue black women and persists to this day.

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Intersectionality has all kinds of dimensions beyond race and gender. Class, gender identity, sexuality, immigration experience, and many other measures add to the mix. Think of how a poor white male experiences white privilege or masculinity differently than a rich white male. Is a gay person with a physical disability going to experience their sexuality the same way as a non-disabled gay person? I can tell you that an undocumented immigrant who is white (like the 50,000 undocumented Irish in America) have it a hell of a lot easier than the undocumented people who are brown. Think of it as a complex Venn diagram where each intersection produces something unique, like the varied ingredients of a smoothie. And typically that smoothie tastes like multiple forms of oppression.

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There’s a lot of blowback on the topic, mostly from white men. Just put “intersectionality” into a YouTube search and see the dumb videos dedicated to “debunking” the actual experiences of others. They scream “Identity politics!” which is a common refrain among those trying to keep the playing field uneven and privileging themselves. Intersectional thinking is actually the opposite of identity politics. It recognizes what is unique about each of our struggles. A first-generation South Asian immigrant who is also Muslim, female, and gay is not served by being put into just one demographic box and should not have to pick any single identity. (“On Mondays I’m an immigrant. Tuesdays are gay days…)

The reason this matters is that marginalized people who have these intersections are even more marginalized because of them. People want to be seen and heard not pushed into the shadows even further. I’m doing these workshops because this has a real impact in the workplace. One study found that people who feel they can be their authentic selves at work are three times more likely to say they are proud to work at the company or agency and more than four times likely to say they feel empowered to do their best work. Being intersectional is good for business! That should get straight-white-male capitalist’s attention.

It’s easy for straight-white-males to dismiss this important issue. What a hassle to have to learn all these new feminist terms, right? I mean, it doesn’t affect them. Or does it? Good news, fellas, everyone is intersectional. Oppression intersect but so do privileges AND oppressions and privileges.

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In this workshop I used myself as example of the intersection of three identities; white, male, and Southern. As a child I learned being a southerner was devalued and did my best to lose any hint of a southern accent. (If you want to hear it, buy me a shot of Jack Daniels.) My whiteness intersects with my Southernness – Southern whites are supposed to be racist and pine for “Dixie.” My maleness also intersects with my Southernness – Southern men learn violence and anti-intellectual posturing at an early age. So you can imagine the learned identity when you put all three together. And that is my struggle that a white male from Oregon might not see.

We’re working at the next level of anti-racism and bigotry here. This isn’t about segregated schools and lunch counters. When we get to addressing micro-aggressions, implicit bias, privilege, and intersectionality, we’re making real progress. There will be the usual pushback from those who have a vested interest in not making equity a reality (“Hey, they had Obama for eight years!”), but I think even those folks can be brought into the conversation. When people are allowed to exist in their own skin, as complicated as it might be, everyone is happier.

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“Oh, I Get It” Moment #2: The Ellen James Society and Gay Pride

June 26, 2015

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Waking up this morning to find out that the Supreme Court had established marriage equality in all 50 states was the greatest surprise. Tears streamed down my face as I listened to President Obama talk about the power of love and I realized that “gay marriage” would never be an issue for my daughter’s generation. We will look back at June 26, 2015 the same way look back at May 17, 1954. Some old people will scream that the world is coming to an end, just like they did after the passage of Brown, but go ahead and holler, love won over hate in both.

The occasion causes me to reflect on my own path to becoming an ally, gay rights activist and all around queer heterosexual. Like most journeys it wasn’t a straight line. Growing up in Georgia in the 1970s wasn’t the best place to practice acceptance. Most Southern Christians really aren’t. I think they would string the real Jesus up from a tree. So I got a lot of the homophobia as a kid. We’d play “Smear the Queer” on the playground and nobody stopped us. My father told me that homosexuals were sick (which I guess is better than evil), and I never asked for proof.

But my mind wasn’t committed to homophobia. There were some cracks in it from the beginning. I seemed to always know that San Francisco and Greenwich Village were cooler places than Stone Mountain. One of my first concerts was Queen in 1976 (with Thin Lizzy opening) and I loved their operatic approach to rock and Freddie Mercury’s flamboyance. I knew that the Beatles’ manager was gay and the Fab Four stood by him. TV was filled with plenty of people who were a “little light in their loafers,” as they used to say, who were favorites. From Paul Lynde to Rip Taylor, gay equaled fun. Billy Crystal’s empathetic gay character on Soap made more sense than John Ritter’s fake gay slapstick on Three’s Company.

The problem was if you acknowledged this, you got labeled the queer and you got smeared. When I began to embrace punk rock as my tribe in 1978,  my name at Redan High School went from “Hey, Blazak!” to “Hey, Gayzak.” I was gender non-conforming before that was a term. How I didn’t get beat up for wearing spandex with a velour purple and black striped top was a miracle. But I did get beat up other days. I remember in 1979, I was wearing a shirt of a cool Australian rock band that nobody had heard of yet, called AC/DC. Outside my Spanish class this redneck called me out. “Hey, Gayzak! ‘AC/DC’? That means you’re a fag, right?” (A year later he was wearing the same shirt.)

The problem was I didn’t know anybody who was gay. Actually, I knew lots of people at Redan High School who were gay, I just didn’t know it, many who came out as soon as they escaped to college. So it was really hard to develop empathy with the gay struggle. There was no Gay-Straight Alliance in school, no internet with somebody telling you it gets better, no history lesson about Stonewall. Basically, all the gay kids were cowering in a corner, hoping they didn’t get discovered this week and maybe could escape into Atlanta when they were old enough.

I did have the music. My love of The Who in 1980 led me to Secret Policeman’s Ball album to benefit Amnesty International. Besides Pete Townsend and Sting, the record had a song called “Glad to Be Gay” by Tom Robinson. I listened to it over and over. The idea that your sexuality could be criminalized by the state was just heartbreaking. If songs can change the world, I think that song did.

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Once I escaped into the punk rock world, I knew plenty of queer ass folks. I hung out at the 688 Club with Ru Paul and loved his shows and little movies. I worked in a record store in Ansley Park, the “gayest” part of Atlanta. In the summer of 1984, if a guy with a mustache in an undershirt came in, he probably wanted a cassette of Tina Turner or the Bronski Beat. I joke, but that music became another window into the subculture. That and La Cage aux Folles. When the punk clubs closed, we’d head to Weekends, the gay bar that stayed open until the wee hours. If I ever got hit on, I took it as a compliment (then probably grabbed the closest female). I wrote the first ever review of The Indigo Girls in The Emory Wheel and realized I should abandon my crush on Amy Ray, but continue to be a friend and a fan. The door was open.

Not being homophobic was a rebellion against redneck Georgia, but I still had plenty of homophobia in me. As a young male, a lot of my behavior was designed to publicly assert my heterosexuality. I think being “girl crazy” was part of that. But I had a real breakthrough moment thanks to an Atlanta band that I was a huge fan of.

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If the Ellen James Society had made the scene ten years later, they might have been lumped in to the Queer Core movement (Portland’s Team Dresch, one of the coolest bands ever), but in the late 1980s, they were just a killer underground band with amazing bass and guitar riffs and a few members who might have been lesbian. I saw them play lots, soaking in the passion and anger Chris McGuire and Cooper Seay brought to the music and vocals. So when I saw they were playing at Atlanta’s annual Gay Pride Fest in Piedmont Park I had a conundrum straight out of a Freudian psychodrama. (In this play, the angel represents the superego of societal rules.)

Devil on my shoulder: Yeah, I can see Ellen James for free fuck yeah.

Angel on my shoulder: But it’s at GAY PRIDE. If you go, people will think YOU ARE GAY. That’s not gonna help you with ladies or the churches or the church ladies.

My head being in the middle had to decide who to listen to. I remember this very clearly. I remember thinking this: WHO CARES? People who know me know my sexuality and people who don’t don’t matter and who cares if anybody thinks I’m gay. The gay people I know are all seriously awesome compared to some of the straight assholes I know. Fuck you, angel, I’m going to see The Ellen James Society. For free.

And I did. And I rocked out in front of the stage like a maniac with other music fans, gay, straight and otherwise. There were beautiful drag queens and suburban refugees and I’m sure a few kids from Stone Mountain who, for one afternoon in Georgia, felt free to let their freak flag fly. It was an awakening. We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.

Since that afternoon, I’ve felt that the LGBTQ tribe is also my tribe. My work on hate crimes has sensitized me even more to the struggle. I love my friends who are out and am there for those who are waiting for the right moment. (Facebook is a great place to track old friends who have opened the closet door.) I have had gay and trans students who have really helped me understand the whole spectrum of realities, perceptions and emotions that accompany existing as a sexual minority in America. I owe so much to all those people who have helped me leave smearing the queer behind and helped me to queer my own identity. (If you don’t know what that means, please refer to my previous post.) Here’s me in 2009, stating the obvious:

So today is a day to celebrate in America. There will still be hate crimes, discrimination, suicides, and people who are trapped in their closets. There are also places around the world that are light years behind America. This includes large chunks of Africa, Russia and the Middle East. (Everyone should watch the 2007 film Jihad of Love about being gay and Muslim). But today, there is a gay kid in deep Mississippi who feels the world is a little less hateful and that a basic right that straight people take for granted is available for them, too. They can be full citizens. And my daughter will grow up in a world where marriage equality will be one less battle to fight.

There will be one big gay party tonight and I’ll be there, waving my hands in the air.

Photo on 6-26-15 at 1.22 PM #2

“Oh, I Get It” Moment #1: B.B. King and the lady in the purple hat