Intersectionality in the Era of Global LGBTQ Rights

by Jake Nelson

As the United States and other Western governments continue to focus on the human rights of LGBTQ persons as part of their broader human rights agendas, it is essential to address the intersection of marginalization on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity with other bases of marginalization—and critical feminism and race studies can provide some useful analytic frameworks to do so.


In a question-and-answer session last week on the White House Tumblr account, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy answered users’ questions about LGBTQ issues in the wake of President Obama’s public opposition to so-called conversion therapy.

The White House’s open condemnation of conversion therapy is a major symbolic victory for LGBTQ Americans (and could indeed become a codified one, if the push to adopt a nationwide law banning the therapy is taken up in earnest), but some of Jarrett and Murthy’s responses to tumblr users were even more enlightening and invite broader discussions about the marginalization of LGBTQ persons in both domestic and foreign contexts.

While many questions and answers focused on domestic issues specifically related to the banning of conversion therapy and the Obama administration’s efforts on inclusion of transgender and gender-non-conforming individuals, Jarrett and Murthy also mentioned the need to “address the intersectionality within the LGBTQ community.”

The need to address LGBTQ intersectionality is just as pressing when it comes to foreign policy—particularly as the United States and other Western governments continue to make the human rights of LGBTQ persons a part of their broader foreign policy. To do so, however, it is essential to look back at some of the gender and black feminism literature that originally addressed intersectionality.

Intersectionality theory, coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, builds upon previous work in gender and race studies and seeks to analyze the ways in which different kinds of oppression interact and affect individuals—or, in Crenshaw’s words, what happens when “discrimination encounters another kind of discrimination.” Crenshaw’s original theorization of intersectionality focused on black women and argued that, both legally and societally, our inability to understand and unravel the interaction of multiple forms of discrimination effectively erases those who live out these intersections.

Many black feminists have pointed out that black women are often excluded from both white-dominated women’s rights struggles and male-dominated black rights struggles—resulting in the erasure that Crenshaw described in 1989. Hazel Carby, a black feminism theorist currently at Yale University, suggested that the best way to combat that erasure is through reclaiming one’s visibility: “It is only in the writings by black feminists that we can find attempts to theorize the interconnection of class, gender, and race as it occurs in our lives.”

That is, it is only through black women’s voicing of their own experiences living at the intersection of race- and gender-based oppression that one can hope to understand how de facto and de jure discriminations affect their lives. And only then can institutions think about policy interventions to address those discriminations.

This logic can inform how we look at persons living at the intersection of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and discrimination based on race, class, gender, religion, and disability. Whether talking about black LGBTQ youth in the United States (as Murthy and Jarrett did) or about LGBTQ persons globally who also happen to be women, ethnic or religious minorities, of a lower socio-economic status, or living with a disability, one of the most important steps to address multiple discriminations is allowing space for the voices of those living at the intersections to be heard.

Creating new spaces for intersectional LGBTQ voices is certainly an important step, but equally important is leveraging existing discursive spaces to allow opportunities for these new voices. This often means taking a step back, reflecting, and, most importantly, listening. It is vital for LGBTQ persons in the policy-making arena—who have often (and thankfully) been instrumental in bringing LGBTQ issues to the agenda—to resist the urge to speak on behalf of the millions of LGBTQ persons around the world who experience and live oppression in wildly different ways. These voices must be able to speak for themselves, not solely through the prism of elite Western institutions.

It is also crucial to look at the ways in which LGBTQ institutions, many of which are to a certain extent still dominated by white males and focus on issues (such as marriage equality) that most directly affect upper-middle-class gays and lesbians, unintentionally exclude intersectional LGBTQ persons. Intersectional LGBTQ voices must have the opportunity to resonate, even when they may be critical of the West, of capitalism, or of whiteness.

It is emboldening to see some of President Obama’s closest advisors argue, in no uncertain terms, that attention to the intersectionality of race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity is important in addressing systemic inequality at home. But it is equally important to take that challenge and apply it to the ways in which the United States and other Western countries advance their LGBTQ rights agendas internationally.

Photo: Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr

Jake Robert Nelson is a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed above are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or the United States Government.