- by Stacey Prince
Social scientists and the media often talk about oppression as if it fits into neat, divisible categories. People are described as either gay, or African American, or Muslim; they experience transphobia, or ableism, or sexism. We have been guilty of this on the TJP blog at times, too, talking about issues such as transphobia or racism as if they are separate from other aspects of identity and oppression. It's much more challenging to try and describe the complex realities of people's lives, but most of us are not just one thing - we are a multifaceted mix of identities, social group memberships, and areas of privilege and marginalization.
Individuals who are members of more than one marginalized group often experience a compounding of barriers and constraints. They may experience conflicts between the values held by members of their different target groups. They may also be more likely to experience horizontal oppression (oppression within target groups toward other group members) or pressure to align themselves with one identity over another.
In order to explore these issues, consider the intersection of being lesbian or gay with other marginalized identities. In the article Queering the New Year: We are (all) family, Ben de Guzman, a gay, Asian American Pacific Islander, explores the sometimes conflicting values between a mutual interdependence fostered among the many members of his large extended family on the one hand, and wanting to be out and assert his visibility as a gay man on the other hand. "When we come out, it's not just to parents and siblings," he says, "sometimes it's to an entire clan." He describes how homophobia and discrimination continue to divide many Asian American families and communities, and how working on increased acceptance in one's family can be a tightrope walk of asserting one's identity while honoring family and cultural responsibilities.
Consider next the challenges faced by LGBT individuals who are undocumented immigrants to the United States. In Undocumented gays aim to open closets, gay college student Jesus Barrios talks about the struggles he has faced since his family moved to the US from Mexico when he was 3. He describes the anxiety and pain of keeping one secret (his undocumented status) from nearly all of his friends, and another (being gay) from his family - the isolation this created, and the fear of disappointing the people he loves. As he opened the "double closet," he was fortunate enough to find sources of love and support, both within his family and institutionally (for example, with the help of a supportive high school guidance counselor he was able to go to college) but it's been a difficult journey.
Also, he notes how the two movements he is passionate about - gay rights and immigration rights -- intersect in so many ways. In both cases, laws are enacted that restrict rights and devalue people, hate crimes are aimed at individuals in both groups - and yet in the experience of this young man few of the activists supporting immigration rights such as the Dream Act also participate in LGBT events, whether as allies or gay themselves. This was part of his decision to come out of the "double closet," and he hopes that by telling his story he and other LGBT undocumented immigrants can begin to work together toward their common goals.
Not all undocumented LGBT individuals have as hopeful a story as Barrios. Many experience rejection at home and in their communities. In the US, undocumented immigrants are less likely to seek help if they experience discrimination or violence because of their illegal status. Since sex with same-gender partners is illegal in 80 countries and punishable by death in a few, some gay immigrants fear not only deportation but also police brutality, harassment, violence, and even death. For example, this article describes an Iranian student who, after participating in a protest against harsh immigration laws in Arizona, feared execution if he came out and was deported back to Iran.
It doesn't help to be in a relationship: because the US government does not recognize same-sex unions, even getting married in states with full marriage equality does not afford undocumented LGBT individuals any additional protection against deportation or help in gaining legal residency. This article indicates that about 24,000 US same-sex couples contain at least one immigrant partner. It tells the story of one such couple in which the Venezuelan-born, immigrant partner may face deportation after overstaying his visa. While heterosexual marriage does not guarantee legal residency, it does help their case.
Not only are target and agent group memberships complex and multifaceted, but they can also change over time - for example, when an individual moves from working to middle class, or a previously able-bodied person becomes disabled. The last intersection I would like to consider in this article is LGBT individuals who are seniors. The recently released documentary "Gen Silent" explores the lives of 6 LGBT seniors. The sad and frightening conclusion of the documentary is that many LGBT seniors are going back into the closet as they face decisions about long-term healthcare and housing at the end of life. The film explores how discrimination faced by these individuals in the years before Stonewall continues to impact them, causing long-term mistrust and anxiety about being out. This is compounded by their here and now experience of bullying by other seniors, along with discrimination and even efforts at conversion by healthcare professionals. As a result, many are hiding their lives and gay identities in order to survive in the care system. For some, their isolation is further compounded by the fact that they are estranged from their families of origin. There is hope in the sense that the LGBT community is beginning to address the problems faced by seniors and to develop communities where LGBT seniors can be out and live safely and comfortably, but until those communities are readily available and affordable many seniors face the terrible choices documented in this film.
Writing this article got me thinking about my own intersections, as well as those of the clients I work with in my psychotherapy practice. As a Jewish, lesbian woman, I have noticed how infrequently I bring up my Jewish identity and issues of anti-Semitism in groups and communities I am in, even groups whose focus is to reduce other forms of oppression. At home with extended family, while I am very comfortable in the expression of my Jewish identity, I'm less vocal (though still out) about my membership in queer culture and participation in queer politics. Integrating all of these pieces, in different contexts and communities - while still owning and acknowledging my privilege as a white, middle class, able-bodied individual - is tricky, and it's a dance that I often adjust and modify unthinkingly and unconsciously. For my clients, I am reminded of how important it is to offer a space where they can explore not only the target group membership that may be most prominent for them at a given time, but also the intersections between memberships, and the ways that those intersections can result in internal conflicts or external choices that are challenging to navigate. At the same time, like Jesus Barrios in the story referenced earlier, it's helpful to be reminded of the ways that different marginalized communities can work together toward liberation.