By: Karma R. Chávez © 2011
Recently, a number of commentators have had some things to say about what LGBTQ and immigrant rights advocates can learn from each other. A comment by David Jacobsen argued that there are significant “elements” of the LGBT movement that may be informative for the immigrant rights movement. These elements include claiming selves as the subject of a movement, refining grassroots operations, and identifying key allies. Tucson’s Luke Whitman built on Jacobsen’s analysis, suggesting the importance of such alliance work in Tucson. These articles follow other recent events, including a September meeting in Chicago that brought issues pertaining to LGBT immigrant rights to the table in a forum that included Illinois Congress members, Luis Gutierrez and Mike Quigley.
Such events and comments are truly exciting, and point to what some groups have been saying for a long time (see, e.g., this statement, this one and this one). While I can easily quibble with some of the ways in which these most recent connections between LGBTQ and immigration issues are being framed, I am more interested in how these connections have been noticed by some who appear to be made very nervous by them. A recent article in the California Catholic Daily takes issue with the creation of such connections. In reporting on an Orange County forum which was to address, among other issues, the intersections between LGBTQ and undocumented communities, the article argues, “The concept of ‘intersectionality’ is a growing tactic being used by homosexual activists to co-opt the immigrants’ rights movement.” The article does nothing to explain “intersectionality,” and seems to function mostly as a warning to Catholics who might be uncomfortable with another “sneaky” tactic used by conniving “homosexual” activists. The comments on this article suggest as much, as one commenter remarked, “’Intersectionality’ (who made up this word?) is a way for sodomite activists to equate Hispanics with homosexuals, as co-victims (incidentally oppressed by the Catholic Church)…” Another quipped, “Intersectionality????? JimAroo Rule Number One: When someone makes up a new word or phrase to describe an old situation or reality, they are always trying to deceive you.”
Of course “intersectionality” is not a made up term. Black feminist legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the concept two decades ago in a legal note arguing for the importance of thinking not just in terms of singular categories of race or gender, but about how gender is racialized and race is gendered. Crenshaw’s ideas were not original, as she drew upon an enormous body of intellectual work by woman of color and lesbian feminists such as Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, bell hooks, Nellie Wong, Naomi Littlebear, Mitsuye Yamada, Angela Davis, Chrystos, María Lugones and many, many more. These activists, writers and thinkers articulated the importance of understanding oppression as interlocking and intermeshing. In other words, systems of power like race, class, gender, nation, ability, and sexuality must be understood as interwoven with each other, unable to be separated out through what Elizabeth Spelman calls “pop-bead metaphysics.”
The reality is that every one of us is a compilation of all these different dimensions of ourselves and that we are able to maneuver the world in disparate ways as a result. The intersections between trans and queer identities and immigration have only been considered in a serious way by scholars and activists in the past two decades. Such work is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that the many experiences and obstacles faced by queer migrants have become much more visible and therefore able to be addressed. An intersectional or interlocking-oppressions approach to scholarship and activism has certainly been central in understanding the experiences of queer migrants, and also the ways in which gender, sexuality, race, class and nation impact how immigration law and policy are constructed and promoted. So, it seems as if the Catholics have it right, in part. Intersectionality is in fact the mechanism through which we understand LGBTQ issues and immigration issues to be imbricated. What’s highly problematic of course is the way in which this article implies that the communities are not connected, and that any such suggestion is merely another example of the over-reach of the “homosexual agenda.”
It seems to me that this is an opportunity for progressive scholars and activists to take control of the rhetoric of such debates, especially when theoretical terms born in academia find their way into non-academic vernacular spaces. Certainly scholar/activists like Yasmin Nair have been doing this kind of work for a very long time. Others of us need to take on some of this labor. I’m not suggesting that the Catholic Church will necessarily be persuaded by our explanations of intersectionality or any other terms for that matter, but perhaps, the presence of more competing discourse would be fruitful.
*Views on the QMRN blog reflect those of the author and not necessarily those of the QMRN or its individual members