Using intersection theory to explore the multi dimensions of inequality and difference (UK)
Written by Suki Rai
Text reference: Julie Fish (2008), “Navigating queer street: Researching the intersections of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) identities in health research”. Sociological research online, 13(1), p.12.
Health researchers have a tendency to emphasise the differences in health and health care from a heterosexual perspective and suppose similarities among lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT). This approach does not take into account the experiences of disabled, black and minority ethnic (BME) and other marginalised groups. This paper looks at intersection theory and how diverse identities and systems of oppression can interconnect. Intersectionality is simply looking at multi-dimensions of inequality and difference.
The author uses three concepts of intersectionality: methodological, structural and political to explore how being lesbian may be permeated by class and gender and how racism and heterosexism intersect in the lives of BME men and women.
In early feminist analyses and theory, gender was considered as a general category in analysing oppression. Very little or no consideration was given to BME women, disabled women or women from working class backgrounds. Intersection theory was developed to address the exclusion of black women from feminist theorising and research. This theory maintains that gender and race are not to be analysed independently and cannot be just “added together”.
The term intersectionality belongs to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw developed a metaphor from the notion of intersections in the US Road system:
‘Intersectionality is what occurs when a woman from a minority group… tries to navigate the main crossing in the city… The main highway is ‘Racism Road’. One cross street can be colonialism, then Patriarchy Street… She has to deal not only with one form of oppression but with all forms…’ (Crenshaw, K. (2001)).
Feminists have used the intersection theory to look at the relationships between race, gender and class in terms of (amongst other things) health.
This paper looks at the relevance of intersectionality as a tool to enable LGBT research and knowledge. The paper first examines the notion of assumed similarities and the ways that this has ‘homogenised’ LGBT communities and then explores how this differs with the intersectionality theory.
Disrupting heteronormative discourses of the homogenous homosexual
Early feminist research sought to identify women as a class and depicted differences only between men and women. In a similar way, early research has sought to look at how the health needs of the LGBT community differ from the health needs of the heterosexual community. It can be said that whilst similarities have been emphasised, differences have been obscured.
It can be said that, although there has been some success in identifying the LGBT group as a social category, inter-group differences such as race, disability and age, have been ignored.
How does intersection theory differ from other approaches in LGBT sociological theorising?
Queer theorists seek to deconstruct identity categories. They argue that experiences do not fit neatly into a single category. This can be illustrated by the natural attitude towards gender supposing it unchanging, hence you will always be one or the other. Trans people will place themselves outside of this category and challenge the fixed gender categories. Queer theory aims to deconstruct identity categories and by doing so aims to challenge inequalities.
The author considers three categories of intersectionality: methodological, structural and political. These categories will be discussed in more detail below.
The author argues that most of the research on gay men or lesbians is still conducted with mostly white, middle class, young and able bodied participants. This can be attributed to homogeneity of the samples collected.
In the most commonly used frames for sampling the general population in the UK do not identify households whose occupants are lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans (in the electoral register or in the postcode file, for example).
As LGBT researchers do not have access to the random sampling method, they have adopted innovative ways in which to facilitate diverse groups within LGBT research. Martin and Dean (1993) showed that the population of gay men recruited through a public health campaign were different to that obtained through other sources. This sample was younger, had lower incomes and were predominantly African-American or Hispanic. These men were less likely to be part of or members of gay groups or organisations.
In Hickson et al (2004) the recruitment method demonstrated the significance of targeting particular demographic groups. This study used three sampling methods, Pride events, booklets and online. Men who were less educated were more likely to use the booklet – this method attracted Black and Asian men. White ‘other’ (i.e. non British) men were more likely to use the Pride events and British men were more likely to use the internet.
Similarly, lesbian health research has relied on self-identification. However, many BME LGBT people may not use the term lesbian or gay to describe themselves, and consequently are not included in research. To get around this, health researchers have devised multiple definitions of sexual identity including desire, behaviour and identity. These inclusive definitions are believed to encourage the participation of underrepresented groups.
Crenshaw describes structural intersectionality as the ways in which ‘the location of women of colour at the intersection of race and gender makes our experiences… qualitatively different from that of white women’ (1993:1245). Structural intersectionality considers patterns of social inequality.
In this section the author seeks to consider how racism and heterosexism work together to reinforce inequalities. The author uses three examples to illustrate this
- How the experience of coming out may differ for a black gay man
- How a lesbian’s class position may affect her experience of being lesbian
- Inequalities in mental health and how they may differ within LGBT communities.
Identity formation and coming out in black and white LGB communities
Coming out refers to two exceptional experiences, acknowledging one’s identity to oneself and telling others that one is lesbian, gay or bisexual. Public acceptance indicates psychological health and self-esteem. Literature on identity formation and coming out is extensive, however again, it relies on a white, western conceptualisation.
Someone who is BME and LBG will be less likely than their white counterpart to be open about their sexuality. Literature around identity formation and coming out do not consider the ways in which BME experiences can differ. Coming out may have different implications and the decision to adopt an overtly gay identity may be viewed as a repudiation of one’s ethnicity (Green, 2003).
Lesbians’ classed positions: white working class and middle class lesbians
Heteronormative discourses constitute LGB people as middle class and insulated from health inequalities experienced by other social groups. These assumptions have contributed to the erasure of white working class lesbians from research.
Experience of mental health in LGBT communities
There is growing concern about mental health issues in LGBT communities. Very little is known about how health needs differ within LGBT communities. An intersectional approach would be concerned with how and why LGBT people from BME communities have different experiences of mental health. More research is needed to look at the impact of racism and homophobia on BME LGBT mental health in the UK. In Diaz et al.’s (2001) study of the health of gay and bisexual Latino men, many men reported the experience of racism within the gay community.
The author conceives political intersectionality as political organising (within social movements) and political processes (adopted by governmental and other organisations). Therefore, questions for consideration include:
How can knowledge produced about multiple inequalities contribute to tackling discrimination?
What are the political costs and barriers to producing such knowledge?
The author’s discussion focuses on the extent to which politically relevant and recognised institutions are in place to address LGBT inequalities; the absence of statistics for sexual identity; and the degree to which LGBT concerns are represented within political processes.
Among LGBT communities in the UK we do not know how many LGBT people live with children, what kinds of jobs they do, or where they live. There are only estimates about the size of the LGBT population in the UK.
The degree to which LGBT concerns can be represented within political processes is constrained by the lack of infrastructure support for the LGBT voluntary and community sector.
This article looks at the intersection theory and how diverse identities and systems of oppression can inter-connect.
The focus of the article is on health research and looks at whether multi dimensions of inequality and difference are considered when researching LGBT health inequalities.
It looks at previous attempts by early feminists to address inequalities between men and women. These early feminists identified women as a class and failed to recognise dimensions such as race, age, class and disabilities.
Similarly, with LGBT research, researchers have failed to consider a multi-dimensional approach by merely comparing heterosexual and LGBT experiences.
The article encourages you to look at the methods by which you collect data when conducting research. For example, the author argues that most of the research on gay men and lesbians is still conducted with mostly white, middle class, young and able-bodied participants. We should look at how we collect data and use different methods to encourage participation from diverse groups.
It also looks at definitions of sexuality. BME LGBT participants may not self-identify as LGBT. We should use multiple definitions including desire, behaviour and identity to encourage participation and be more inclusive in our approach.
Structural intersectionality needs to be considered when looking at LGBT health inequalities. This particularly relates to the relationship between heterosexism and racism. Consideration needs to be given to how BME LGBT experiences differ from that of their white counterparts. Consideration needs to be given to the following:
- ‘Coming out’ is different in BME communities. Someone who is BME and LGBT will be less likely than their white counterparts to be open about their sexuality.
- Research assumes a middle-class position for LGBT communities, this fails to recognise other social groups and this excludes their experiences.
- There is very little research on BME LGBT and the impact of racism and homophobia.
Political Intersectionality describes how political structures can be a barrier to research methods. It looks at the collection of data at a national level. In the UK for example, there is very little data that is collected for the LGBT community. There are only estimates for the size of the LGBT population in the UK.
It is important to be mindful of intersectionality when considering health inequalities. This paper encourages the reader to look at the multi dimensions of inequalities and difference.
When we look at health inequalities and health needs, we need to consider that within each social category, such as LGBT, we must take time to consider the inter group differences such as race, disability and age. These differences cannot be ignored as it is essential to consider racism, ageism and varying abilities within the context of homophobia for example. Only then will we begin to have a better understanding of health inequalities and barriers to accessing healthcare.
- Greene, B. (2003) Beyond heterosexism and across the cultural divide – developing an inclusive lesbian, gay and bisexual psychology: A look to the future. In L. Garnets & D. C.
- Kimmel (Eds.), Psychological perspectives on lesbian, gay, and bisexual experiences. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
- Crenshaw, K. (2001) Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity, politics and violence against women of color. Paper presented at the World Conference Against Racism. Available at www.hsph.harvard.edu/grhf/WoC/feminisms/crenshaw.html
 Martin, J. L., & Dean, L. (1993). Developing a Community Sample of Gay Men for an Epidemiological Study of AIDS. In C. Renzetti & R. Lee (Eds.), Researching Sensitive Topics (pp. 82-99). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
 Hickson, F., Reid, D., Weatherburn, P., Stephens, M., Nutland, W., & Boakye, P. (2004) HIV, sexual risk, and ethnicity among men in England who have sex with men. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 80 (6), 443-450.
 Diaz, R. M., Ayala, G., Bein, D. E., Henne, J., & Marin, B. V. (2001). The Impact of Homophobia, Poverty, and Racism on the Mental Health of Gay and Bisexual Latino Men: Findings from 3 US Cities. American Journal of Public Health, 91 (6), 927-932.