Throughout LGBT+ History Month Staff, Volunteers and people who use Project 6’s services have been having conversations around the experiences of different LGBTQ+ people as well as sharing from their own personal lives.
Intersectionality, Privilege, and Me
When the email came in asking for contributions for LGBT History Month, I instinctively felt a sense of duty to share something. My secondary instinct was to doubt myself and to question whether I would add anything of value. Thankfully we’re in LGBT History Month rather than Week, which gave ample time for reflection (and procrastination).
This is what I’ve decided to share…
A realisation I had only recently is just how little time I spend considering my sexuality these days. I don’t think about it much in the same way that I don’t think about my skin colour, the fact that I’m able-bodied, neurotypical, and that my gender identity matches the sex I was assigned when I was born. What I’m starting to think about more and more, is how all these factors combine, or ‘intersect’, to privilege me in certain ways. The reason I don’t think about my sexuality very much is because I don’t have to.
But what if I was a person of colour? Or if I was disabled by society? What if I expressed my gender in less traditionally feminine ways? Would I have to think about my sexuality more? The answer is more than likely, yes. If I was already subject to hostility and discrimination in the world based on some of my characteristics, I would certainly face an added layer of direct and indirect oppression for not being heterosexual.
What if I lived in a part of the world that criminalised my sexuality? I’d have a vital reason to think about my sexuality then.
So I have some ‘unearned’ privilege, based purely on facets of my identity that I didn’t ask for, or cultivate. There are other facets, which combine with my sexuality to disadvantage me.
My age means that virtually all my formal education happened while the oppressive anti-LGBTQ+ policy, Section 28, was in place. It was oppressive because it prohibited any reference to or discussion about LGBTQ+ people. This denied me the opportunity of seeing myself reflected positively in the world, and as a result, to feel OK about a significant part of my identity.
Section 28 undoubtedly caused me to suppress my sexuality during secondary school to protect myself from the homophobic bullying I witnessed, which teachers felt powerless to do anything about. Section 28 and a largely hostile media in the 1990s caused me to attach shame to the word lesbian. So although I lived as a mostly openly gay person from the age of seventeen, it took until my early thirties to let go of the shame and fully embrace and feel a sense of pride in my identity as a lesbian.
When I left school and attended a further education college in a more affluent part of the city, I met girls who’d been openly experimenting with their sexuality at school, and who were confident expressing their same sex attractions. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but I sensed there was some link (or ‘intersection’) between my social class and my early experience of my sexuality.
I face discrimination at the ‘intersection’ between my sexuality and my gender. As a woman I face misogyny and the risk of male violence. When I am an out lesbian, I am at even greater risk because of homophobic violence. When I was younger and went out with my girlfriend, we routinely faced harassment from some men. It would begin with the misogynistic assumption that we would be attracted to them, and if we gave any indication that we were a lesbian couple, then we would face the homophobic assumption that we ‘just hadn’t met the right man yet’. This caused me to habitually modify my behaviour to feel safe. It’s a habit I still unconsciously practice today.
Where my sexuality ‘intersects’ with my role as a mother, I experience discrimination. As the non-biological mum I was regularly asked whether I was the friend or sister of my pregnant partner, which created an uncomfortable edge to most interactions with healthcare professionals. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to explain how my daughter was conceived, and by extension, to justify that I am her full and legal parent. ‘Who’s the dad?’ is another common question; the implication being that all children must have one.
My daughter experiences discrimination because she has two mums. Recently she was given a ‘family tree’ worksheet during a school lesson. The boxes were pre-labelled ‘mother’ and ‘father’. She had to scribble out the word father. The world is still not geared up for kids with two mums or two dads (or one mum, or one dad, or no mum and dad, or any of the other myriad ways in which it’s possible for children to be lovingly conceived and raised). It’s not as oppressive as Section 28 but education is still marginalising.
Another aspect of my identity is that I am a person in recovery. I’ve questioned whether this ‘intersection’ privileges or disadvantages me. I would say that most services I have encountered over the years – statutory, voluntary, and private – reflect the wider culture, which still assumes that people are heterosexual (and cisgender). So while I have never faced any direct discrimination (no one’s ever told me to get lost), I have found certain experiences alienating. Assessment forms, for example, were usually a bit clunky. Something that’s instinctive and yet rubbish, when I stop to think about it, is that in peer support environments, I must conduct an on-the-spot risk assessment to gage whether it’s safe to refer to partners with female rather than gender neutral pronouns. This is why I seek out LGBTQ+ peer support when I can (usually when I’m visiting bigger cities and the offer is more diverse).
And there’s something else. I’ve never linked my problematic substance use with the oppression I experience because of my sexuality. For some people, the two are linked. To assume either of the two experiences to be true risks alienating a person.
I chose to share the last section, about recovery, because of its relevance to what we do at Project 6. It’s very satisfying to feel confident bringing my whole ‘intersectional self’ to work, and what I’ve shared here is evidence of that. I don’t fear judgement at Project 6 because all I’ve ever experienced is acceptance.
But if we are in the business of learning and growing, as individuals and as an organisation, then what might we change and do better off the back of LGBT History Month? How might an intersectional lens help us to get to know ourselves and each other better? What are our unconscious biases, or ‘blindspots’? Are these even the right questions?!
We know the LGBTQ+ community is disproportionality effected by problematic drug and alcohol use. We also know there are specific barriers people experience in finding and accessing services where they can find help and support.
At Project 6 we are proactive in seeking to make our services as accessible as possible, however we know we can always be learning and improving.
Have some thoughts on how we can make our services more welcoming? Get in touch, we’d love to speak to you!