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What Is Intersectionality, Really?

BY: Trevor News
Colorful rainbow artwork.

We can start with one definition: intersectionality is the way in which individuals are empowered and oppressed by the intricate ways in which parts of their identities connect. Every single person is unique; a person’s identity isn’t just made up of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, class, ability, nationality, or even location in the world, but the combination of these things and more. Think of it as a gemstone that has many sides each appearing as you rotate it in your hand. Every single side you see reveals different angles of the stone’s face, but they all connect, creating the diamond you’re examining. Out in the world, you aren’t just one side of yourself, but every side in totality, and every side is perceived differently by the people around you, shifting with the situations you’re in. 

But intersectionality is about more than just your different identities, but how those identities relate to systems of power which are rooted in social constructs of race and gender. The truth is, the experiences of a Black person are different than those of a white person; a Black woman experiences the world differently than a white woman; and Black trans women hold distinct experiences from those of Black cis women, white trans women, and any number of other combinations of identities. They may share commonalities, but ultimately, experiences of discrimination vary widely between them.

The theory of intersectionality was first introduced by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who examined the ways in which Black women experience harsher oppression than white women because of the intersecting layers of their racial and gender identities. The theory was further developed by Black scholars like Anna Julia Cooper, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and bell hooks. Thanks to the influential work of these authors and others who have followed, we are now able to better understand the unique ways in which these intersections make power more accessible to some (white, cisgender, wealthy, straight men) than others. 

Understanding intersectionality is crucial to understanding the unique experiences of LGBTQ young people. The Trevor Project’s research on the mental health of LGBTQ young people illustrates intersectionality in statistics. Our findings show how distinctly oppression exacerbates negative mental health conditions. LGBTQ young people of color experienced higher rates of suicide attempts and thoughts; experienced higher rates of depression and anxiety, and were shown to be more likely to experience discrimination or harassment because of their identities when compared to their white peers.

Intersectionality is a part of everyone’s lived experience, whether you’re aware of it or not. Intersectionality doesn’t just impact certain people with certain identities but every single person. Still, even if it’s something that everyone has in common, it has become a divisive subject because people don’t understand it, or see it as a threat. The theory of intersectionality is no threat — it’s just a lens through which we can explore and understand our identities as they relate to systems of power.

This underscores why understanding the complexities of intersectionality is so important to dismantling historical oppression, because LGBTQ young people are not inherently more likely to experience increased mental health challenges because of race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. Rather, they are more likely to be mistreated and stigmatized because systems of power and oppression value certain identities over others. True allyship for LGBTQ young people begins with learning how the world works and how we can change it.

Sue Cardenas-Soto is a Copywriter at The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and mental health organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people. If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, our trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386 via chat, or by texting START to 678-678.

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