Letters From A Lesbian: Our problem with intersectionality


Kayleigh Verboncoeur

There’s a lot of spaces on this campus that pay a huge amount of lip service to the concept of ‘intersectionality,’ a seemingly-nebulous idea that you’re as likely to hear being thrown around at a University-wide diversity event as being horribly misused in an intro-level WGS course. The term itself actually refers to a framework through which we approach the interactions between personal identities and the material experiences those interactions create. It’s been en vogue in the past decade despite being coined almost thirty years ago, and its permeation of more liberal-leaning college spaces has sparked a significant amount of discussion around inclusion, empathy and students’ feelings of safety and comfort.

Vanderbilt is no different in this regard. It feels like every other inclusivity event on this campus stresses intersectionality, using the term almost as a promise of diversity. Oh, this meeting is about being intersectional in academia—completely misunderstanding the ways in which the term is meant to be used as a framework. It is an approach, not a desired result. A space in itself cannot be intersectional; those interacting with the space must aim to practice intersectionality. Setting the expectation that a space is entirely prepared to meet the needs of all students regardless of identity(ies) will create the reality of many students still not feeling heard, not feeling represented, not feeling understood, but now everyone around them feels self-aggrandizing about how the hypothetical space is inarguably progressive.

I was actually one of those students when I arrived at Vanderbilt as a first-year. Finally free to embrace my long-hidden love of other women I eagerly engaged with LGBTQ and feminist spaces, promised by YA novels and college movies that they would be a means for me to find my voice and to help others find theirs. Administration and multiple upperclassmen told me that these spaces were all ‘intersectional,’ the implication being that I would find everything I needed there for my ‘diverse’ identity. I don’t fault any of these individuals for truly believing in the positive things their spaces and events could bring, and maintain that they were all well-intentioned in their advocacy for my using these spaces. But students holding marginalized identities are not a monolith, and many spaces claiming to broadly represent or include these groups often mistakenly fall back on the assumption that we are.

I, as a lesbian, cannot be one hundred percent sure that I will feel represented in a space that attempts to include LGBTQ individuals broadly. This issue compounds for individuals holding more marginalized (and all intersecting!) identities than me—how can a historically white, heterosexual, hegemonic space advertising itself as inherently intersectional accurately anticipate the needs of a gay and/or trans woman of color, for example?

The difficulty in combating this mindset is that it is, as described before, infuriatingly self-aggrandizing. A space advertised as ‘intersectional’ will commonly fixate upon one key ‘relevant’ intersection (ex. race and gender or gender and disability) but implicitly revert to normative assumptions on all other issues. For a personal example, I have been to events both on and off Vanderbilt’s campus that advertised themselves as either inclusive of ‘queer’ identities or as ‘queer’ spaces that were also intersectional. However, in both spaces I felt some level of alienation on the basis of my lesbianism and my experiences with womanhood. In one, the conversation implicitly reverted to a perspective regarding middle-or-upper-class gay men, and in the other there was no acknowledgement regarding misogyny and how that might impact one’s experiences with homophobia. When I brought up my concerns, the responses all seemed to indicate that the specific conversations I wanted were not relevant or that the conversations occurring already implicitly included me even if I didn’t feel particularly included.

So, what are the solutions to this issue? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer outside of a mass rebranding and recontextualizing of ‘intersectionality’ into a tool rather than a situational state of being, but many students on campus are attempting to make up for the lack of explicit representation and shift the focus upon their own identities and experiences.

My response at the end of freshman year, in reaction to a complete lack of acknowledgment of how misogyny and homophobia feed on and reenforce each other, was to approach the Office of LGBTQI Life and petition for an Affinity Group that focused upon exactly that. It was there I and other gay, bi, or otherwise queer women were able to take conversations that occurred around campus and recontextualize them into our own experiences. It made us feel better when we engaged with other spaces, knowing that there was a concrete place where we could get the validation and representative discussion we deserved, and also enabled us to share resources so we could more effectively approach outside spaces with tools to advocate for ourselves and our experiences.

The Office of LGBTQI Life has seen a marked increase in interest regarding these groups over the past several years, with 11 Affinity Groups now hosted or supported on campus. The demonstrated need for this space does not inherently signal feelings of frustration with other inclusive spaces on campus, but provides an often-necessary supplemental resource for students who want the opportunity to more directly engage with their own identities. However, these spaces, while hinging on an intersection to form the body of the group, do not advertise themselves as inherently intersectional. Instead, the participants engage in an active agreement to use their commonalities as a jumping point for consideration of other experiences and as a facilitant for intersectional approaches to personal and social issues.

I think that the largest barrier to overcoming the cultural misunderstanding and misapplication of intersectionality to spaces marketed as ‘diverse’ is the failure to understand that most spaces will not be able to serve the needs of every individual within the space. Approaching issues and events from an intersectional lens means rejecting the idea that any given space is inherently all-inclusive or that any given resource will benefit all people in the same way. Instead, there must be a shift in mindset from an assurance of inclusion to an active desire to facilitate inclusion. No space will be perfect, but a framework of recognizing difference (and an openness to all levels of difference) will generate an ongoing process of self-critique.

True intersectionality is not about anticipating needs, but about creating spaces wherein marginalized people have opportunities to communicate both their needs and their experiences, and then incorporating those experiences into the larger framework of approach for issues we want to address.