Recently I was asked to speak at a panel debate addressing whether or not the LGBT movement is inclusive. What struck me was how the organisers and other panellists were operating on the assumption that inclusion is a good thing, so much so that it seemed like an obvious natural fact which didn’t need qualifying. This may have been a sign of operating on a shared understanding of what inclusion might mean which may or may not have been obvious to the average audience member. However, because inclusion can have a variety of meanings within different contexts, I think it’s important to pin down what we mean by inclusion: Inclusion for whom? Inclusion into what? Inclusion on what basis? Jess H Bradley writes
When talking about inclusion with reference to the LGBT movement, it seems relevant to note that the current way of doing LGBT activism relies heavily on the notion of recognition and inclusion. This mode of activism argues that LGBT people should be recognised and included in all areas of life, and mainly seeks to implement this recognition and inclusion through changes in the law. The legal reforms seek to do two things: bring LGBT people into the fold by making it illegal to exclude us (ie. laws banning discrimination in the workplace or in the provision of goods and services); and those that seek to exclude, through punitive methods, those who harm us (ie. through hate crime legislation).
The successive legal reforms around LGBT issues have filtered through into the workplace where the language of inclusion has been taken on as normative ideals. Big employers now proudly proclaim how inclusive they are on their websites, send their LGB(T?) employees to Prides in corporate sponsored floats, and compete to be listed on Stonewall’s Employers Index. The fact that the Employers Index makes up such a large and visible part of Stonewall’s operation is testament to just how much the inclusion-into-the-common-sense narrative has caught on. There is even now an entire field of human resources, called “diversity management”, which is dedicated to administrating the inclusion of marginalised groups within the workplace.
Since recognition and inclusion are the main goals of the LGBT movement currently, it stands to reason that inclusion has become the normative ideal for conversations about the makeup of the LGBT movement itself. LGBT groups are adding representational roles for people who face multiple oppressions. ‘Intersectionality’ seems to be the watchword of LGBT activist gatherings. The NUS LGBT Campaign recently voted to become the NUS LGBT+ Campaign in order to signify an inclusion of a myriad of identities. Some trans groups are adding an asterisk to their name to symbolise that they are inclusive of non-binary people, whilst some LGBT societies are even adding representatives for straight and cisgender allies.
Whilst the LGB(T?) movement has been successful at implementing legal reforms along the lines of hate crime legislation and laws banning discrimination in the workplace, as well as wider cultural gains within the workplace (along the lines of integrating diversity/inclusion within a corporate social responsibility narrative), these gains have limited impact on the vast majority of LGBT people’s lives. Inclusion of LGBT people in boardrooms of big business only benefits those of us who can perform professionality, something that is likely to only be available to those of us who are cis, white, middle or upper class, non-disabled men. And at closer inspection, the field of “diversity management” seems to be more about putting your employees who are from a visible minority at the front of your marketing photos to sell the company as inclusive, rather than actually removing barriers to access within employment.
Likewise, hate crime legislation has very little positive impact on the lives of LGBT people: the laws do not deter violence from being enacted against us; they simply seek to bind those found guilty of hate crime to harsher punishments over longer periods of time. As people from marginalised groups are more likely to be disproportionately policed, hate crime legislation results in putting increasing numbers of people from marginalised groups in contact with the criminal justice system. Further, hate crime legislation constructs homophobic, biphobic and transphobic violence as something which is particular to a specific form of bodily violence or harassment, ie. the violences that are often characterised by those with political power as “working class violence” – random personal assault and verbal harassment. However, the very real violence conducted by those with political power, such as the decision by judges to deport LGBT asylum seekers to almost-certain death or denying someone access to healthcare because they are nonbinary, are not within the scope of legislation. Yet through hate crime legislation, the state establishes itself as the only acceptable medium for opposing all homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic violence, which decreases the LGBT community’s capacity for addressing those other violences enacted upon us by the state and its actors. Since homophobic, biphobic and transphobic state violence is disproportionately enacted on the more marginalised members of community, usually those that face multiple oppressions, hate crime legislation actually reduces the chances for the LGBT community to coherently organise against those violences, resulting in the direct or indirect exclusion of people who face multiple oppressions from the movement.
So hopefully I have shown how the outward politics of recognition and inclusion operationalise an illusion of inclusion which actually enacts certain exclusions against marginalised people. Similarly, the internal politics of inclusion within the LGBT community itself is in danger of enacting its own exclusions.
The plus in LGBT+ and the asterisk in trans* are perfect examples. The addition of the plus seeks to include a myriad of identities but does not name them (either in the acronym itself or in discussions around adopting the plus, in my experience). How do we include a group if we do not know who they are and what their needs are? And if membership of the “plus” is not explicitly and openly discussed, are we inadvertently opening up our spaces to identities we didn’t mean to, because everyone has a different understanding of what is included within the plus? Similarly with the asterisk, if we add the asterisk to denote inclusivity of non-binary people, but we don’t implement our politics and practices to open up our spaces: are we really being inclusive? (This isn’t an argument against the plus or the asterisk necessarily, just the way they are being used. If we want to be more inclusive we need to do better).
Inclusion in and of itself does not inherently hold value for our movement. We understand this, as our movement is built on a series of exclusions that maintain its coherency. We have LGBT-only societies, bars, campaigns, and organisations. Within LGBT, we might choose to organise separately as lesbian and bisexual women or as trans people, because we understand that sometimes excluding men or cis people can provide us a safer space where sexism or transphobia is less likely, which is useful both in terms of our mental health and in terms of creating capacity for organising. Yet an uncritical adoption of the politics of inclusion often leads to the destruction of safer spaces and the inclusion of straight-cis people on our committees or on our staff. By allowing straight cis people to have positions of political power within our movement (as opposed to background, supportive roles when we need them), we decrease our capacity to organise coherently and effectively.
Go to an LGBT conference or gathering and it will soon be clear that the LGBT movement is increasingly framing of the inclusion of people who face multiple oppressions through the lens of intersectionality. Intersectionality theory was developed by black feminists (such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill-Collins) to understand the interactions between race and gender. A black woman’s experience cannot be understood primarily in terms of being black and being a woman as independent factors, but rather these factors combine to be greater than the sum of their parts. Through examining the experiences of black women, it is argued, we can gain an understanding of how the systems of racism and sexism support each other. It is impossible, then, to talk about intersectionality without talking about the interactions of race and gender.
Yet intersectionality, as often operationalised by my fellow white queers within the LGBT movement, is increasingly being used refer to any group of people who face multiple oppressions. A white disabled gay man might frame his identity as intersectional as he is marginalised through both homophobia and ableism. Intersectionality is increasingly being used as a synonym for ‘inclusion’ or ‘diversity’ without specifically referring to race and gender; and is being used as a shorthand for “we need to include people who face multiple oppressions” without a coherent engagement with the reasons why this is desirable or a particular commitment to changing policies or practices. This is in danger of de-radicalising ‘intersectionality’ and de-centering black feminist voices, individualising intersectionality as being about “diverse individuals” and enacting its own illusions of inclusion without actually being inclusive.
The LGBT movement has a lot to learn from the insights from intersectionality theory and what can be drawn from that to all people who face multiple oppressions. Yet we must be mindful to ensure that we do not appropriate intersectionality and make it about something other than black women, and that where we do use insights from intersectionality theory to extrapolate wider we recognise the role that black feminists have taken in developing this work.
Chief among those insights is how people who face multiple oppressions have a greater understanding of how LGBT-phobia works as they do not just understand LGBT-phobia but also its interactions with the other systems of oppression that they are affected by. This recognition is important as it shifts the narrative from including those who face multiple oppressions only when it is convenient to those with more political power within the movement, to actually prioritising the inclusion of those who face multiple oppressions over those that do not. This necessarily involves a wholesale political and cultural change within the LGBT movement, but it promises to pay dividends. A quick look at the history books will show how the movement has been most active and effective when people who face multiple oppressions have been at the helm, e.g. the Stonewall Riots (led by trans women of colour and homeless queers), the lesbian women’s movement (led by women), the HIV/Aids movement (led by disabled / chronically ill queers), and of course, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (led by class-conscious queers).
Making this change happen within the LGBT movement will inevitably involve a shift in politics and practices away from those that appeal to the most privileged within the movement to a politics that speaks to those intersections created by multiple oppressions. To achieve this, the LGBT movement needs to move away from the “recognition and inclusion” model of legal reforms which promises to help only those that can perform as a neoliberal professional subject, and towards politics that actually promise to work for the majority of LGBT people. For trans people, a reform of the Gender Recognition Act promises a greater positive impact than the ever increasing criminalisation of over-policed communities as a result of hate crime legislation ever will. Developing a critique of work, alongside resisting cuts to welfare, promises to help more LGBT people (especially those facing multiple oppressions) who are unemployed or underemployed than celebrating the handful of corporations who have gay men on their executive boards will. And instead of celebrating these executive gay men as “successful diverse citizens”, a politics that seeks to expand citizenship to LGBT asylum seekers could save lives. And a trans politics which not only advocates for greater access to trans healthcare, but actively engages in the fight against NHS cuts and privatisation, and organises for worker-patient control of all healthcare… Well, that would be something.