The first step towards an anti-oppressive social work practice? Understanding intersectionality

essy knopf intersectionality
Reading time: 9 minutes

Intersectionality teaches us that identity is complex, made up of a variety of factors including race, gender, class,1 ethnicity, age, sexuality, and physical ability.

How these aspects of self interact with power structures and cultural interpretations2 and shape our experiences of privilege and power, oppression and disadvantage, are the crux of discussions about intersectionality.

Critical Race Theorists argue that having a minority identity, such as being Black in a society in which White dominance and structural racism is the norm, will lead to some level of oppression while being the dominant identity—White—will result in the opposite experience.3 4

Racism, just like ableism, ageism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, transphobia, and sexism are all forms of oppression. They are not universal, but reflections of power differentials produced by those with dominant identities. In North America, these typically are “White”, “male”, “heterosexual”, and “Christian”.5

The oppression experienced by a Black person is only further exacerbated when they also share additional “targeted” identities such as “having a disability” and being lesbian, which brings its own share of minority stresses.6

But say you were all three of these things and a member of the upper-class. This would complicate matters by adding some degree of privilege to the power differential equation.

Selfhood thus is the result of “potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances”.7 This is the puzzling truth of intersectionality: nothing is ever as clear-cut as it might seem.

In the following paragraphs, I will use my own experiences as a case study about the intricate—and sometimes contradictory—nature of having intersectional identities.”

An introduction to intersectionality

I identify as a person of color and someone who has a disability (autism). I also identify as a gay male.

My identity thus is neither single nor unitary, but the product of innate traits such as genetics, gender, and sexual preference, as well as self-selection and social construction.8

To elaborate: while I was raised in Australia, I never felt anchored to this nationality, nor to that of my parents, given I had limited access to their home countries and cultures: Iran and the US. 

I was raised in what I perceived to be a White dominant culture, and knew that my olive skin color led people to view me as non-White, or at the very least an “honorary White”.9

My awareness of being non-White was only heightened through conflict or oppressive microaggressions—“small acts of racism, consciously or unconsciously perpetrated”10—such as being called a racial slur by a stranger at age six.

In the wake of 9/11, some high school peers began altering my name until it resembled either “Saddam Hussein” or “Osama bin Laden”.

While motivated by the desire to order the world, these categorizations marked me as both inferior and outsider, imposing upon me a racial identity that conformed with a racial essentialism stereotype.11

According to this stereotype, all Middle Easterners are Muslims, and therefore terrorists, patriarchs, misogynists, and anti-Western.12 These post-9/11 racial scripts13 were reductive and failed to respect the unique and multifaceted nature of my identity.14

My racial identity, in this case, was not an “objective, inherent, or fixed” quality corresponding to a “biological or genetic reality”, but the product of social construction;15 a shaping through “social and cultural contexts, public discourses, national myths, and intergroup relations”.16

In being identified as Middle Eastern, I was grouped with a devalued “target”, to be dominated, oppressed, and marginalized by “agent” groups.17 

the thoughtful gay intersectionality

The social construction of oppression

The oppressive experiences I described here were not the product of mere individual prejudices and attitudes, however, but rather a cycle of socialization designed to reinforce racist patterns of privilege and oppression.18

This socialization triggered in me a sense of shame and guilt about the way I looked, in turn giving rise to internalized racism. Those drove me to shun all aspects of my own perceived “otherness”19 during future social interactions.

Growing up in Australia, I learned in school that these racist patterns were the product of legislation, such as the cultural assimilation policies of the 1940s and 1950s.

There was also the White Australia Policy, which limited immigration of all non-British people and was only abolished in 1975 with the Racial Discrimination Act.20

Despite the Australian government’s subsequent embrace of multiculturalism, it seemed to me that the commonly held social expectation remained one of assimilation.

If you failed to speak English with an Australian accent or to use Australian slang, if you subscribed to “foreign” religions such as Islam, or if you refused to embrace tokenistic aspects of Australianmui culture such as enjoying barbeques, the beach, and sports, you faced possible mockery and marginalization.

This I now understand was more than standard “ingroup” behavior, whereby members’ identities are reaffirmed by their exclusion of “outgroup” members.21

It was, rather, a process of socialization oriented towards sustaining “White, male, heterosexual, Christian institutional and economic power”.22

The tyranny of heteronormativity

This process began in school, with the daily enforcement of rigid gender scripts.23 Males were expected to have a keen interest in sports, to regularly prove their athletic prowess, to speak in clipped, monosyllabic sentences, and to limit their facial expressions.

Any kind of weakness was not tolerated. Expressing emotions or empathy was frowned upon. Judgment, dismissal, or exclusion among boys and men were the three methods by which I saw this toxic masculinity socialized.

In this sense, one’s gender “membership” often felt uncertain—prone to being retracted by one’s peers at the slightest infraction. 

Every aspect of how one presented or conducted oneself felt open to scrutiny. If you had a lisp, gestured too much, or walked in a certain way, you could be declared “girly”, “pansy”, or even a “f****t”.

To be called gay was to be ruled an abject failure as a male, a dirty sexual deviant, and a threat to the social order.

Once accused, you would invariably find yourself pushed to the bottom of the social pecking order.

Given my various autism-related traits, such as my unusual gait and style of speaking, I found myself excluded and bullied by members of privileged agent social groups; specifically, White, neurotypical, heterosexual boys and men. 

How oppression can accumulate

This “othering” I think was also the product of ableist assumptions that those with disabilities lack intelligence and are helpless and incapable of assuming care for themselves.24 

In a culture that codes masculinity as being self-sufficient, people with disabilities accordingly fail the acid test. 

Consider that when my impairment was revealed—upon committing a social gaffe, for example—some people would respond by calling me “stupid” or “r*****ed”. 

While my disability might seem mild to some, my different style of thinking and behaving was nevertheless picked up by the finely attuned senses of agent group members, who would cut in line ahead of me at the cafeteria, turn away upon my approach, and exclude me from social gatherings. 

Where I had internalized racism as a survival mechanism, I also learned to internalize ableism and homophobia, hiding my struggles and my sexuality where possible.

I endured sensory sensitivities that made sitting in a classroom difficult, but fear of inviting victim-blaming25 however kept me from ever complaining or seeking support.

For to be perceived as disabled or gay would mean I would lose certain privileges, such as the social acceptance afforded to my “normal” and straight peers,26 and even incur their hostility and oppression.

A toxic masculinity cocktail

My aversion to revealing any vulnerability was the product of a socialized script of self-sufficient masculinity.

This script in turn stemmed from the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps/equal playing field” beliefs that have come to define both North American27 and Australian culture.

Australia for example has long conceived of itself as the land of the “fair go”, where everyone has a chance of getting ahead, with the nation priding itself for its apparent egalitarianism.28

The bootstrapping/equal playing field beliefs value self-sufficiency, as well as a formal conception of equality, whereby everyone is entitled to the same treatment.

That same conception however fails to acknowledge that people operate within power structures that either inflict disadvantage or fail to make adequate accommodations for those who face it, such as people with disabilities.29 

While I reconciled with my sexuality in my early 20s, it was not much later, after my autism diagnosis at age 26, that I was able to name the problem identified above.

By calling out this ableism for what it was and recognizing how it pervaded all aspects of my life, I was finally able to embark on the road to liberation as described by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire.30

My reality was no longer grounded in the belief that I was a bad person who deserved rejection. Instead, I now saw that I was someone who had been oppressed and disadvantaged.

Without a diagnosis, I had never had an adequate way of explaining my difference, or of receiving the therapeutic interventions that might have otherwise helped me overcome my interpersonal challenges. 

Intersectionality: sometimes a target, sometimes an agent

I recognize that for all these difficult experiences, there were instances in which I nevertheless enjoyed some power and privilege.

In some instances, I was a target, but in others, I was treated as an agent. As a male, I had unearned advantages and conferred dominance over females31 which, historically speaking, had enabled the former to objectify, sexually harass, and menace the latter.

Besides never having to fear such treatment, I enjoyed other privileges, such as never having to devote much attention to maintaining a gender normative appearance. Nor did I ever have to fear that the way I dressed might be blamed for my later rape.32

My male gender identity has also meant that where it comes to employment, I have a better chance of securing higher pay and a managerial role. As someone with lighter-colored skin, I also enjoy skin privilege.33

Identifying as cisgender means I have never been subjected to the kinds of everyday and major discrimination and prejudice that many trans individuals have faced,34 sometimes even from within the LGBTQI+ community.

For instance, I can successfully “pass” as my chosen gender and can use public facilities without fear of intimidation or attack. The humiliation and hurt of being dead named or having my gender identity questioned have never been a reality for me.

Growing up as a member of the middle class, I enjoyed other privileges such as a stable home, three meals a day, the occasional vacation, and so on. My parents at one point were even able to secure a private education for me and my siblings. 

As an Australian, I never had to endure disadvantages and dangers other people of other nationalities might, such as extreme poverty, civil rights abuses, war, famine, water/food scarcity, natural disasters, genocide, totalitarian dictatorships, energy shortages, a lack of public infrastructure, rampant corruption, deadly pollution, and environmental degradation.

Like other Australians, I have been blessed with a home country renowned for its cultural diversity, fresh air, intact natural environments, low population density, strong public healthcare and welfare systems, low-interest government college loans, a low unemployment rate, and low crime rates.

My nationality has granted me the comfort of knowing there was always a safety net there, waiting to catch me in the event of personal disaster.

The conflicts and contradictions of intersectionality

In short, I experienced disadvantage as a person of color who had a disability and was gay, while also enjoying privileges as a lighter-skinned cisgender male, a member of the middle class, and an Australian.

Understanding that we can have cumulative disadvantages, or simultaneously face privilege and oppression, is what intersectionality is all about.

The contradictoriness that appears during intersectional inquiry reveals the problem with assuming what it is like to walk in another’s shoes. 

Intersectionality invites us to ask and to listen, to adopt a position of humility.

From such a position, we all stand a better chance of truly understanding and empathizing with one another’s experiences.

Such an understanding is crucial to our struggle as human beings for collective empowerment.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

Why gay men suffer from internalized homophobia

Essy Knopf internalized homophobia
Reading time: 7 minutes

Even today, gay boys and men grow up facing the dual challenge of cultural homophobia and its byproduct: internalized homophobia.

The chance they will suffer from the latter is magnified when that homophobia plays out in the family home.

When I was 14, I remember a relative telling me that HIV/AIDS was the result of “gay men having sex with monkeys”. Say what?

“Oh, but it’s true,” the relative insisted. “Scientists have proven it.”

Today, such a claim could be easily disproved with a quick Google search. And while confusing being gay with bestiality might have been laughable, the statement had carried a hateful subtext. 

What this relative was really saying was that gay men were despicable sexual deviants.

That same message was conveyed in countless other situations. Once while visiting a friend of my father’s, I was forced to listen to him rant about a male flight attendant he’d noticed wearing makeup.

“He’s just a f****t,” the friend said, as if this explained everything. “I found it nauseating”.

These comments left me burning with anger. Any passionate defense I mustered would, of course, have outed me, and meant enduring the disdain not only of this homophobe but my father as well.

In high school, a girl I had considered a friend complained to the entire class about seeing a news segment about the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade.

“Why do gay people have to shove it in our faces?” she said. “It’s disgusting.” Never mind the fact she herself had chosen to watch the segment.

Our teacher had simpered in agreement. Then—in a tone that was meant to convey tolerance—he stated that while he personally had no problem with gay people, he believed they should “keep their sexuality to themselves”.

Which is precisely what I did. With these kinds of comments being thrown about, there was zero chance I would be telling anyone about my sexuality any time soon.

It is no surprise then, that in this kind of hostile climate that we as gay men feel compelled to live lives of subterfuge.

The source of internalized homophobia

The same year I was told gay people should “keep their sexuality to themselves”, I undertook a job bagging groceries at a local chain store.

The store was occasionally visited by a rail-thin man wearing a goatee and garish gold jewelry, who had a tendency to mix and match his clothes: a tie-dyed shirt with cow-print pajama pants, a bucket cap with mandals.

I guessed by his mincing movements that he must be gay, a fact that left me puzzled. Every gay boy and man knew that flamboyant behavior invariably drew negative attention. Was this fellow trying to paint a target on his own back?

It is only with hindsight now that I realize this stranger’s campness was not necessarily an act of showy defiance but self-acceptance. The problem wasn’t his embrace of femininity, but the fact that I was uncomfortable with it.

Femininity, after all, was a quality I had long learned to disguise as a matter of survival.

Yet in accepting that my safety depended upon my ability to conform and “pass” as someone straight, I had unwittingly internalized homophobia.

The low down on gay men and femininity

Gay men face marginalization and persecution often because we tend to behave in non-heteronormative ways, which in turn enable others to identify our sexuality and use it as a basis for exclusion.

Gay men are typically portrayed in the media as being more feminine and are commonly labeled “sissies” and “pansies”.

But is there any truth to the claim that men are more feminine than their heterosexual counterparts? 

In Gay, Straight and the Reason Why, author Simon LeVay reveals that gay people do indeed tend to be “gender-atypical” when it comes to certain “gendered” traits. 

What traits exactly are gendered? According to LeVay:

In the area of personality, men rank higher than women on measures of assertiveness, competitiveness, aggressiveness, and independence… Women rank higher than men on measures of expressiveness, sociability, empathy, openness to feelings, altruism, and neuroticism… Men prefer thing-oriented activities and occupations (e.g. carpenter), whereas women prefer people-oriented activities and occupations (e.g. social worker). Women have better-developed aesthetic interests and less-developed technological interests than men.

As a group, gay men tend for example to score higher than straight men on tests measuring empathy, aesthetic interests, and verbal fluency.

Studies have revealed gay men are less physically aggressive. They are also gender-shifted towards instrumentality, expressiveness, and people-oriented occupations. (Note here the use of “shift”, as opposed to “inverted”; that is, gay men as a group do not completely adopt typically feminine traits.)

According to an analysis of a survey conducted by the BBC in 2005, gay UK-based respondents on average perceived themselves to be more feminine. This finding is backed by a number of other studies.

The pressure to be masculine

In my earlier article on embracing our authentic gay identities, I shared author Terrence Real‘s claim that from boyhood males are expected to reach for the brass ring of masculinity.

This masculinity involves a form of self-reliance that asks us to cut ourselves off from our emotional selves, our mothers*, and the support of our communities. 

Socialization teaches us to view emotional expressivity and vulnerability as feminine traits that must be avoided at all costs.

The prevailing definition of masculinity, of what it means to be a “successful man”, is one of self-reliance.  

This self-reliance and independence are further promoted by widely adopted social beliefs such as rugged individualism: i.e. “I don’t need anyone’s help, I can do this all on my own”, or the practice of stoicism, which advocates keeping a “stiff upper lip” in the face of hardship. 

Self-reliant masculinity is promoted by the archetypal male hero in movies and television, be it the hardboiled detective of crime fiction, the tough-as-nails gunslinger of Westerns, or the ironclad action hero.

These characters typically prove their merit through unflinching courage and physical prowess.

According to this definition, the opposite of self-reliance is weakness. When we exhibit “feminine”—that is, the gender-atypical—traits, we inadvertently signal to others that our masculinity is “defective”, thus inviting homophobic scorn and condemnation.

essy knopf gay internalized homophobia

Double-barrelled shame

Gay men historically have received a double dose of hostility, on account not only of gender-atypical traits but of being seen as inherently flawed.

Being gay was once viewed as an act of rebellion against the laws of God, as per the Bible’s accounts of Sodom and Gomorrah. Gays were viewed as “perversions”, on par with the likes of pedophiles.

The advent of modern science saw being gay reclassified as a mental disorder, a label that would remain until 1973 under the order of the American Psychiatric Association.

The perception that we were untrustworthy and possibly dangerous, however, persisted.

Consider for example the “Lavender scare”, in which thousands of gay people were purged from US military services and intelligence agencies from the late 40s and into the 60s.

In 1953, President Eisenhower even signed an executive order banning gay men from employment by the US government and its private contractors.

Suspicion towards gay men endured even from 1981 onwards, with the advent of what was initially called the “gay disease”, “gay cancer”, “gay plague” or “gay-related immune deficiency”.

Later retitled HIV/AIDS, the resulting epidemic triggered a moral panic that fueled further discrimination towards and ostracism of gay people. 

The impact on gay men

The negative light in which we as a group are regarded and the emotional repression demanded of us places significant strain upon our mental health.

Given we naturally tend towards empathy and expressiveness, I would argue this strain is greater than that faced by heterosexual men.

In the face of social pressure to emulate ideals of “manliness”, and the dismissal, ridicule, and physical harm we may face when we defy them, many of us find ourselves falling in line.

We do this by taking on the loathing others harbor for our authentic selves, altering our self-presentation along the lines of the masculine ideal.

That is, we learn to conceal our more evident “feminine” traits, including our interest in other men. Some of us may even avoid all possibility of judgment by eschewing the company of heterosexuals and moving to live in a gay village.

But the inauthentic shell which we don as a matter of necessity may become a new comfortable norm. Self-loathing will likely leave us crippled by ongoing covert depression.

Unable to tolerate our vulnerability, we find ourselves in turn unable to tolerate it in others. We adopt judgmentalism, rejecting other gay men as we ourselves were once rejected.

Gay bars, clubs, and dating apps are rife with this kind of behavior, which in many cases is an expression of internalized homophobia. Consider, for example, those who write “no femmes” on their dating profiles, or demand a highly specific “masc” type or muscular physique in their partners.

While not as dramatic as a closeted man cruising a gay nightclub and attacking someone for making a pass at him, this is a latent form of internalized homophobia. It is characterized by an emotional repression so painful that many sufferers find themselves seeking refuge in grandiosity or addictive behaviors.

The irony of this repression and its byproducts is that they only further our existing sense of isolation, creating conditions ripe for more depression.

In order to free ourselves from the tyranny of homophobia, we must learn to accept and embrace all facets of our identity – without fear of reprisal. Source: Elise Gravel

The cure to internalized homophobia

In order to overcome self-loathing, we must first acknowledge how we have suffered by turning away from our authentic selves.

To break the hold internalized homophobia has on our lives, we must learn to accept and embrace all facets of our identity—without fear of reprisal.

For some of us, this may involve an outward exhibition of our more feminine traits. We may choose, like the goateed stranger of my teenagehood, to wear whatever we want and to act in the way that feels most natural to us.

Or we may simply seek to reconnect with and express our emotions; to let down our guards and create conditions in which others can do the same.

It is through such shared vulnerability that I believe we can ultimately achieve true healing, not just as individuals, but also as a community.

Takeaways

  • Being gay historically was seen to be a perversion or illness.
  • Gays as a group show some “gender-atypical” personality traits.
  • One is the typically “feminine” trait of emotional expressiveness.
  • Expressive gay boys and men thus face double the stigma.
  • Survival requires hiding our authentic emotional selves.
  • The result is depression and judgmentalism.
  • If we are to heal, we must restore emotional authenticity.

* I acknowledge that disconnection from one’s mother may not apply to all men, for example in the case of being raised by a male caregiver, or gay parents.