From the ONA Coalition Leadership Team
The idea that our lives, communities, cultures, and issues of injustice and oppression are connected on a deeper level is a good starting point for understanding intersectionality. Intersectionality is a big word. It gets used by many people to mean many things. In this article, the Open and Affirming (ONA) Coalition of the United Church of Christ (UCC) attempts to spell out what we mean when we use it.
1. All of us have multiple identities
While we have tended to emphasize sexual orientation and gender identity in our work for inclusion, justice and equality, all of us have many aspects of ourselves that impact how society views us, how we identify ourselves, and how much power we operate with within the culture. We sometimes talk about “intersectional identities.” By this we mean that our sexual orientation and gender identities are impacted by what race we are, what class we are, whether or not we are temporarily able-bodied or not, what language we speak, how much formal education we’ve received, whether or not we have an income.
How any individual is treated in the world doesn’t rely only on their sexual orientation or gender identity. These other identities matter. For instance, many of our Open and Affirming congregations mark Transgender Day of Remembrance. We do so because the rate of violence against trans* and gender queer people is so high. But the rate of violence against poor trans* women of color is exponentially higher than for those trans* folk who are white and not poor.
The layers of race, class and job status impact greatly the likelihood of violence against someone. If we are working for God’s extravagant welcome, we believe we have to take these “intersectional identities” seriously.
2. Working together against all forms of injustice
Intersectionality is rooted in idea that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., are connected and can’t be overcome individually. To create change we all need to be working together to combat different types of oppression equally. For example, men need to fight for women, white people need to fight for people of color, cis-gender people need to fight for people who are trans, Christians need to fight for Muslims, etc.
3. Organizing and building a movement in “intersectional” ways
Because the stories of individual people matter, we affirm that “intersectional identities” lead us to do our work in different ways. Therefore, we seek to organize and build a movement in “intersectional” ways. This influences what issues we choose to engage as an organization and a movement, and what our starting point will be.
For example, when constructing a building, the disability justice movement and universal design techniques have shown us the importance of starting with the question: Who has the least access to this building and how can we make it accessible to them?
Approaching design through the question of access enables us to construct something that helps all people. Building a ramp and having automatic door openers not only helps people in mechanized wheelchairs, but also helps parents in strollers, delivery people and those whose upper body strength makes it difficult to open the door, to name just a few. Intersectional work requires us to take seriously the question of systemic power. When engaging a situation or issue, we ask: Who is the most marginalized in this situation?
4. Advocating an intersectional strategy
The UCC ONA Coalition seeks to advocate an intersectional strategy as we dream what the world ought to look like, with whom we build coalitions and as we “cut the issues” of any campaign we engage in. We invite and encourage ONA congregations to address the question: Who has the least access to our congregation? Why? How can we be open and affirming to them? And also, who needs God’s extravagant welcome the most in our society? How can we help build a movement that transforms the systems of power in our world to help them?
This article was written with deep respect for, and drawing heavily on those who have worked with the term “intersectionality” in the past—particularly Kimberle Crenshaw, who first used it with her Black Feminist colleagues.