Intersectionality and assemblage: a real-life definition

LGBTQ people share experiences of prejudice

Those who follow conversations about social justice and societal prejudice have probably come across the term “intersectionality” at some point. It’s an academic term, referring to the way different types of disadvantage combine within individuals or groups. To break it down to the most common example, a black woman is both black and a woman, and therefore experiences at least two types of prejudice. For LGBTQ people, these combinations of factors are especially impactful and complex.

To better understand the way intersectionality affects LGBTQ people, three from the community have shared their life experiences. The first is Zannah Breunig, a 27-year-old Master’s student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in religious studies, as well as gender, sexuality and women’s studies. Breunig isn’t a fan of the term “intersectionality.”

“Within the theoretical field I do work in, it’s not really a term that people are still excited about. What makes more sense for me is the idea of assemblage,” they told qnotes. “I don’t know if there’s a part of me that is essentially a Jew and a part that is queer…The idea of [assemblage] is that there isn’t really this thing that we think of as identity. Things kind of mesh together and end up producing workable ideas.”

For Breunig, the intersection or assemblage of their identity is in part informed by racial and religious factors as well as their identification as LGBTQ.

“Growing up, I was always told that I was a Jew, but that was it, there wasn’t anything else to that discussion,” Breunig said. “Around the time that I started investigating what [Judaism] was about was the same time I started investigating — what if I wasn’t a cis het woman.”

But the two communities Breunig identifies with have not entirely welcomed them with open arms. Even the LGBTQ community — usually thought to be inclusive and accepting — has been wrought with tension for Breunig.

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“There’s a lot of anti-Semitism going on right now, especially in queer activist communities,” they explained. “There’s a lot of groups that are doing pro-Palestinian liberation, and a lot of times if you’re Jewish it’s assumed you’re a Zionist…and in order to prove that you’re a ‘good’ Jew, you have to be very vocally pro-Palestine.”

These tensions from the meeting of race, religion and LGBTQ identity are the very definition of intersectionality. Breunig isn’t the only one who has experienced this multifaceted disadvantage. Trez Winston, a 23-year-old black gay man from Charlotte, says he experienced racial prejudice in the dating scene.

“White people would sort of try to stick to their own race,” Winston reports. “I realized how differently I was treated from a white gay man.”

Winston’s race didn’t only affect his love life, of course. Having taken part in the recent protests in Charlotte sparked by the police shooting of Keith Scott, Winston felt a conflict between his race and his sexuality.

“Any time there’s a black man who dies at the hands of a police officer, there’s a big group of people coming out and protesting,” he said. “But I realized there wasn’t the same treatment when it comes to anyone from the LGBT community being killed. We don’t get the same support. Black women don’t get the same support from black men. It puts me in a bind, and I start feeling very negative toward black men who aren’t able to support someone of their own race because of their sexuality or gender identity.”

Winston’s point is a significant one. Trans women of color are the most likely to become victims of violence, according to the Anti-Violence Project (AVP). The organization reports that transgender people of color are six times more likely to be violently treated by the police. Winston calls attention to these numbers:

“There’s this whole movement, this Black Lives Matter movement, but you can’t call yourself pro-black if you neglect black trans people,” Winston declares. Alternately, “in the LGBT community, if you can’t accept people of color, then you’re not really for us. You don’t want equality, you just want to become the oppressor.”

Winston’s experiences as a member of the LGBTQ community and as a black man have made him very aware of social justice issues and the different levels of disadvantage and privilege.

“People look at me differently because I’m black and black people look at me differently because I’m gay,” Winston explains. “There was definitely a time when I just really hated myself for being black and for being gay…But then I finally realized that I am who I am and I love who I am.”

Self-love is Winston’s message and has helped him come to terms with the intersection of race and sexuality in his life experience. For some LGBTQ people, race and sexuality aren’t the end; religion and socioeconomic status can also come into play. This was the case with Laura Garcia, a 26-year-old New York native now living in Charlotte. For Garcia, her sexual orientation was only the beginning.

“I feel like ‘pansexual’ is probably the safest term for it,” she said of her orientation. “Pansexual and polyamorous at the same time…I had a really weird experience at Pride this year … You think Pride, you think inclusive, a big family, but a woman was talking to me [and said] ‘oh so you like boys and you’re just trying stuff out.’… I get some of the same bi-phobic things.”

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Alongside this resistance from the LGBTQ community, Garcia faced similarly critical reactions from her family.

“My lovely wonderful incredibly Christian grandma told me she’s going to pray for me because she’s very concerned,” laughed Garcia, unfazed. “My mother’s response was ‘I knew it was going to be you! Statistically one of my children was going to be a little bit gay and I knew it was going to be you.’”

The grandmotherly reaction is one that many LGBTQ people have experienced, but it essentially comes down to a question of religious dogma. This is something that Winston, too, experienced.

Winston said that upon coming out to his mother, she “was really concerned with God, saying ‘God doesn’t like this, you can go to hell for this’.” Since then, Winston has “distanced myself from religious people. I still consider myself Christian, but I haven’t been to church in about five years.”

Like Winston, Garcia faced racial discrimination as well. A proud Latina who is “very, very Dominican,” Garcia often bears witness to ignorance and stereotyping.

“Most people when they meet me don’t know I’m Latino, they think I’m some kind of mix,” said Garcia. “People will make these comments to me … I have to explain a lot why I don’t have an accent.”

On top of the everyday racism and prejudice, Garcia remembers with a shudder the hate crime against Pulse in Orlando on Latinx night at the gay bar. As an LGBTQ Latina with friends and roots in Florida, Garcia was horrified.

“I had that moment that it literally could have been someone I know,” she said. “You see the people who are like you and somebody saw fit to destroy them…They were targeted because of who they were…They could have been just like me.”

Although events like the Orlando massacre and the Charlotte protests bring questions of race and sexuality to the forefront, disadvantage and hate are often subtle and insidious. Individuals’ intersecting or assembled identities make their lived experiences complex and often full of conflict. Breunig, Garcia and Winston are three real-life examples of the way different systems of prejudice come into play even within the LGBTQ community.

With such complex and interconnected systems of oppression in place, finding common ground with those who are different from you is all-important. Transcend Charlotte Co-founder Trey Greene emphasizes the significance of dialogue between unlike individuals:

“We may not always agree or understand each other, but I feel strongly that real progress happens when there is a group of diverse individuals who are willing to sit together, even have uncomfortable conversations, in an effort to find a path towards understanding and respect for our common humanity.”

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