On intersectionality

(CN: 101 on intersectionality and transgender issues)

So a few weeks back I was boppin’ around Twitter, when someone asked the questions: 1) What does “cis” mean, and 2) what does “intersectionality” mean?

They asked this in the middle of a slew of radical feminists railing against those evul transwomen, and the responses received were rather less than helpful.  So even though I did NOT want to get involved in that particular discussion, I jumped in and gave a quick-and-dirty definition of both terms.

I was gratified to hear that it was apparently helpful.  (Woohoo, I did a good!)  Still, while Twitter can be fun, sometimes things need more than a bumper-sticker response.  So here’s a post to expand on those words.

1) As my lovely and intelligent commenter grigoriguardian explained, “Cis-* as a prefix of Latin origin, meaning “on the same side [as]” or “on this side [of].” Now look at the definition of trans: Trans-* is a Latin noun or prefix, meaning “across”, “beyond” or “on the opposite side”. So cis- just means “opposite of trans.””

So why do we use terms like “cisgender” or “ciswoman” to refer to people who are not transgender?  Well, as I said in an earlier post,

[I]t’s a pretty useful word, as the alternatives are things like “real women/normal women,” (which are pretty damn othering), “women who were assigned to the female gender at birth and also identify with it” (which is a mouthful), and “women-born-women” (which, in addition to being co-opted by transphobic radical feminists, is also impossibly twee.)  I’m cisgender.  I’m a ciswoman.  I’m also a white woman, an American woman, a married woman.  These are descriptors.  Not insults.  (Unless you really truly think having what kind of woman you are noted in conversation to be offensive, in which case can we just call transwomen “women” too, then?  I think that would be nice.)

Being cisgender is not a bad thing; it is not intended as an insult.  It’s simply intended as a word to make the conversation about transgender issues easier, as the alternatives are worse.  Yes, many trans* people and allies will refer to “cis privilege;” much like white privilege, male privilege, etc., this is also not a value judgment.  No one is saying that anyone is bad for having privilege.   But if you do have privilege (and believe me, cisgender people DO have privilege compared to transgender people), it’s your responsibility to recognize that and to educate yourself on people who may be more marginalized (or marginalized in a different way) than you.

Which brings us to…

2) Intersectionality.

To understand intersectionality, you have to understand the concept of kyriarchy.  See, for a long time, feminists spoke about Patriarchy and its evils.  We still do, but more often these days you’ll hear the term kyriarchy instead.  Why?

Well, “kyriarchy” means, more or less, the overarching system in which people are oppressed or marginalized by other people.  Sound open-ended?  It is.  That’s a feature, not a bug.

Y’see, yes, male privilege is a thing.  All else being equal, a man has more privilege in this society than a woman.

But what if all else isn’t equal?

Does a Black man have more privilege than a white woman?  Does a gay man have more privilege than a straight woman? Does a man born into poverty have more privilege than a woman born into wealth?  Does a Pagan man have more privilege than a Christian woman?  Does a transman have more privilege than a ciswoman?

Does an educated, wealthy, Black Muslim cis-lesbian have more privilege or less than a poor, undereducated, white Christian straight transman?

The answer to all the above is a resounding “…Maybe?”  And in order to explore that Maybe, that grey area, the ways in which someone may be simultaneously less privileged and more privileged than someone else, we have to acknowledge that privilege and oppression and marginalization are Complicated.  And that whole Complicated shebang is called kyriarchy.

And the best way we’ve found to navigate it is through intersectionality.

Intersectionality is me understanding that a Black man does have more privilege than me in some circumstances, while I have more privilege than him in others.

Intersectionality is understanding that although we are all women, I don’t experience the same types of sexism as a Black woman, a transwoman, a Muslim woman, or a lesbian.

Intersectionality is knowing that it’s not a contest.  Nobody wins when you play the “who’s more oppressed?” game.  Acknowledging the marginalization others face does not diminish the marginalization we face.

Intersectionality is refusing to play the zero-sum game, where my rights can only be established by taking away someone else’s rights.

Intersectionality means, in conjunction with the above, being willing to take a clear-eyed look at what is a “right” and what is merely a privilege I’ve grown accustomed to.

Intersectionality is understanding that while race and sexuality are not the same thing, the arguments used to justify racism are now being used to justify homophobia.  It’s recognizing that if those arguments were flawed and unjust in one case, they’re flawed and unjust in all cases.

Intersectionality is desiring the same basic rights and protections for ALL groups as for our own.

Intersectionality is seeking to improve the whole system, not just replace one privileged class with another.

Intersectionality is recognizing that, while we may not be able to fight every battle at once, we can at least refrain from hindering other people’s battles while we fight our own.

Intersectionality is respecting the rights of marginalized people who make different choices than yours.

Intersectionality is believing that everyone who’s experienced any kind of marginalization should be a natural ally of anyone else who’s experiencing it.  We’re all in this together.

And, yes, intersectionality is understanding that sometimes, not often but sometimes, rights will conflict.  And when that happens, we need to be willing to talk, to listen, and to see the other group as fully human.  We need to refrain from throwing them under the marginalization bus in order to “win.”  We need to approach these conflicts not as enemies hoping to score points off each other, but as friends who genuinely want to find the fairest solution for all parties.

Pie-in-the-sky?  Eh, maybe.  Humans are rarely perfect.  But the alternative model is an “us-vs-them” mentality where we can’t even agree on who “them” is.  Understanding that different types of marginalization exist, and understanding that all of it is bad, is the first step towards creating something better.


3 thoughts on “On intersectionality

    • Glad it helps!

      I’m always nervous about trying to explain stuff like this, because a lot of it is still new to me too. I’m pretty sure this is still the simplified version, but it’s the version that I understand so far, and I’ve found it useful at least.

  1. Pingback: link love | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured

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