Intersectionality and the Presidential Campaign

I had not wanted to write about the Presidential campaign—not yet, as I intended to allow myself only one such column. But the recent call to Senator Barack Obama by Reverend Bennie Colclough, an African-American minister from South Carolina, made me pause. A voice of faith from a Southern state, he called on Obama to come out as an unwavering ally to GLBT people.

Now here is a complex picture, I thought: religion, varying conceptualizations of civil rights, and more than just a little bit of America’s difficult history with race in politics and other spheres of life.

I am thoughtful in these early days of 2008, looking at the landscape of the activism I have in the coming months in my work with Soulforce, particularly in this year of Presidential politics. We are preparing to take on the complexity where identity meets identity with a healthy dose of politics, history, and Presidential fervor layered on top. Soulforce is addressing this kind of intersection—in particular where race, sexuality, and gender overlap—by visiting historically black colleges and universities, as well as African-American megachurches, as part of larger campaigns.

With remarkably good timing, the organizers of a conference for training progressive students asked me to take part in a panel about intersectionality. I needed to pause officially, and articulate my thoughts on what it means for the GLBT movement to navigate the terrain of multiple identities and diverse priorities.

I have considered the implications and theoretical measures that will make our work effective this year, but it struck me that the GLBT community also needs to cultivate an important and different kind of intersectionality. GLBT people are in every sector of society, so the same social concerns that cut across the American populace as a whole divide and hinder the GLBT community as well.

Traditional intersectional theory calls for collaboration among natural allies, such as building solidarity among campaign-finance-reform activists and climate-change advocates, both of whom would like to see less fossil-fuel special interests on Capitol Hill.

The GLBT community should build alliances wherever possible, but a need exists for a different sort of intersectional work, in particular with regard to cultural or racial divisions. On the panel, I spoke of Soulforce’s use of intersectionality that focuses internally. What will make us a more effective body of activists is when other social justice issues bind rather than divide us.

Our work can become an opportunity to address the needs of diverse communities, and, in the case of Soulforce’s work this year, bring about awareness of and solutions to the inequities that rend society at large. We look first to ourselves to embody a kind of multi-issue solidarity within.

Now, let’s look at this with the backdrop of the campaign trail to November. Religion seems here to stay as part of any candidate’s platform. His Mormon background is the first thing many of us learned about Mitt Romney, and it has not yet become a tired sidenote in most articles. Phrases like “prayer warrior” are not foreign to Senator Hillary Clinton. Obama takes much of his rhetorical style and language of hope directly from his pastor in Illinois.

The support of the voice of faith is part of any agenda. Returning to a classical sense of intersectionality, Colclough writes of the alliance between NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and the Fairness for All Families Campaign in Florida, a coalition working to prevent an anti-GLBT marriage amendment in the state. Colclough also leans heavily on Coretta Scott King’s words calling for an end to homophobia, because it inhabits the same blighted category as anti-Semitism and racism.

And Obama responded in kind, if obliquely, at Ebenezer Baptist Church this January. He confessed and challenged the past homophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigration sentiments of the black community. He seems here to be speaking of the intersectional framework in which I work—looking internally, and building outward to the “beloved community,” a phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted in Obama’s speech.

Colclough is a man aware that not much can be divided, and still produce a healthy society. He speaks as a former Marine, a Southerner, an African-American man, a reverend, and a straight ally.

We cannot pretend religion and politics are separate—though church and state may be, a subtle difference exists. We cannot distance identity politics from Washington, DC, politics. And we cannot divide one struggle for justice from another.

And I may go so far as to say that in the realm of justice, partialities, middle ways, and mere tolerance are not serviceable. Colclough sees a thread running straight through from justice movement to justice movement. He professes the idea of progress through unity that Obama campaigns on. I think both men believe that either the sun shines on all of us, or the sun shines on none of us. So, I hope Obama will match the Colclough call.

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