ISGMH Celebrates Intersectionality at its 2018 State of Sexual and Gender Minority Health Symposium

“People can’t change who they are. Let’s focus on social processes such as discrimination and stigma — things we can change.” This was Dr. Lisa Bowleg’s call to action at ISGMH’s third annual State of Sexual and Gender Minority Health Symposium. Dr. Bowleg was the keynote speaker at the Symposium, which focused on illuminating the intersecting identities and experiences of racial minorities and sexual and gender minorities. Dr. Bowleg is a leading scholar in the application of intersectionality to social and behavioral science research and a professor of applied psychology at The George Washington University.

What is meant by intersectionality? Research and lived experience tell us that racial minority populations and sexual and gender minority populations experience discrimination and social inequalities in similar and compounding ways. ISGMH’s Symposium delved into research and community efforts to understand the relationship between intersecting intersectional identities and health disparities.

At the Symposium, Dr. Bowleg spoke about intersectionality’s theoretical framework and Black feminist roots, and contended that focusing on an individual’s single identity (such as gender) without examining its relationship with other key social identities (such as race or sexual orientation) leads to a limited understanding of their experiences and health outcomes. Dr. Bowleg introduced the concept of intersectionality as a framework that rejects single-axis (i.e., “and/or”) thinking in favor of matrix (“both/and”) perspectives. “Intersectionality is not politically neutral. It is about social justice,” she asserted. According to Dr. Bowleg, the inclusion of intersectionality in public health discourse is long overdue.

Representative Greg Harris, the first openly gay publicly elected member of legislative leadership in Illinois, gave opening remarks at the Symposium. The Symposium also included two panels with an array of multidisciplinary speakers. The first panel, “Intersectionality, Sexual Intimacy, and Health” included Dr. Gregory Phillips IIJames Wages, and Dr. Hector Carillo. The panel discussion centered on how it is crucial to consider intersectional identities in order to better understand health data. “There is no excuse for not including questions on sexual orientation, gender identity, and race/ethnicity in federal health surveys,” contended Dr. Gregory Phillips, referring to the CDC’s planned rollback of sexual and gender identity questions in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS).

The second panel, “Community Health,” featured community activists, artists and faculty members, including Erik Glenn, Kristiana Rae Colón, and Dr. AJ Christian. This panel focused on the arts as a central component to both social justice and community health; as Dr. Christian put it, “artists have never been too far away from fighting for a liberated future.” The discussion celebrated the creativity, beauty, and resilience that flow from intersectional populations, and the healing power of arts and entertainment. It inspired the audience to imagine what a community would look like if more funding were invested into education, the arts, and community-building. To underscore the importance of the arts in the intersectional struggle for racial/ethnic and LGBTQ rights, the symposium opened and ended with two riveting performances by operatic soprano Alexa Grae.

The Northwestern Office of the Provost generously supported the Symposium with a Daniel I. Linzer Grant for Innovation in Diversity and Equity.

A recording of the Symposium is available here.