Image credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library
As a married lesbian woman, a historian of queerness, and an educator, reading the news these days feels like one long attack. As my aunt said when news broke about the Alito’s leaked draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which retracts a federal right to abortion, “I feel like I’m standing naked in a woodshed full of wasps.”
In my circles, we talk all the time about “intersectionality.” But lately I’ve felt it more viscerally than ever before because of the many directions from which I am being targeted, all of them interconnected. As a married lesbian, I fear for the legal future of my relationship and the family my wife and I may one day create. As a woman, I fear for my body and the bodies of the women, trans, and non-binary people I love, all of whom may soon find it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to access basic healthcare in the form of birth control, abortion, and gender-affirming treatment. As an educator, I fear for my students and for my colleagues, who must answer to increasingly reactionary mandates from parents and legislators trying to prevent kids from learning about queer people, racism, or any other number of other things they feel endangered by.
In this midst of all this turmoil I try to be level-headed. I try to remember that the world has always been a difficult place, that history doesn’t follow a progressive, linear narrative, and that every generation feels in some way burdened by an unprecedented crisis. But my energy for this kind of relativism is flagging.
At the end of the day, we can only live our own history, and fear tends to be stronger than reason.
If the news makes me feel like I’m being attacked from every angle, it also makes me feel energized in too many directions. Each time there is a mass shooting, I organize for gun regulation. Then, an anti-trans bill passes in a state legislature, and I’m trying to figure out how to help defeat it. As I’m reading about the anti-trans bill, I see an article about women being denied medical treatment for miscarriages in trigger-law states where overturning Roe will make abortion a crime, and then I’m researching abortion funds.
And on and on until it’s time to cook dinner—or, you know, make a living, eat, sleep, feed my cat.
Some say that the solution to this activist overwhelm is to just choose one small thing each day and do it, and to accept that no one person can solve all the world’s problems. I’ve tried that approach: it’s better than nothing, but it’s not nearly enough to combat the fragmentation today’s reactionary politics provoke.
What Democrats need, I think, is a unifying moral argument that leads to systemic change. The religious right has been building such an argument for decades, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade is now the jewel in their morally repugnant crown. We have no time left to waste debating left versus center, reform versus revolution, state versus federal. The religious right may be trying to legislate many of us out of existence by placing us into tiny boxes—gay, straight, trans, woman, man, immigrant, Black, poor—but there’s no reason we should accept these boxes or divide ourselves neatly among them.
In my class on the history of sexuality and gender, I’m trying to teach my students that every one of these labels is an argument with a past. I’m not just teaching them that “gender is a social construct” but, more importantly, that gender has a history that has changed over time. Gender is not, as the right would have it, a fact. Even its perceived separateness from “biological sex” is not a fact, because biological sex is itself unstable and fluid. Rather, gender is a “way of signifying relationships of power,” to quote historian Joan Scott.
In other words, gender is a means, not an end.
When you learn to look at gender this way, you begin to see that all these seemingly separate political issues plaguing us today are in fact fundamentally linked. They all reside in the body, and the way it is used to signify relationships of power. The religious right would have you believe that bodies are facts, that bodies can be read, understood, and regulated, and that it is the state’s role—its duty even—to do so.
Because bodies have been legislated into facts, trans children can now be reported by everyday citizens for seeking gender-affirming healthcare, walking into a bathroom, or throwing a ball around a field. Women can be reported by everyday citizens for seeking abortions, having miscarriages, or seeming to have been pregnant and then no longer seeming pregnant. Children can be reported by teachers and counselors for being anything other than heterosexual, cis-gender, and gender-conforming. Educators can be reported for teaching students about the alternatives to heterosexual and cisgender lives, or merely for embodying those alternative lives. People of color can be reported by everyday citizens for any number of things, from walking down a street to buying cigarettes, and are too often killed by police as a result.
But for us to say that “trans” people deserve rights, and “women” deserve rights, and “gay and lesbian” people deserve rights, and “Black” people deserve rights is to miss the point entirely. Of course, all of these people deserve rights. But at this point in our nation’s history, asking for rights is like asking for a spoon to shovel your driveway after a blizzard.
As gay and lesbian activists used to say back in the 1980s, “we don’t want the cake, we want the bakery.”
We need creative, large-scale solutions that put out many small fires all at once and fundamentally change the way our system works. A new effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, to cite one example, would constitute a meaningful challenge to the government’s ability to exercise power over people’s bodies. Its ratification would have broad implications for the protection of abortion rights and the protection of queer people from discrimination, as conservatives who opposed it in the 1970s knew. As much as I love the Equality Act and the Women’s Health Protection Act, Democrats are kidding themselves if they think these legislative fixes are either possible in the current congressional climate or stable enough to withstand the winds of political change.
Most importantly, Democrats need to stop ceding the moral high ground to conservatives and start trying to beat them at their own game by taking big-picture moral stands. When I say that my experience of the news has recently been a viscerally intersectional experience, what I mean is that I am finally beginning to understand—to quote Audre Lorde—that “there is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
The concept of intersectionality has evolved over time, but it seems to me that the reason why the word has had so much staying power is that it offers a unifying framework for social struggle while acknowledging the lived reality of difference. Intersectionality challenges us to stop thinking about people as discreet and separable identities, and to start thinking about them as pieces of a social fabric—complex, dynamic, and interdependent—a social fabric that it seems many of us long for these days, on both sides of the aisle.
Hannah Leffingwell is a PhD candidate at New York University in the departments of History and French Studies. Her work centers on the intersections of queer identity, feminism, and social justice. Her first chapbook, A Thirst For Salt, was published by Gazing Grain Press in 2018. @hanleffingwell