Saturday, April 10, 2010

An Intersectional Analysis of the Constance McMillen Debacle

There has recently been a lot of talk in the media about the whole sad, soap opera-esque saga that has been the Constance McMillen prom debacle. It is generally agreed by reasonable, decent people that what happened to her was cruel and deeply lamentable. It is generally agreed, athough not without some dissent, that Constance would do well to leave Fulton, Mississippi after high school graduation and never look back. But what has repeatedly amazed me is that, for all of the LGBT and feminist blogosphere's talk of intersectionality when it comes to issues of ethnicity, an intersectional analysis of the Constance McMillen debacle has thus far not been forthcoming - at least not from Feministing or the Bilerico Project, which is the primary place I would expect to read those sorts of things.

While a term like "intersectionality" is all too often used in vague and nearly meaningless ways that lack specificity, I do believe that it has some value in analyzing many situations in which discrimination against an individual or group of individuals is primarily supposed to operate due to one or two primary characteristics but in actuality operates due to a confluence of factors that define the identity and/or experience of a person or group of people.

To make this a little clearer: Constance McMillen is a young rural Southern lesbian woman. Let me repeat this again for emphasis: Constance McMillen is a young rural Southern lesbian woman. And that is different, and in many ways infinitely harder, than being a young LGBT person in most places in America.

In much of the Northeast and on the West Coast, as well as in many other areas around the country, it is becoming not unusual and perhaps even fashionable for young people to embrace an LGBT identity in middle and high school. There are Gay-Straight Alliances, LGBT community resource centers, and high school performances of the Laramie Project to facilitate their transitions. There are networks of other LGBT people, both their own age and older, in the community to serve as allies. Should these young people choose to pursue dating and relationships with members of their own sex, there are at least several others in the community they can choose to partner with.

This is not the world Constance McMillen is from and this is not the world I'm from either.

Perhaps the biggest difference between LGBT people who come of age in relatively urban, upper class communities (largely Northeastern and West Coast) and those who come of age in relatively poor rural communities (largely Southern and Midwestern) like Constance's and mine is how they experience the struggle for LGBT rights.

The difference in mindset breaks down something like this: For LGBT people in the former communities, their struggle is largely one of dismantling institutional discrimination against LGBT individuals and the LGBT community. In this struggle, issues like adoption rights and the legal recognition of same sex marriages by the state loom large. Relatively large LGBT communities mobilize around these issues and others, assuring that almost everyone in the larger community recognizes the existence of these subcultural communities. And while, unfortunately, bigotry is still a regular part of the lives of most LGBT people in America to some degree, the people in these areas a.) perceive themselves as belonging to an LGBT community with other LGBT people that can turn to for friendship, support, and potential romantic partnerships and b.) they recognize that while some heterosexual individuals and heteronormative institutions are their enemies, they also have some allies in the wider community and that opinion about LGBT issues within their wider area is relatively diverse.

Now let's look at LGBT people in the latter communities, communities like Constance's and mine. In these communities, institutional discrimination against LGBT people is still acknowledged by LGBT individuals themselves, but more likely they experience their discrimination as largely a product of hegemonic social and cultural forces. In such a context, issues like same-sex marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples start to look nearly meaningless for many. After all, what's the use of a state acknowledgment of your marriage in a community where none of your neighbors will ever acknowledge it anyway? What's the use of adopting a child with your same-sex partner when all parties involved will face ostracism and bigotry?

Furthermore, even finding a same-sex partner can prove an insurmountable challenge in these communities where there are very few openly LGBT people. Finding friends to share your common experiences and challenges as an LGBT person is not a given, either. In these communities, there are no LGBT resource centers, no Gay-Straight Alliances in middle and high schools, no performances of the Laramie Project. LGBT youth are as likely to bullied by their teachers as their peers. Religious institutions play a seminal role in perpetuating bigotry against LGBT people and their influence is widespread. Young people are rarely openly gay, bisexual, or transgender in middle and high school. Both the forces of government and the forces of civil society appear allied against LGBT people in such a context and acts of resistance often have a feel of futility about them.

This is why the story of Constance McMillen cannot be understood without also understanding the context of coming out and living out in communities like hers. And while it now obvious that her age, sexual minority status, and regional heritage played a role in this situation, we must all consider the fact that her femaleness may also have played a role in her situation, in particular the pettiness of sending her and her date to the "fake prom," a pettiness of the sort all too often seen in middle and high school girls attempting to ostracize another girl. All of this is why intersectional analysis is a useful tool to understand the dynamics in any given instance of discrimination.

Of course, the obvious question then becomes: what to do about the dire situation of LGBT Americans in rural communities in the South and Midwest (or for that matter, anywhere else)? Encouraging LGBT people to come out in such communities no matter the personal costs to themselves or their families seems an awfully high sacrifice for those on the outside to ask of them. It is also one all too often made without a real understanding of what would really be involved in this isolating, ostracizing, even physically dangerous experience. Similarly, as the Constance McMillen case has taught us, getting national organizations like the ACLU or the Human Rights Campaign involved won't solve all of our problems either. However, two approaches seem to me to be potentially useful on this front. LGBT organizations should be encouraged to do community outreach in these areas that focuses on community building, organizing, and counseling. The logistics of this are difficult and would vary from situation to situation but it is imperative that there be a presence for LGBT people in these communities. Secondly, the media has an important role to play in these areas. While people in these communities may know very few openly LGBT people, the media still have a role to play in making sure that all of us - lesbian women, gay men, bisexual men, bisexual women, trans men, trans women - are portrayed positively and respectfully because they speak for us where we can't speak for ourselves. Organization like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation must be vigilant about protesting media misrepresentation of all of these groups, in particular bisexual and trans folks, who are still all too often seen as acceptable targets in the popular culture.

I will close this post as saying that for all of those individuals who have suggested that at some point in time Constance attempt to make a home for herself in Fulton have no idea what they're talking about. No one can ask another person to be martyred, and ineffectually at that, for a wider cause. In doing what she did, Constance has already done all of us a great service and we should simply support her and be grateful. We have no right to ask her for anything more ever again. She has paid her dues and if she does nothing else for LGBT issues in her life - if she later decides to marry a man and live in the suburbs with two children and a dog - she has still done us all a great deed and she will still deserve to go down in history as a great champion of LGBT rights.

Secondly, I will note that I realize this post does not speak to all LGBT experiences. I have not commented on the experiences of those LGBT persons living in urban inner city areas or in U.S. immigrant communities or in any number of other contexts. Other LGBT people will have to fill in that gap with their own analysis. But I hope that this post has highlighted the importance of a truly intersectional analysis in understanding the problems of LGBT people.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing post, leen! Far too often, the issues facing LGBT people in rural areas (and rural issues in general for that matter), get overlooked. It is assumed that all LGBT face the same problems everywhere, and in some sense, this is true. However, the insular nature of (especially Southern) rural towns makes life that much more complicated.