Gilbert Achay, a senior program officer at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, unpacks intersectionality and LGBTQ rights in a way that examines identity as sites to contest power. 

On June 26, 1969, the Stonewall Inn in New York City was the scene of an uprising that launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Few are familiar with the identities of the activists who put themselves on the front lines that summer as police brutally assaulted them for protesting years of anti-LGBTQ bigotry. Names like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two gender non-conforming BIPOC inhabiting the intersections of race and gender, are often forgotten despite their courage.     

Intersectionality is often conceptualized as a theory of personal identity, with factors such as race, gender, or class acting as “multipliers” of experience. This definition reflects our preference for individualistic (versus situational) explanations, and it overlooks the complexity and potential of intersectional thinking. The advocates, artists, and scholars pioneering intersectional frameworks thought of identity as a “site” or spur to action within broader social movements. Seen in this light, intersectionality analyzes power and how it is wielded and protected by dominant groups within our policies, systems, and institutions. It challenges such power structures by centering voices from the ground up, centering the priorities of people most impacted by inequities. 

The COVID-19 pandemic offers an insightful case study to explore the utility of an intersectional lens. Long before the virus spread, advocates were aware of entrenched health inequities in BIPOC and low wealth communities. Yet many Americans were struck by coverage of stories featuring the layered impacts of the virus on, say, people with preexisting health conditions. Like most challenges we face, COVID-19 has not affected all groups with equal force. Moreover, infection and mortality rates would be far worse if the public health sector were solely to blame for the pandemic response. Our nation’s hospitals and businesses mobilized to address the pandemic directly, while schools and community-based groups rose to meet pandemic-related constraints placed on our childcare, education, and food and housing supplies.  

Of course, we don’t need to wait for the next global crisis to appreciate the relevance of intersectional approaches. Amidst joyous celebrations of Pride festivals every year, the modern LGBTQ rights movement has struggled to live up to the aspirations of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who alarmed us about injustices against LGBTQ communities back in 1969. While many gays and lesbians enjoy hard-won social, political, and economic privileges today, trans and gender non-conforming BIPOC continue to experience daily threats to their safety and well-being. 

Trans black women – people whose race, gender identity, and class situate them as targets several times over – have emerged as leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement. Consciousness-raising insights about the unjust impacts of policing and prisons come from these activists, whose real-world experiences can inform our efforts to overhaul America’s criminal, judiciary, and related institutions. Likewise, people who inhabit other intersections of life will offer us the most nuanced perspectives to make equity a reality across all domains.   

As Minnesota’s largest health plan, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota takes seriously our mission to inspire change, transform care and improve health for the people we serve. In a future post, we will apply an intersectional lens to the health care system and the opportunities to challenge the power structures that govern our health systems, policies, institutions and, ultimately, our own health and well-being.