Going outside the box


OK, so the U.S Census Bureau dropped the ball (in my opinion, anyway) regarding how they tracked LGBTQ couples. But they did do something that a lot of psychological researchers don’t do when they study LGBTQ people – they collected data that allow us to examine multiple intersecting aspects of LGBTQ identities. The example I have in mind comes from a report released by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute titled, “Same-Sex Couples in Census 2010: Race and Ethnicity,” which documented the following: 

  • Same-sex couples are as likely as different-sex married couples to include a racial or ethnic minority.
  • Compared to different-sex married couples with children, a higher percentage of same-sex couples with children include at least one racial/ethnic minority.
  • Same-sex couples are significantly more likely than any other type of couple to be interracial or interethnic. 

All three of these findings reflect the multiple, interlocking identities many LGBTQ people possess, a concept many scholars refer to as intersectionality. Many LGBTQ people who are members of multiple minority groups often feel as if various aspects of their identities get parceled out, depending on which community they’re involved with at the time. A black lesbian may be seen for her “gayness” within the LGBTQ community, for her “blackness” within the African-American community, and for her “femaleness” when she’s involved with a women’s group. Intersectionality theory goes beyond the split-personality concept of identity, noting that attempts to compartmentalize different parts of our identities are limiting and oppressive. Moreover, intersectionality theory addresses the interconnectedness of racism, sexism, homophobia, and class oppression, calling for the dismantling of the “system” of oppressions.

If you’ve ever studied feminist theory, or sociological theory, or critical race theory, you are most certainly familiar with the concept of intersectionality. When I was studying feminist theory in college back in the early 1990s, intersectionality was cutting-edge stuff. I read “The Combahee River Collective Statement.” I read Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins. Anything written by bell hooks, I devoured – and I got to hear it straight from the source when she came to speak on my campus. Now, this stuff is practically considered to be old-school, at least among sociologists, feminists, and critical race theorists.  

But not so much among psychologists. For the most part (with some limited exceptions), psychology has lagged far behind other disciplines in incorporating intersectionality into its theories and research methods. Why is that? Psychological researchers love categories. They love boxes you can check. They tend to value quantitative statistical analysis more highly than other research methods. And unfortunately, when research data is restricted to checked boxes and quantitative analysis, the nuances of intersecting identities often get lost.

Here’s an example. In 2011, a journal called Family Process published a large-sample study titled, “Heterosexual, Lesbian, and Gay Male Relationships: A Comparison of Couples in 1975 and 2000.” Several well-known researchers were included on the roster of authors, including Robert-Jay Green from Alliant International University and Esther Rothblum from San Diego State University. Because the pool included more than 6,700 participants (which most psychological researchers would consider to be a large sample), here was a prime opportunity to look at intersecting identities within relationships. But instead, the demographic data was reported the way it’s typically reported in psychological journal articles –  in a categorical and non-overlapping manner. There was a “gender” category, where participants were identified as male or female. There was a “sexual orientation” category, where participants were identified as gay men, heterosexual men, lesbian women, or heterosexual women. And there was a “race/ethnicity” category, where participants were identified as African American, Asian American, Latino/a, Native American, White, or “other.” Categories such as transgender, bisexual, or multiracial/multiethnic – all of which blur the binary – were not included. And no information about interracial or interethnic couples was gathered either. Instead, we have nice, neat, clean, non-overlapping categories, which is fairly typical of psychological research. Now granted, a significant portion of the data from this study were collected in 1975, and back then the concepts of intersectionality and non-binary identities were very much in the embryonic stage. Still, this report was published in 2011, and in 2011, we still can’t think outside the box. We’re still trying to put people into nice, neat, non-overlapping categories, instead of accounting for the interface of multiple identities. Unfortunately, being wedded to the simple “check one box” methodology shortchanges our abilities to understand multiple levels of diversity.

Change is happening, though. Although feminist and multicultural psychologists aren’t necessarily in the mainstream of the field, it is within these circles that discussions of intersectionality and innovative research methodologies are taking place. And even though it’s a tiny drop in the bucket, the fact that the U.S. Census data is being analyzed in terms of multiple, intersecting identities is a very good sign. So listen up, psychologists. If scholars analyzing U.S. Census data are considering intersectionality, then we ought to be as well.

You can read “Same-Sex Couples in Census 2010: Race and Ethnicity” by going to http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Gates-CouplesRaceEthnicity-April-2012.pdf.

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, LGBTQ, psychological research, transgender, Uncategorized

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