Blowing up the boxes: Intersectionality, revisited

School is out for the summer. For most people, that means, Time to kick back and relax. Time for that much-needed vacation. Time for barbecues, pool parties, trips to the beach.  

For me, it means, Time to get cracking on my next book.

Now that I have room to breathe from my very busy teaching schedule, the ideas have been flowing like crazy. And I truly believe that writing this blog every week has allowed these ideas to take hold and percolate, even without me being consciously aware of it. As I look back over the last several months of blogging, I see that some common themes keep coming up again and again. I’ve written about the importance of framing homophobia (not homosexuality) as the problem. I’ve written about the critical importance of LGBTQ visibility, both in affirming our own personal truths as well as in the service of influencing public policy. And I’ve written about the incredible complexity of the LGBTQ community – which is what I plan to focus on in my next book.

Several weeks ago, in a post titled “Going outside the box,” I wrote about the concept of intersectionality – the idea that our identities can’t easily be categorized into nice, neat, simple categories. Unfortunately, the field of psychology has been a little behind the eight ball when it comes to incorporating intersectionality into research. Because traditional research and statistical methods favor clear-cut, discrete categories, psychological research tends to focus on one identity category at a time. And that becomes highly problematic when we begin to consider real, flesh-and-blood people. We just can’t be reduced to one simple isolated category. Yet instead of developing more complex models to accommodate the complexities of LGBTQ people, researchers often try to fit LGBTQ people into simple, research-friendly models.  

And yet, as annoyed as I can get with my chosen academic field for being so slow on the uptake, I do think the beginnings of a paradigm shift are rumbling. Recently, I came across an article in the Journal of Bisexuality titled, “The Bisexual Youth of Color Intersecting Identities Development Model: A Contextual Approach to Understanding Multiple Marginalization Experiences,” which embodies exactly the kind of shift I’m envisioning. First of all, the authors, Kirstyn Yuk Kim Chun of California State University, Long Beach, and Annelise Singh of the University of Georgia, aren’t trying to make things easier on themselves by just studying bisexuality, or just studying youth, or just studying race. In fact, they’re not even restricting themselves to those three categories – their model invites inclusion of other facets of identity. However, it’s abundantly clear that an intersecting identities development model can’t plagiarize from existing identity development models and just plug in new terminology (which, in my opinion, is what usually happens). They have to start from the ground up and create an entirely new paradigm.

And they did. 

To describe their model in more depth, we’ll need to shift from left-hemispheric, linear, logical reasoning to right-hemispheric, visual, dimensional reasoning. Most sexual orientation identity development models fall into the former category (linear and logical) and look something like this:


These theories are called “stage models” for a reason. You start off at Stage 1. You eventually step up to Stage 2. Then Stage 3, 4, 5 (depending on how many stages are included in the model). Eventually you “arrive” at the final stage, where you are a fully out, integrated, well-adjusted, self-actualized person. These models are hierarchical, usually unidirectional, and involve only one element of identity development.

Now consider this image:

This is what’s called a Venn diagram, which you don’t see very often in psychological research. A Venn diagram allows a researcher to construct a model that is complex, multidimensional, and fluid. And, utilizing a variation of the model pioneered by developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner, that’s exactly what Chun and Singh used in their intersecting identities development model (apologies for the fuzzy image, but hopefully you get the idea):

If this isn’t thinking outside the box, I don’t know what is. In many ways, this type of developmental model breaks all kinds of unwritten methodological rules. For example, linear stage models with discrete categories lend themselves very well to quantitative analysis (number-crunching, in simpler language). Step-wise models allow for the development of psychological measures to assess which stage a person might be in (another quantitative methodology). And linear stage models have a beginning, a middle, and an end – and, if we go with what the Gestalt psychologists believe, we love theories that have continuity and closure. Venn-style models have none of that. 

I’ll admit openly that I’m unabashedly a left-brained, categorical thinker. However, I think this next book is going to give the right side of my brain a workout. In fact, that’s probably an understatement – delving into the topic of intersectionality isn’t just going to challenge me intellectually, but also emotionally and spiritually. I’m ready for the ride.















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Filed under bisexuality, homophobia, LGBTQ, psychological research, Uncategorized

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