Unpacking Privilege: Addressing Race and Class in LGBTQIA+ Activism

Unpacking Privilege: Addressing Race and Class in LGBTQIA+ Activism

The LGBTQIA+ rights movement has made many significant strides in the recent decades. Marriage equality has been achieved in many countries, discrimination protections have expanded, and social acceptance has grown. Yet the benefits of these advances have not been equally distributed across all the segments of the diverse LGBTQIA+ community. Long-standing racial, ethnic, and class divides continue to marginalize and oppress LGBTQIA+ people of color and those in poverty. The privilege must be unpacked and confronted within LGBTQIA+ activism for the movement to progress further.

The Origins of the Privilege in the Movement

Early LGBTQIA+ activists were predominantly white, middle/upper-class cisgender gay men and also lesbians. This shaped the priorities and tactics of mainstream LGBTQIA+ organizations for decades. Marriage equality and military inclusion took center stage. At the same time, other critical issues, like addressing the disproportionate violence and discrimination faced by trans people and LGBTQIA+ people of color, received little focus. The whiteness and relative affluence of those leading the national LGBTQIA+ groups also rendered the perspectives and needs of the poor and working-class queer people as well as those facing the compounded impacts of racism and transphobia, largely invisible in the agenda and messaging of the mainstream movement.

Impact of Privilege on the LGBTQIA+ Communities of Color

LGBTQIA+ communities of color today still confront significantly elevated levels of violence, homelessness, poverty, job discrimination, health disparities, criminalization, and also over-policing. These oppressions are a product of systemic racism as much as they are homophobia and also transphobia. For example, while same-sex marriage and military service are some important milestones, legal marriage alone does little to alleviate the economic stresses that disproportionately impact the low-income LGBTQIA+ people of color who struggle to afford healthcare, housing, education, and jobs, offering a livable wage and basic benefits. Allowing gay, lesbian, and bisexual LGB people to serve in the military openly has not reduced the harassment, assault, targeting, and deportations undocumented LGBTQIA+ immigrants of color frequently endure.

The Structural Nature of Privilege

Intention to harm is not required for oppression to exist. Privilege refers to the unearned advantages accumulated through the historic and ongoing racist, homophobic, transphobic, and also classist societal structures. Privilege can blind those with greater access to power and opportunities from recognizing the experiences of those without such advantages. Even where gains are made through activism and policy change, marginalized groups often continue facing many barriers to accessing those expanded rights and paths for social mobility available to the privileged. This reality means even “successful” activism movements may do little to improve conditions for the least privileged within the communities they claim to represent without any deliberate, intersectional power-sharing efforts.

Centering the Voices of the Most Marginalized

Addressing privilege within LGBTQIA+ activism requires centering the experiences, leadership, and policy priorities of the most marginalized subset of the community in the messaging, organizing, and resource allocation decisions within the LGBTQIA+ organizations and campaigns. Trans women of color, for example, face exceptionally high rates of violence, poverty, homelessness, and also inadequate access to healthcare and employment. Youth, seniors, those with disabilities, undocumented immigrants, and many others also frequently endure compounded marginalization. Prioritizing their lived realities is the key to tackling the root causes of the often drastic disparities in health, wellbeing, safety, and also economic security across the LGBTQIA+ demographics.

Being an Ally by Uplifting Not Overshadowing

For non-marginalized members of the LGBTQIA+ community, addressing the privileges related to race, class, gender identity, and other attributes involves using positions of influence to amplify the voices from the margins, not monopolize them. Those with proximity to the financial means, as well as political leaders and media, should consciously leverage that access to open doors for the LGBTQIA+ people who are poorer, more excluded, or heavily targeted by the racist systems to have their stories, demands, and chosen spokespersons gain greater visibility and traction. It also entails sometimes stepping aside to create space for diverse representation and insights rather than always leading from the front.

Commit to the Continuous Growth and Building Connection

Unpacking privilege requires ongoing self-education, building connections across the differences, and a commitment from those with greater advantages to keep listening, learning, and taking concrete action informed by marginalized communities. No workshop or training can undo the lifelong social conditioning nor the años of policymaking exclusion for these groups. Sustained relationship building, power sharing, and transfers of significant resources into leadership initiatives for LGBTQIA+ people of color focused on self-determined priorities are very much needed to transform mainstream LGBTQIA+ activism into an intersectional movement guided by those facing the greatest barriers to rights and wellbeing.

The path forward lies in the collective confronting rather than deflecting from the internal disparities around privilege tied to race, class, gender identity, and also other attributes that shape the LGBTQIA+ realities and the movement priorities. Through solidarity, humility, and deixis that empower from the grassroots margins inward, more equitable LGBTQIA+ activism can emerge that advances justice for all queer, trans, and gender-expansive people across our beautifully diverse spectrum of experiences. There is no liberation until we all get free.

Presented by SHAVA, this article is part of our commitment to embracing the diversity within the transgender community. SHAVA stands in solidarity with transgender people of color, advocating for acceptance and allyship that recognize and celebrate the richness of their diverse experiences.

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