When Intersectionality Makes It Harder

How should campus professionals guide a gay, Muslim and South Asian student when his diverse identities are in internal conflict? 

February 27, 2018

Let’s say you work in student affairs at a liberal arts college that has a progressive culture on identity issues. There are ‘Immigrants and Muslims Welcome’, rainbow flags and ‘I Am an Ally’ stickers everywhere. You believe that the socio-political marginalization of such groups requires such affirmative statements of support and you are proud to work in such a culture.  

A student walks into your office and says: “I am Muslim, I am the eldest son of a South Asian immigrant family and I find myself attracted to a certain individual in my biology class. Said individual happens to be male. I think that means I’m gay.”

Of course you begin by asking questions. And the more you ask, the more you realize that this student is quite serious about all of his different identities. He reads the Qur’an in Arabic and is a regular at Friday prayers. The interpretation of Islam he follows is open and welcoming when it comes to interfaith cooperation, but quite “traditional” (his word) on issues of sexuality. He is clear with you that he does not feel comfortable bringing his questions about sexuality to the Muslim leaders he knows, but at the same time he has great admiration for those leaders and wants to remain close to them.

He is also close with his family. He came to this college in part because of its proximity to home. He returns to India every other year to spend time with his extended family. There is a successful family business that he will inherit and is expected to run one day. In the course of the conversation he shares that he is the eldest son in the family, but not the eldest child. He has an older sister, and you note that the business is not passing down to her.

In your conversations with your colleagues about current affairs, the talk is often about how campuses should be places that challenge all forms of oppression – sexism, homophobia, etc. Isn’t so much of what this student is telling you examples of oppressive attitudes?

You know that people around you would think that a business being passed down to the eldest son is an egregious way of affirming the patriarchy. Many of your colleagues have said some version of religion poisons everything in part because it suffocates sexual expression. In these conversations, you’d shared similar sentiments yourself. So, should you bring those views to this student?

What if you do take this approach, and because this student is at an impressionable age and views you as an authority, he begins to lead his life by the values you propose. He tells his family he is gay, he will not marry who they tell him to marry, he will not accept the family business. He stops going to prayers and distances himself from his faith. Do you really want that kind of responsibility?

If you do not tell him what you think, have you contributed to injustice – to the patriarchy, to heterosexist normativity?

Are the identity tensions posed by this student an illustration of ‘intersectionality’? Do the theories of intersectionality help you guide this student one way or another?

Does the specific department/unit that you are part of matter? Let’s say you are at the LGBT Center, does that influence what you tell this student? What about if you are in the Office of Diversity? The Office of Religious Life The Counseling Center?

Is it possible that if the student went to all four of the above offices, he could get very different advice?

Is that a strength of your college or a weakness?  


The above example is obviously fictional, and the details in any given situation can always be different. A recent New York Times piece about Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is in interesting example of a broadly similar situation with even higher stakes because of the public nature of the Bhutto family: 


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