Angie Fee: The Personal is Political – a bifocal vision

In my years of teaching sexuality and gender I’ve noticed how it is impossible to separate these 2 concepts from the bigger cultural context.

How and why has sexual identity in particular as a socialised form of individual diversity come to be separated from other identity categories such as gender, race, class, age, able-bodiedness etc.? Addressing this question requires an exploration of the socio-historical context of the development of identity politics and some of the most powerful social movements of the last 50 years – but that is another article. The purpose of this article is to bring a deeper awareness to the importance and necessity of exploring and understanding the complex interconnections of these identities and how this can expand the students and therapist’s awareness of wider social contexts that exist beyond the therapy room.

In my research and clinical work, I find that an intersectional approach helps to expand and deepen my understanding of the complexities of identity. An intersectional approach is rooted in the feminist movement of the 1980s, and grew out of feminists of colour arguing that most feminist scholarship was from middle class /white/educated women. The phrase was coined by American civil rights advocate Kimberle Crenshaw (1989) who recognised that there were important differences among women and men rather than simply between them. Feminist scholars argued that gender, race and class are interconnected as ‘intersecting oppressions’.
Many of us have particular hybrid identities that are created at those intersections of identities. In this way, intersectionality challenges one-size-fits-all stereotypes, adding to complexity, rather than reducing it. An intersectional perspective recognises that many of us fall between the cracks of heterosexual, black, class and spiritual discourses – we don’t just fit into one of those identities but they all interact with each other bringing multiple dimensions to our experiences. For instance, a black middle class gay man will have a different experience of his sexuality/gender to a white working class gay man. This challenges the presumed homogenous idea that all gay men are same, ignoring how some categories carry more privilege compared to others. Intersectionality is not a new idea, but I haven’t heard it mentioned in psychological therapies or training programmes, excepting Pink Therapy training in Gender and Sexual Relationship Diversity. It is more widely known and used as an analytic tool by universities, academic researchers and policy makers.

But I don’t want to draw a picture of intersectionality being about simply setting up conversations between all our multiple identities, integrating them all neatly. Intersectionality describes not only the multidimensional nature of identity but also the multidimensional interconnecting systems of power and oppression. This is complex, messy, contradictory territory connected to cultural, generational histories and narratives that are invested with various powers, privileges and oppressions. Some conscious, but mostly assumed and not in awareness.

One of the ways that these complexities manifest is in the ‘how’ we construct the narratives of our lives. Society offers people a master narrative, a lens through which we look to give our experience meaning. Those stories also perform conservative and preservative tasks, bringing some order to the general ambiguity and disorder of the world, which can bring relief and a sense of coherence to our lives. Yet while those well-established stories can create a sense of identity and belonging, they can also create a process of organising which includes tighter classification and strong boundaries, closing down other possibilities. It contributes to a universal ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, seeing the sexual/gender binary occupy a central position in what constitutes a coherent and legitimate human being. The last century has seen the normalisation of this narrative and has permeated all areas of social life, becoming a source of social and psychological regulation and control. In this way, our sexual and gender identity and experiences have become oversimplified and generalised into fitting master narratives, which don’t allow for other stories to be told. These stories assume a normality, which inevitably excludes those who fall outside this idea.

For us all, our diverse range of life journeys cannot easily fit into normative stories of desire and gender. Those same dominant narratives can’t possibly capture the complexities and contradictions of our desires and longings. The counter narrative is a story, which resists dominant cultural narratives. This need not be in opposition to the master narrative but contained within it – an aspect of one’s history that has not yet become part of one story because it hasn’t fitted into it neatly. Within the idea of the counter narrative is the potential for new stories to be told, opening up the space for exploring and understanding the complex interconnections of other social identities such as race , class, able-bodiedness and age in relation to sexuality and gender. In this way, an intersectional perspective exposes the hidden dimensions that can get left out of the master narrative.

It’s all too easy to create a homogenous group such as gender or sexuality on the basis of one characteristic, where we don’t see the diversity within this, diversity such as class, race, age, socioeconomic status etc. This leads to a single identity/one-size-fits-all. A singular identity doesn’t acknowledge the significance of connecting to a history, tradition and culture. It ignores the complex multidimensional categories and it colludes with the ‘normalisation’ and ‘essentialising’ of those social categories, which for the main, remain unquestioned.

As trainees and therapists we are made all too aware of the importance and significance of psychological identity – self-esteem, self-awareness, self-reflection. But what about our social identities, those identities that we claim membership of and the personal meaning that we give those categories? Can we really explore and understand our sexual and gender identity without considering how social structure and social identity influence the way we view and experience our desire and gender?

This is not about learning new skills in how to work with particular groups of people or studying other people, but rather being committed to explore and understand how our own intersecting identities have developed within our own particular cultural context - sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, social class, age, socioeconomic status, generational level, level of education, religion, spirituality – How do these different social identities interact with each other and what is the conflicting nature of power some of these identities hold? This process includes a deepening awareness of how systemic and institutionalised models such as racism and heteronormativity, have created privileged and oppressive social divisions. This can be a challenging and threatening process, particularly if we have normalised and internalised our own positions of power and privilege.

It means recognising that 2 different individuals who identify as heterosexual may experience their heterosexual identity very differently depending on the following intersecting categories of gender, age, class, religion , immigration status , race, level of education, able-bodiedness. A young Scottish-Asian man whose grandparents emigrated 30 years ago and a young Scottish-Asian man whose parents emigrated 50 years ago may result in different experiences of their sexuality and gender. Though they may share same ethnic background, they may have vast differences in their experiences of gender, acculturation, language and family roles. To ignore these intersecting social identities can result in the individual feeling profoundly silenced.

C.Wright Mills, a sociologist in the 1950s, created the idea of ‘sociological imagination’. This was an important contribution to understanding the relationship between personal experience and the wider society. He described sociological imagination as a ‘quality of mind that allowed one to view society through different lens, ‘neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both’.

In other words, personal biography is always located within a larger cultural context.
Interestingly, Mills called this integrated approach bifocal vision, whereby he stresses the importance of situating personal experiences within a social and cultural context. Bypassing the much argued nature/nurture debate, this bifocal vision focuses on how the role models that are available for the individual depend on cultural collective processes. This raises the question of why an individual might present themselves one way and not another. Which narratives are available for us to tell our individual stories of who we believe ourselves to be? In this way, political processes are involved in the stories we construct about ourselves. Which social structures and discourses influence how and what we are allowed to experience? How does any story come to be told? Why one story and not another? It brings to mind the feminist slogan of the late 60s – The Personal is Political - which highlighted connections between personal experiences and larger social and political structures resulting from systemic oppression. The work is about recognising that experiences don’t just happen to us, but are constructed through socio/political systems that then become subjective. In other words, personal problems are political problems.

Can we view therapy as a space to explore not only psychological identities but also our social identities and the complex interactions between both. Indeed, seeing through an intersectional lens allows us to recognise that how we construct our psychological identities is vastly influenced by the social categories that we belong to. In this way, we can consider the ways in which ‘intersections of class, geographical location, dislocation, sexual and gender identity, racialization, ethnicity, indigeneity, disability, citizenship and the environment are enmeshed in processes of social justice and injustice’ (Hill Collins & Bilge). . In other words, understanding identity as a political location.(Alcoff 2006,15)

Finally, I’m not suggesting that we view intersectionality as a theory of individual identity, more of a perspective that considers and emphasises the contextual systems and structures within which our identities came about. A bifocal vision.

Recommended reading.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. 2017. Bloomsbury Circus
Sociological Imagination by C.Wright Mills 1959.
Intersectionality by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge 2016

Dr Angie Fee

Angie is a Psychotherapist, Supervisor and Trainer at the Psychosynthesis Trust.


    • Frances Basset

      Thanks a great article Angie, I would add the intersectionality of mental health/illness to your list too

    • Charley Quinton

      This is brilliant and useful.

      “Society offers people a master narrative, a lens through which we look to give our experience meaning.”

      An intersectional narrative: When I say that I am a ‘this’ I profess that I do what ‘this’ requires to qualify me as a ‘this’ which does not preclude me from doing or being ‘that’. (Narrated by me)

      Identity and anonymity exchange places constantly and we can’t have one without the other online or off (eben Moglin). Self-actualization (abraham mazlow) requires creativity (a. North Whitehead) against a backdrop of stuggle. (Carl Marx). Life is either an exciting adventure or it is nothing at all (Helen Keller)

      I use document q as a lenz.

    • Zetta Bear

      I’ve come late to this, but want to thank you for writing it – not only because the subject matter is compelling and important, especially for practice, but because it’s written with rigour and precisioN.

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