Imagining community: Kimberlé Crenshaw and queer/trans of color politics

I live in a place where I can be trans, queer, kinky, poly, left wing, a person of color, parent, activist, academic, and artist and, with all these traits, find or make community that, by and large, understands me. Here, intersectionality is not an academic term but a concept that is used and understood, even by people who never went to university. Community like this did not always exist for me.

Being queer, trans and of color often means being all on your own. Especially for people like me, who came out in the 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, people-of-color spaces were largely straight or violently cis, and adopted a defensive attitude to trans identities, which they often treated as just white. This is easily forgotten in today’s discussions on archives, ancestors and inter-generational relationships. We were simply a very small group with very few allies. Queer spaces presented no alternative, as they were unabashedly white and busy building their media and political careers on racism. It was often better, therefore, to keep your circles small. In London, I had exactly two friends who were also trans and of color. In Berlin, one. Our relationships were exposed to constantly been fetishized and divided and to rule maneuvers. I sometimes wonder how our friendships even lasted this long. Finding community involved having to do a lot of travelling, and we all did that. Either upping and leaving completely— as I did, from North Rhine-Westphalia to London, Berlin and, ultimately, Toronto. Or in our minds, deeply engrossed in books, zines and, later on, blogs. Books like This Bridge Called My Back, Entfernte Verbindungen, Sister/ Outsider, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, Women, Race and Class, Miscegenation Blues and Q&A: Queer and Asian in America opened up worlds to me that did not exist around me and, in part, still don’t. Finding community often requires imagination. Most of these authors I have never met in real life, and meeting heroes in real life can be disappointing. Yet for a while, at least, their words gave me companionship and nourished fibers and facets of me that they could likely not foresee.

I only once had the honor of meeting Kimberlé Crenshaw in person. In 2012, Cengiz Barskanmanz organized the Critical Race Theory Europe symposium where I also spoke. She had already become part of my ‘imagined community’ (a concept coined by Ben Anderson in an entirely different context), back in the late 1990s in London. A fellow woman of color student mentioned her name while we were in the elevator. Crenshaw was not on the reading list of the only gender-themed course of our program, which we were both taking. In fact, her name was rarely mentioned in the other gender studies classrooms in London that I later attended as a masters and PhD student, too. Odd, when you consider how famous she already was at the time! Yet, not surprising. This was the turn of the millennium, and the backlash against Black feminism in the name of post-structuralism and post-modernism was in full swing. Audre Lorde was still on the curriculum, but with the addendum: ‘We do things differently now.’ A week later, Butler and other white queer theorists would be on the syllabus, who discredited concepts such as intersectionality and positionality as outdated, essentialist, static, binary and identitarian. Queers of color would be paraded as examples of how every identity ‘inherently’ produces exclusions (as if white and cis people’s complicity and inability to share had nothing to do with these exclusions!). Few, on the other hand, were interested in the theoretical and political interventions of multiply marginalized people, especially in Europe. We, too, needed a while to learn to appreciate each other. In addition, the white queer female editor of one of the first articles written on intersectionality in Germany in the early 2000s, written by myself, claimed that the word did not exist in German. A few years later, the same word appeared on her homepage.

I ultimately found Crenshaw’s writings on my own. Her comeback below on the ‘vulgar constructionism’ of dominant anti-identitarians had my heart beat faster:

At this point in history, a strong case can be made that the most critical resistance strategy for dis-empowered groups is to occupy and defend a politics of social location rather than to vacate and destroy it.

Later on, Crenshaw gave me and my students community with her thoughts on violence. Her texts on domestic violence against cis women of color and migrant women included arguments that we were able to build on and extend to homophobic and transphobic violence against people of color. Indeed, Crenshaw’s texts were the first I read that criticized the recourse to therapeutic and police measures in the white-dominated women’s movement. Above all, she gave us confirmation that people whose residence status depends on their partner, as well as Black people whose communities are exposed to ongoing police violence, have good reason not to call the police—and that many victims of violence experience further violence when the police is called. Crenshaw thus also nourished our search for alternatives to the racist state and the white-dominated movements that support it. The experiences and theories of Black trans women such as CeCe MacDonald, who was imprisoned after she defended herself against her assailants and became a leading prison abolitionist behind bars, demonstrate that our understanding of intersectionality and the politics of queer and transgender Black, Indigenous and people of color urgently need each other.

Crenshaw and other Black feminists who have given us intersectionality and other concepts. I also appreciate how strongly and consistently Crenshaw has supported intersectional knowledge formations in the German-speaking world. Unlike some other North American theorists, she is not a fly-in academic who spends her holidays in Berlin and then just leaves again. Her presence at the Center for Intersectional Justice, a key venue founded by Emilia Roig in Berlin, which serves people of color of all sexualities and gender identities, is testimony to this.