Democracy needs to recognise and empower our multiple identities. Brandon Mack draws on his activist experience with Black Lives Matter to argue for intersectionality and diverse histories as the backbone of democracy
I am a Black, Queer, Disabled, Man. That statement reflects my racial, sexual orientation, bodily, and gender identities. They are not separate from my humanity. They are what makes me human.
Identities are essential to my politics because my humanity is essential to my life. My multiple identities find political expression in my activism as part of the queer-led Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). However, we are often told to separate our identities from our politics. That is easy to say when nobody has ever questioned your humanity.
Black people, Queer people and people with disabilities have experienced a long history of disenfranchisement in democracy
The men who brought Black people to the United States as chattel slaves in 1619 did not regard them as human. We were only considered to be 3/5ths of a person. Black men didn’t receive the right to vote until 1870, and Black women had to wait until 1920. Even when we did get the vote, poll taxes, literacy tests, violence and murder prevented us from fully participating in democracy.
This is the history of just two of my four identities. Queer people and people with disabilities have also experienced a long history of disenfranchisement in democracy. Many of those obstacles still exist to this day. So, how can you expect me or any other historically marginalised person to have faith in and participate in a system that has never truly recognised, honoured, or respected all of my identities and thus my humanity?
I live in Texas, where our teachers have limited freedom to teach about slavery. They also face limits on their freedom to teach about other racial minorities, including Indigenous, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander and LGBTQ+ people. The organisation Equality Texas is dedicated to securing 'full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Texans'. According to them, during this current legislative session there have been 141 anti-LGBTQ+ pieces of legislation. This legislation includes a law, currently being challenged in the courts, that would prevent Trans children from receiving gender-affirmative care.
Children should know that people with marginalised identities have made significant contributions, and that we have the same right to existence as everyone else
I fundamentally believe that when we learn about one another, it makes it that much harder for us to devalue one another. I and many other BLM activists here in Texas have led efforts to challenge the laws that prevent the representation of racial minorities and LGBTQ+ people in teaching content. We fight for our histories to be taught through alternative programming such as Freedom Schools and LGBTQ+ read-ins. It is important for our children, and all of us, to know that our identities matter. Children should understand that people with marginalised identities have made significant contributions, and that we have the same right to existence as everyone else.
It is so important to say 'Black Lives Matter' because the history of the United States has shown that we haven’t always mattered to our government or to our society. That affects how we feel about ourselves. How is a Trans child in Texas supposed to feel good about themselves and safe within their own state, when their state tells them, 'you don’t have the right to health care'?
Activism is a crucial driver of democratic transformations. Activists are driven by their own desire for change. They see that the current systems are not without alternative. Activists have the power to ignite our sense of pride by reaffirming our identities.
That is what the founders of Black Lives Matter did when they created the hashtag. Their initiative led to the creation of organisations around the country that did not wait for a charismatic leader or a centralised organisation to dictate their agenda. They empowered those BLM chapters to do what their communities needed, and worked with others to build collective power.
This changed the participation paradigm from 'either/or' to 'both/and'. No longer do we have to select whether we fight for Black rights or LGBTQ+ rights. We now can fight for both. When we do, we expand our activism to recognise those in other identity categories and those at the intersections. In my own work within the LGBTQ+ space, I always make sure that we discuss and include Black, Trans and Queer identities, even though we often are not the face of the issues.
Activism pulls up a chair and makes space for the marginalised. It pushes the table over when it can't fit all of us in
That is why activism is so important for democratic transformations. Activism pulls up a chair and makes space for the marginalised. It pushes the table over when it can't fit all of us in. Activism builds a new table with more seats and makes sure that others have a space there. More and more often, we are seeing attacks on marginalised people, blocking their access to voting and participating in democracy. Our attackers know that when we are empowered and when we participate, we have the potential to make systemic change.
Democracy has been weaponised against us to deny our identities, denying our humanity. Our identities are thus fundamentally important to our participation in democracy. This constant denial increasingly diminishes our desire to participate. Activism challenges the existing systems. It opens up spaces for the co-creation of different systems. This is what Hans Asenbaum calls the ‘democratic microverse’. This microverse allows us to see the intersections across communities, and to build coalitions that combat shared oppressions.
If we are going to move forward as a society towards more democratic and just futures, we have to first recognise that our identities are essential to our humanity. We have to acknowledge our history of denying certain identities from participating in democracy, and transform democracy to include and expand participation. We are here, we exist, and we aren’t going anywhere.