By Todd Plank
Todd: Hi Leigh-Anne! I am very excited about the opportunity to introduce you to our readers prior to your visit to Rochester in mid-April, when you will be speaking at the Social Welfare Action Alliance’s (SWAA) national summit. I was surprised to learn that you have a connection to Rochester.
Leigh-Anne: Yes. I attended RIT from 1996-1999. During that time I was very closeted; however, I became more comfortable with my sexual orientation and gender nonconformity while attending SUNY Brockport (Fall 2001-Summer 2003). During that time I volunteered with the Gay Alliance when Patty Hayes was running the LGBTQ youth program. While Rochester, like any community in the country, is not free of racism, heterosexism, classism, etc., it has a large LGBTQ community that includes people of color. I felt safe there. I’m currently living in Maryland with my spouse Jenny and our one-year old twin sons Rustin and Langston.
Todd: Congratulations on your recent appointment as Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at the College of New Jersey. I did some research online to educate myself about your background and came across an article on the website Vitae: “When Diversity Doesn’t Come Easy.” I don’t have space to recount the entire story here, but I want to invite our readers to visit this link and read the complete narrative: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/455-when-diversity-doesn-t-come-easy
Todd: It was shocking and deeply disturbing, but sadly not surprising, to read about the incident back in August 2013 when you were the object of racial and gender profiling by the Oneonta police department. This incident seems like a microcosm of what is and has been going on in the United States for a long time.
Leigh-Anne: I agree with you. Race relations have been and continue to be bad in this country. When I reflect back on that incident I realize that I could have been beaten or killed by the white male state trooper that arrested me. The incident not only resulted in physical damage (my arm was badly bruised and I was handcuffed tightly) and psychological trauma from which I have only recently started to recover, but there was also a severe financial impact on me and my family. I also recognize that if my white, effeminate, gender conforming wife had been pulled over that night the state trooper would probably have just ticketed her or let her go home.
Todd: Based on the many highly publicized tragic deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement it would appear that race relations in this country have deteriorated. Would you agree with that observation?
Leigh-Anne: I don’t think that conditions have necessarily gotten worse for people of color. In the United States, racism has always been bad. There have been major improvements. Since the 1970s, the black middle class has grown and we now have a black president; however, these changes do not indicate that racism has decreased. People of color are disproportionately poor, most schools are racially segregated, poor black and brown communities are cruelly stereotyped in ways that encourage and justify racist violent hyperpolicing of these neighborhoods.
Today’s racism often looks different from slavery era and Jim Crow racism because the liberal white mainstream media is paying more attention to police violence against black people. This has increased the white public’s awareness of the pervasive racism in this country and prompted many liberal and progressive white people to take notice of the racism that has always been there.
T: In your teaching and research you tackle a broad range of issues, including the crisis of mass incarceration, prisoner’s rights, racial profiling, police brutality, and the institutional oppression of people of color, women, immigrants, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and those at the intersection of these identities. Why do you think that so many are rallying around Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric on these and other issues? How much of a danger do you think he represents to oppressed groups?
LA: I think that Donald Trump is very dangerous because he is a smart manipulator and he knows how to tap into white people’s racialized and economic frustration, fear and anger – their job insecurity, bigotries, racial resentments and anxieties. When I observe the crowds that are turning out for Trump rallies his supporters are vastly white. He talks about “making America great again”, but for who? There is a long list of people who are excluded from his definition of what constitutes “America”: poor people, immigrants, black people, white women who decry his misogynistic vitriol, Muslims and people perceived to be of Middle Eastern descent – these people are not included in Trump’s stereotypical, bigoted vision of “America.” He’s singling out these groups as the source of the country’s problems.
The people protesting against Islamophobia and racism at Trump rallies are very brave. They know that they stand a good chance of being rounded up, beat up, or both. Trump’s rhetoric incites and condones racism, anti-Muslim attitudes, and violence.
T: It seems to me that the subject of class, which cannot be divorced from racism, sexism, ableism, etc., is the pink elephant in the room within LGBTQ communities.
LA: I agree that it is crucial to address issues of class in our LGBTQ communities. Focusing on economic inequality helps people to understand the intersectionality of social identities and oppression. Unfortunately, poverty links people from a wide range of social groups. In the U.S., most middle and upper class people are white. There are 46 million poor people in the U.S. and most of them are white. Yet people of color are disproportionately poor – meaning, there are higher rates of poverty among blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, and so on (for example, 10% of whites are poor while 24% of blacks are poor). The combined forces of racism and classism create higher poverty rates among people of color. The poverty rates in LGBTQ communities are also disproportionately high, but LGBTQ people of color are even more likely to be poor than white LGBTQs. Class is just one aspect of a person’s overall identity; however, when we examine class as an intersection with other social identities such as race, sex, assigned gender, education, sexual orientation, gender identity we see how LGBTQ communities are stratified.
T: Is there anything else that you would like to share regarding your perspectives on intersectionality as it relates to LGBTQ identities?
LA: “Gay” issues are “women’s” issues, “black” and “brown” issues, poor people’s issues… Gay issues are intersectional – racism, sexism, classism, cissexism, ableism, and many other oppressions drive and shape anti-gay oppression. So, I don’t think that there are one-dimensional “gay” issues. When we think that way, our LGBTQ organizations and activist groups end up reflecting the needs and concerns of those with the most privilege and power – those who are white, cisgender and affluent, for instance. You can’t separate a person’s queer identity from the intersectionality of the endless spectrum of complex, multifaceted social identities they inhabit.
In a specific context some identities may be more visible, privileged or disadvantaged, but that doesn’t mean that the other aspects of that person’s identity are irrelevant or lie dormant. In a middle class queer context, a working class cisgender gay man may be privileged by his gender normativity but oppressed by his low-income status. Gay issues are black issues, aging issues, trans issues, etc. I believe that at some point everyone fails to see the intersectional nature of other people’s identities and oppressions – not because we are bad people but because we do not share those identities, we are not targeted for those oppressions. The more conscious we are of our own privileges and prejudices the more empowered we are to eliminate prejudice in ourselves and in the world around us.
It’s important that when someone realizes that they have rendered an individual or group invisible that they not get mired in guilt or shame or become defensive. It is not useful to assign blame to others or ourselves. The society that we grow up in instills filters within each of us that obscure our view of reality. What matters is that when a person awakens to the struggles of others they take some initial step to correct the imbalance. Resisting oppression can be as simple as re-tweeting a message or posting a news story on Facebook to create greater awareness among friends and family of social, economic and racial injustice. This kind of support for the activism of individuals and organizations engaging in grassroots work has a profound impact on the lives of oppressed people worldwide.
The Gay Alliance, at 100 College St., will host a reception for Professor Francis on the evening of Wednesday, April 13 from 6:30-8 p.m. Light refreshments will be served and attendees will have the opportunity to hear more from Leigh Anne about the issues discussed in this interview.
Professor Francis will also be one of several presenters speaking at the Social Welfare Action Alliance’s (SWAA) Summit being held in Rochester on April 14 and 15. The theme of the summit is Connect, Move, Act. Standing Together for Human Rights. On Thursday evening (6-8 p.m.) there will be a panel discussion at the College at Brockport Metro Center-Grand Hallway, 55 St. Paul St. The topic will be Human Rights DENIED! Flint’s Water Crisis as a Microcosm of the Nation’s Politics of Inequality. Grassroots organizers from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and other social activists will be discussing the serious implications of the Flint, MI water crisis.
On Friday (8:30 a.m -4:30 p.m.) SWAA will be offering a series of presentations, panel discussions and interactive workshops at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church (121 N. Fitzhugh St). Willie Baptist, who is organizing the New Poor People’s Campaign with the Poverty Initiative from the Kairos Center, will be among the featured speakers. For more information about the SWAA Summit call 585-969-3409 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
See Facebook – Social Welfare Action Alliance – Rochester chapter