Identity and Multiple Discrimination: Charting New Territory for Equality and Human Rights

Presentation to ILGA-Europe 2005 Annual Conference, Paris
Dr Katherine Zappone – October 2005


I am so very pleased to accept the invitation of your Director, Patricia Prendiville, to speak at this conference. I do believe that we have entered a new era in the promotion and protection of human rights for people who hold minority sexual identities. People like me! People like us! While I am aware that there exists extraordinary diversity across Europe (and the globe, for that matter) with regard to how well social, civil, economic, political and cultural rights of people like us are protected and practiced, there have been significant advances made in several jurisdictions and by many brave people. These hold up very bright beacons for other countries and for all people wherever they reside on the continuum of sexual identity. I know this to be true in my own life that I live very happily with my beloved life partner, Ann Louise Gilligan who is also here with me today. A couple of years ago we started the long journey of activism to get legal recognition of our identity and our life partnership in the Irish state. How did we get the courage to stand against ‘the Government, an Attorney General and a Revenue Commissioner’ all in one go?! We took inspiration from others in other jurisdictions, we were aware that very little was happening in the public Irish sphere in relation to partnership rights, we were heartened by the vision and practice of judges, lawyers, activists, young people, policy-makers in other places. This is how social change happens. Social change is meant to be contagious – across social groups, geographic spheres and nationalities. That is why there is so much potential, power in an annual conference such as this. I hope that you are touching into some of that power.

I was invited to speak today about the topic of ‘multiple identities’ and ‘multiple discrimination.’ I have had the opportunity to direct several interesting research projects on these topics within Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain and I am going to draw on that research as I speak to you this morning. However, what I wish to do is to place my remarks within the wider framework of ‘human identity’ and propose to you that, if we put a spotlight on ‘identity’ this will push us into what I think is new territory in the work of equality and human rights.

The research that I have conducted establishes a number of things. Let me begin by outlining that it establishes

  • The importance of a focus on identity within equality and human rights strategies. Identity is found to be important in people’s positive sense of self, as a basis for people to organise and seek change, and as having practical implications for equality policies and practices within institutions, for example within the institutions of health and education services.
  • Identity is complex – it is multiple. We construct our identities from more than one source. For example, my identity is shaped by the fact that I am a woman, a lesbian, an American-Irish, a former Roman Catholic, etc. Identity is complex, too, because it is fluid. Our identities change over time and are experienced differently in different contexts and circumstances. I am getting older, I am now American-Irish (bi-cultural), I have developed a disability, etc. These are examples of ‘over time’. What do I mean by ‘within different contexts or circumstances’? Well, depending on what week it is, what social service I am accessing, or what event I am attending, I may feel the surfacing and intersection of some aspects of my identity more than others. For example, today, of course my sexual identity is to the fore, and I am also aware of how its unique intersection with my ethnic/cultural background may position me differently in this gathering than others. Anyhow, what I am trying to emphaise right now is this:
  • ‘The one with the multiple identity is YOU!’ - that your identity is complex, multiple, fluid. That is also the case for all those who are in the majority when it comes to sexual identity. Everyone’s identity is formed through the intersection of specific personal and social differences.
  • The norm for human beings, then, is that of ‘multiple identity’. No one has a ‘singular identity.’ Our social location along the different axes of gender, race, sexual identity, disability or class impact the fashioning of who we are, what our needs, potential and values are, but it also impacts our access or non-access to social resources, human rights and equality. Consequently, if human rights and equality strategies are based on the assumption of ‘singular identity’ THEY ARE FLAWED!
  • So, we require new laws, and amendment of old laws, new equality policies and practices, and amendment of old equality policies and practices, that are based on the recogition of/assumption of ‘diversity within human identity’ or ‘multiple identity.’ I will return to this as I conclude my remarks.

Experiences of Diversity in Identity

A recent research project that I directed essentially set out to increase knowledge about diversity in people’s identity. 6 individual researchers in three jurisdictions set out to explore the experiences of the ‘multiple identity’ groups of disabled ethnic minorities, disabled women, young LGBT people, disabled LGBT people, young ethnic minority men and ethnic minority women. The research listened to these people reflect on who they are and what their experiences have been, especially with respect to accessing basic services in their society. In every case this exploration revealed a complex picture of how these individuals struggle for equality and recognition of their human rights and outlined how they experienced considerable discrimination and exclusion because there is so little recognition of their multiple characteristics. It highlighted the immense personal suffering of individuals who do not fit the prescribed norms of a society on a number of fronts. It pointed toward the need for deeper attitudinal, institutional and legal change if people are to encounter more fairness, equality and justice in their day-to-day lives.

 I just want now to give you a flavour of those experiences, by way of naming some key realities in the complexity of human identity.

1. ‘Otherness’ and Multiple Disrespect

The research demonstrated again and again the impact of ‘otherness’ on people’s lives. The concept of ‘otherness’ refers to the fact that many people – by virtue of some aspect(s) of their identity – do not fit what a particular society has defined as a ‘normal’ human being. They are ‘other’ than normal because of a physical impairment, a minority ethnic background or a minority sexual identity. ‘Othernes’ can mean feeling as though one is on the outside, does not belong, is stereotyped or disrespected. These experiences are usually shaped by interactions with other people, especially those who fit the ‘norms’ of, for example, non-disablement, a majority ethnic background, a dominant sexual identity. A feeling of ‘otherness’ can also be due to how systems are organised, for example, a system of health provision or education that some people do not have equivalent access to or benefit from. It can also be due to a legal system that does not protect your human rights in the same way it protects the human rights of the dominant social groupings.

Throughout the research, the weighty disrespect for those with multiple identities outside social norms became clearly visible. Listen to the ‘multiple disrespect’ in these accounts from Northern Ireland of what the intersectin of youth and sexual orientation in one’s identity can mean for some:

‘I came out when I was 14 and I’m always being labeled as the “lesbian” at school’ Another: ‘On our boy’s playgrounds, they know that the worst thing that they can be called is gay. Five and six year olds are saying it without having any idea of what it means.’ Another: ‘When I was 14 I got kicked and pushed everyday coming home from school. There was no support to deal with homophobic bullying; it was not even acknowledged that it was happening in school.’ These are such clear examples of suppressed identity precisely during a period of life that accentuates its formation. These young people experience, then, multiple discrimination at the core of their identity formation.

2. Multiple Identity and Social Groups

A second underlying theme we found running throughout all the research groups was that the personal characteristics of individual identity hold social significance. People develop their identities in light of both individual characteristics they hold and social groups (women, black, gay) to which they belong. Identification with a social group that acknowledges the complexity of identity can provide a powerful positive sense of self. One of the studies documented the mainstream isolation of young lesbian, gay and bisexual people and the importance of belonging to a group (‘Out and About’) that affirms their youth and sexual identity. Another study of disabled LGBT people also registered strong feelings of isolation. However, a key finding was that this isolation has to do with prejudice towards disabled people in the LGBT community AND the existence of homophobia in the disability movment. Many LGBT people do not feel comfortable in either the disability movement or the lesbian and gay community. Others may feel affirmed in one social group and disrespected in another. This points to the lack of recognising diversity within social groups and the negative consequences on a person’s self-esteem and individual identity. As one participant said “Most of us create our own community. I became disabled and was shunned by the lesbian community. They [other lesbians] have this fear that it [disability] might happen to them.’

3. Systemic Barriers – experiencing multiple discrimination

The research contained numerous examples of how people experience multiple discrimination in the health sector (barriers to accessing services) because the multiple characteristics of their identities are not recognised. As one person said, ‘There is an assumption that everyone is heterosexual and when it is otherwise young people have to identify as gay/lesbian/bisexual to access health services, especially sexual health. Doctors assume you are straight; you have to out yourself.’ In another study, “Sex education is wholly inadequate and fails to address the issues of difference – both in terms of sexual identity and implications of impairment. We not only continue to face environmental barriers because systems, buildings, and practices are not designed with us in mind, but we are also blocked in our development as sexual beings because health educational services discount us.”

Putting the spotlight on identity – as these experiences illustrate – encourage us to re-think the meaning of diversity in order to put into practice more effective equality and human rights strategies.

Re-Thinking Diversity and Implications for Practice

I’m going to conclude by sketching a framework for re-thinking diversity, and point towards some of its practical implications. I propose that there are at least three domains within which it is important to understand and to practice the recognition of diversity.

1. The Individual – Assume Differences Within

Individuals do not fit into one neat box of being a ‘woman’, ‘disabled’ or ‘lesbian’ person. Taking a ‘multiple identities’ focus offers a more holistic understanding of diversity within individuals and how they experience barriers to equality and discrimination in light of this. All individuals hold multiple identities, but the social significance of personal characteristics is what can determine their experience of equality or inequality, the fulfillment or violation of human rights. The multiple identities of individuals shape their experience of discrimination. Without an assumption of the differences within individuals, there is a failure to understand the complexity of how people genuinely experience discrimination and a violation of rights. Grounds for discrimination cannot be viewed as rigid, watertight compartments. Many people will experience ‘intersectional discrimination’ based on two or more characteristics of their identity.

2. Social Groups – Examine Differences Within

I have highlighted the significance of social groups in the shaping of a person’s identity. There is need for ongoing examination of differences within social groupings. Acknowledgement of diversity within social groups is critical not only for a more accurate representation of the position of those groups within society, it is also crucial for the creation of positive environments for the personal development of those who belong to these groups. A practical implication of this, especially for NGO or community organisations, is that they see it as essential to their work to embrace diversity within their own organisations – and to develop initiatives specifically geared towards this.

3. Social Institutions and Law – Apply an Integrated or Intersectional Approach

I have outlined research that identifies institutional failure (in 3 jurisdictions) to provide appropriate health services to people of particular multiple identities because of their increased vulnerability and marginalisation. I have referred to attitudes and behaviour that disadvantage people on the basis of their combined personal characteristics. This amounts to unique experiences of discrimination and unequal access based on an intersection of grounds. (‘grounds’ – the legal term referring to types of discrimination on the basis of personal characteristics).

The institutional and legal domain pose perhaps the greatest challenge to understanding and accommodating the full complexity of human diversity. It requires a re-think of equality and diversity policies that incorporate an integrated approach. Such an approach is first of all based on the assumption that individuals have multiple identities. Secondly, it analyses service and employment systems from the perspective of intersecting personal characteristics – and that this is also brought to bear on system design and professional attitude and behaviour. With regard to law, especially that which is said to protect the equality and human rights of all people, it is no longer adequate to have laws that protect on the basis of identity as singular. Hierarchies of discrimination in equality legislation (for example, some grounds such as gender being protected more than other grounds such as sexual identity) make it impossible for a real human being to get adequate anti-discrimination protection. More and more people require an ‘intersectional approach’ to equality and human rights claims. The most common approach to discrimination claims is one that tends to focus on a single ground. But a new approach is being developed that takes due account of a complaint, for example, an older gay man who has been dismissed from employment, on the basis of multiple grounds of dicrimination. This approach has been defined as ‘taking account of the historical, social and political context, and recongising the unique experience of the individual based on the intersection of all relevant grounds.’


Putting the spotlight on identity actually requires a conversion of sorts. I suppose the most important conversion has to do with how we think about our own selves, how we reflect on the multiple ‘otherness’ within our own selves – and to use this as the primary resource for dynamic and genuine attempts to apply the personal insights gained to the work that the world needs us to do.