Intersectionality scholars have long argued that the dominant legal interpretations of discrimination — as unidimensional bias based on separable axes of stigmatized identity — have become inscribed in the discourse and political agendas of the most prominent contemporary movements for equality. Drawing on the critical race theory (CRT) view of legal institutions as a tool of racial subordination, these scholars have shown how movements against racism, patriarchy, and homophobia have shoehorned broad-based struggles for social change into rights claims that conceptualize racial, gender, and sexual identities as uniform and monolithic categories of shared experience. Movement activists, hungry for change, have seized upon single-axis identity narratives, which offer both an ingrained political resonance and a legally legible framework with the potential to garner formal recognition. In so doing, these movements obscure the unique forms of oppression that occur at the intersections of these categories, perpetuating inequality among multiply subordinated individuals.
In this Article, I draw on the institutional research in sociology to suggest a series of structural dynamics that may further explain the persistence of essentialism in LGBT civil rights agendas and the agendas of similar civil rights movements. Instead of characterizing the marginalization of intersectionally subordinated groups like queers of color as the result of insensitive or strategic decisions made by individual movement leaders, I emphasize the institutional and organizational processes that reinforce patterns of intramovement marginalization. Attributing intersectional subordination to leadership failures, I argue, inaccurately depicts the problem as highly contingent rather than systematic and obscures the structural forces at work. Using specific examples from the context of the LGBT movement, I show how an institutional approach would contribute to current understandings of fundamental aspects of intersectionality theory, including the mechanisms that enable essentialist identity narratives to dominate social movements; how a movement’s institutional context shapes activists’ strategic behavior; and the opportunities for agency that exist for movement actors who hope to create alternative and more intersectionally inclusive movement agendas. I argue that the sociological literature, in addition to adding greater analytical depth to theories of intersectionality, would help to align antiessentialist critiques of identity movements with broader critical race understandings of structural racism.