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Brittney Griner: A Lesson for Activists on Intersectionality

Health and Gender Policy Brief #TBA | By: Geoffrey Small | December 22, 2022

Header photo taken from: Getty Images

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Activists inflated a giant 'joint' outside the Russian Embassy in D.C. calling for Brittney Griner's release & freedom for the Russian people back in October, 2 months before her imprisonment ended via a successful prisoner swap with Russian arams dealer Viktor Bout.

Photo taken from: Michael Key

Policy Summary

On February 17, 2022, WNBA All Star Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia on smuggling charges for containing less than a gram of hash oil, which was prescribed to her medically in the state of Arizona. The Biden Administration stated that Griner was “wrongfully detained” for political leverage in response to sanctions imposed on Russia for the Ukraine invasion. She was eventually sentenced to nine years in one of Russia’s penal colonies, which are notorious for human rights abuses. Griner, a Black professional athlete who identifies as a lesbian, immediately became a focal point of intersecting political dialogues in the United States related to women’s equality, LGBTQ rights, marijuana decriminalization, and Critical Race Theory. 

As a result, multiple high-profile political organizations and celebrities from different backgrounds simultaneously advocated for the U.S. government to facilitate her release in exchange for a detained high-profile arms dealer Viktor Bout. The most effective strategies in messaging were rooted in the principles of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory on intersectionality. The critical race theory of intersectionality may be the key high-profile organizations can use to collaborate more effectively on political activism in order to help influence similar socioeconomic issues in the future.

Policy Analysis

While Griner was detained, Black Lives Matter voiced support through twitter, stating to Britney “your community has your back. We’re thinking about you every day and we’re fighting for you to come back home.” Cannabis activists protested outside the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C. GLAAD, one of the most prominent LGBTQ organizations, stated in a press release that Griner “is a hero. We admire her courage and loudly echo President Biden’s statement that she is being wrongfully detained. Our community remains gravely concerned for Brittney’s safety and demand urgent action from the State Department.” 

However, Griners WNBA head coach, Vanessa Nygaard truly defined what the issue really was about. She stated If it was LeBron [James], hed be home, right?” Nygaard continued describing the imprisonment of Griner after several months as a statement about the value of women. Its a statement about the value of a Black person. Its a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those things.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw, first used the term “intersectionality” as a professor at Colombia Law School in 1989. It was used to describe how class, gender, race and other characteristics like sexual orientation “intersect” or overlap. Crenshaw’s theory explains that individuals living in the U.S., who identify with multiple characteristics, can struggle exponentially in a system that is rooted historically  in white-male dominance. In Griner’s case, she was playing in Russia to support herself financially, because a WNBA’s average player income is significantly less than what a male NBA player makes. 

Chart taken from: The Williams Institute

(click or tap to enlargen)

She was imprisoned for almost ten months while conservative political pundits questioned her value as a high-profile prisoner that was worth the exchange for a white-male arms dealer. It is well documented that Black communities in the United States have significant socioeconomic disadvantages. However, being a Black female lesbian statistically comes with even more disadvantages. According to the UCLA Williams Institute, 56% of Black LGBT households have a low income, compared to 49% Black non-LGBT. 60% of Black LGBT adults have been threatened with violence and 79% face verbal abuse.

Advocacy groups like Black Lives Matter and GLAAD may have different organizational goals when it comes to their activism, but based on Crenshaw’s principles, they also share intersecting principles. Griner’s harrowing story of unlawful detainment while making a living as a black professional athlete, who identifies as a lesbian, provides a lesson on how these organizations can collaborate on intersecting struggles to carry out their overall goal for a better system of equality. Donating to Back Lives Matter and GLAAD can help these organizations achieve their common goals.

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