Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Personal IS Political: Or, Why Visibility is Important (Even When It's Difficult)

The first 4,000 or so times that I had to "come out," I would shake and my voice would quiver. Sometimes that still happens. However, I was reminded at the NGLTF conference of the importance of visibility, even when it's difficult or uncomfortable. Research indicates that attitudes towards gay folks are not really impacted by the number of gay people you know, but rather the types of connections or relationships you have with those people. So, it becomes very important for LGBT folks to actually HAVE conversations with people so that others can understand what issues of fairness and equality we face (in the absence of these conversations, people often assume that issues like marriage or employment non-discrimination are not that important to us!).

I also believe it's important to explain why the issues facing LGBT folks are not just "personal" or "private" matters. That is, to explain why "the personal is political."

First, I would argue that it's exceptionally rare that relationship issues or statuses are actually "private" for any of us. For instance, how many of us knew (or know, if we're still taking classes) each year when we started school whether our teachers were married or single or divorced or had children? I knew this information for all of my teachers growing up (and in college for that matter) from the stories teachers would tell in class and from family pictures displayed on their desks at school.

Second, being in a same sex relationship IS inherently political (and not just personal) for members of the LGBT community because we live in a society that is inherently unequal. Not only do we not have the same rights as heterosexual folks (e.g., marriage at the state and federal levels), but we do not have the same protections as heterosexual folks. For example, what happens if a gay or lesbian teacher tells a story about their family or has a picture of a partner and/or children on their desk at school? Rather than being illustrative of a point, or cute, or reassuring, or anecdotal, as it would be for the aforementioned heterosexual teachers, it becomes threatening. AND, in the majority of states in the US, this teacher could be fired without legal recourse or protection just because they are lesbian or gay. [This will continue until we pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to protect sexual orientation and gender identity in employment at the federal level.]

Third, while visibility is difficult and can be uncomfortable, invisibility is equally so. Not being able to tell the same stories anyone else (who is heterosexual, for instance) would about your family takes a toll on physical and psychological health.

I will continue to do my best to be visible and to not be afraid. And I will take courage from my friends who are straight allies. [Many thanks to my former neighbors (and current friends) who participated with their whole family (!) in a recent peaceful protest against homophobia in Cedar Rapids. LOVE your Facebook pictures from the event and love you!]

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