When the Political is Personal

03/06/2015 10:40 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Perhaps one of the most painful human experiences is being criticized or attacked simply for who you are, how you look or what you believe -- a rejection of your very person and embodiment. Unfortunately, ours is a culture that seems to thrive on violently enforcing existing systems of power by devaluing human life and devaluing certain human lives, in particular. Apparently, those in positions of privilege have decided their power and self worth must be based on taking down others and treating difference as license to attack. And when you are on the receiving end of those attacks, it is not always easy to step back and reflect on how these personal assaults arise from a political context that feeds on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and a host of other fears.

I can't speak to experiences of others, but I know from my own that disentangling that personal hurt from the political context is no easy task. In fact, it has taken me a lifetime. I'm a butch lesbian, and, as long as I can remember, I have had my gender mistaken on a daily basis. These incidents range from being called "sir" to being chased out of restrooms and locker rooms by security guards to anti-queer and anti-trans harassment on the street. Probably because of my white skin privilege, I have never been physically assaulted, though I have faced threats of violence. Of course, on some level I understood that these experiences were about my transgressing the gender binary, but emotionally I experienced them as personal -- an individual affront and rejection of me and my appearance. I also worked at a LGBTQ rights organization for seven years, where I fielded literally thousands of calls about anti-queer harassment and discrimination and heard countless stories of people being beaten, fired and denied services and housing simply for how they looked, who they were, and whom they loved. You'd think, then, that, given my life experience, I wouldn't be surprised when 15 years ago my colleagues and I faced a vicious personal attack for our work with queer youth.

I won't go into the hateful details, but suffice it to say a religious right group targeted us for our work supporting the rights of queer youth to honest, accurate information about their sexuality. My colleague and I lost our jobs over the incident, we faced vicious attacks about ourselves and our work in the media, and we received hate mail and death threats. In short, we were scapegoated. What's worse the religious right group behind the attack succeeded in undermining the work we and others were doing to try and create safe spaces for queer young people.

Even though intellectually I understood the attack was taking place in a political context, it felt personal because the religious right group made it personal. They called out our sexual orientation, our behavior, our professionalism and our judgment. They attacked the program we ran, but they also attacked us personally. We were targeted for who we were and with whom we working -- queer young people.

The attack was in many ways personal, but it was also intensely political and arose from a particular cultural and historical moment. As personal as it felt, I see now that the incident had almost nothing at all to do with me and/or my colleagues. We were merely symbols of all that the right hated and convenient foils in a highly charged, take-no-prisoners culture war. I failed then to understand that, on some level, the confrontation was never about me, even though it sure felt that way. By personalizing the political and holding it as my individualized and private hurt, I gave even more power to the religious right, conceding -- not that they were correct -- but that the incident was about individuals and individual behavior, not larger principles of justice and morality and a critically important political battle.

More recently, I've been wrestling with how to understand and locate power within personal affronts that arise from our messed-up political and cultural context. I'm coming to understand my self and embodiment as a disruptive political force that can and should provoke the world. In a recent lecture, scholar Cathy Cohen encouraged her listeners to embrace deviance and said: "The price of being on the side of normal is you must participate in the neoliberal process of excluding and give up the cause of radical transformation."

Let me, then, plant myself firmly on the side of deviance, understanding that personal attacks can be signs of political disruption. Any of us, who by our appearance, our choices, our actions, our desires, or our beliefs challenge existing power structures -- whether based on sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, or able-ism -- are queering the status quo and performing acts of resistance and transformation. So I am learning (albeit slowly) to stand secure, even in the face of personal attacks, because I believe that those attacks are also potent signs of the ability we each have to disrupt corrosive systems of power that tell so many of us that we are less than fully human.