I am often described as a political person. In fact, my friends affectionately refer to me as a “Professional Gay” because much of what I do involves to some extent professionalising my sexuality. In short: I’m a gay man who researches and talks a lot about gay things.
But, it’s not enough to say, “the personal is political” (to borrow from a famous feminist slogan). The political is also personal. From the nationalist passion that surrounds Australia Day to the anxiety or anger over Trump’s immigration proposals, politics is something that comes to inhabit our daily lives, even if we do not recognise it formally as such.
You can even see it in how queer folks are meant to “come out” of the proverbial closet. We only register the requirement to come out because society still subscribes to the pervasive notion that everyone is, or at least ought to be, exclusively opposite-sex attracted. Those of us who come out find ourselves doing it several times over – to friends, family members, colleagues, and even strangers. Unless you find yourself forever nestled in a “gay bubble” (I do try very hard to achieve this!) in the many spaces you will move through, from schools to workplaces, there tends to be a presumption that we are all heterosexual.
Once upon a time, having a same-sex relationship was a criminal offence. Confessing that you were attracted to men used to be sufficient grounds for psychiatric intervention. Sexuality was political. We’d like to think this is now a matter for the history books. Everyone is equal now, right? Tell that to the queer people in schools who are denied access to anti-bullying programs or those who are unable to access appropriate aged care services. Oh, and we are still having yet another inquiry about marriage equality.
The “political” even comes to matter in our fantasies of the future. Many of us like to say that our desires are pretty ordinary, apolitical attachments. We just want to find love, buy a house, get a pet, and maybe even having a kid or two someday. But, desires for ordinariness are political. Just look at the powerfully sentimental campaign advertisements for marriage equality that foreground exactly these sort of private commitments by showing us loving partnerships, sweet families, and the promise of happiness that can be gained with law reform. Our intimate sensibilities or erotic lives – no matter whether we want them to be or not – are political.
How can we say our personal lives are not political when politics routinely seizes them and get us to codify or categorise them?
Perhaps an interesting way to rethink how politics claims our personal lives is to refract the demand to “come out” and to think about “coming in.” A few years ago, psychologist Sekneh Beckett and lawyer Alyena Mohummadally spoke at the Sydney Mardi Gras Queer Thinking forum about how we should allow others the privilege to hear our intimate stories, rather than feel compelled to tell stories we think others want to hear. Beckett notes:
“There is an invitation for us to relinquish our faith in order for us to express our diverse genders and sexualities.”
Discussing her work with LGBTIQ Muslims who struggle to navigate their religious, cultural and sexual orientations, Beckett says that feeling comfortable requires “honouring” your own stories and experiences.
Feeling political, then, does not require someone to march in Mardi Gras, lobby MPs, or attend rallies. Sometimes, the best thing to do is refuse the demand of politics: inviting others to “come in” and share in our awkwardness, pleasures, and aspirations, rather than having to come out to them.
In an ideal world, we would be less obsessed with the forms of our relationships, and more focused on the ethics of the intimacies we pursue. Maybe one day our identities and consciences will not be reduced simply to whom we are attracted to, how we express love and whom we choose to sleep with.