'The personal is political' becomes true when embracing your identity could put your life at risk

'The personal is political' is a notion that stuck with many. The rallying slogan, made popular in the era of second-wave feminism, expresses the belief that the personal experiences of those within minority groups are rooted in their political situation and social inequalities.

During Pride Month, it’s even more important now than ever to consider how this might apply to those who identify within the LGBTQ+ community. The definition of being 'politicised' in this context can be debated, but when interpreted in how individual LGBTQ+ lives, sexual and gender identities are represented and are fused with modern politics, there are many aspects to analyse.

Gayathiri Kamalakanthan is a 28-year-old writer based in East London, who uses they/them pronouns in spaces where it is safe to do so. "I don’t identify with gender," they say. "I don’t think that concept is useful for me. People describing me as a woman adds nothing to a description of me… I think I started to disassociate with that term."

Kamalakanthan spoke to Kindred. about thinking of the 'political' as "how we operate interpersonally as a society, and how we like to look after each other - or don't look after each other". They agree that a personal thing is inherently made political when placed alongside the politics of who gets to live joyously and freely in society with enough food, resources and freedom.

Lawmakers and politicians holding the power to decide who someone legally can or can’t be (as well as love) clearly demonstrates this.

"If I were to go to let's say, Sri Lanka, which is where my parents are from - where they were born - I wouldn't know where to go. Obviously, there are queer spaces, but queerness is still not legal," Kamalakanthan says.

They also spoke about the various companies capitalising on Pride Month as a marketing tactic, when in reality, they show no continuous support for the community. Most people will have noticed the purely symbolic gesture of a lot of common high-street brands sticking a rainbow flag in their shop window and calling themselves "allies".

This is a view shared by Liv, a 22-year-old student at the University of Nottingham, and a bisexual woman. She also notes the way in which, within politics and wider society, a lot of LGBTQ+ joy is represented in a way that’s made to be more digestible for those outside the community.

"I feel like a lot of LGBT stuff that you see in the media is more catered towards straight, cis people," she says, "which I get in a way, because I guess they’re trying to make it more acceptable, but then, it’s not real representation."

The portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community as a community itself is therefore important and perhaps often misunderstood by people who are outside of it. Some may interpret a person simply wearing a little rainbow badge on their backpack as walking around making a blatant, loud, demonstrative political statement. While they certainly might be and should be allowed to, it is often just a representation of their identity or beliefs. In a way, the interpretation could be an unconscious mistake of making a personal aspect of someone’s life political, regardless of the initial intention.

Kamalakanthan interestingly notes how this intersects with gender issues.

"Someone might grow their armpit hair because they see it as a statement of not conforming to a certain beauty standard. Some people might not shave, because they can't be bothered. People might interpret why you're doing something in their own mind, but I guess only you know why. So, if you feel like it's a political statement, that's what it is."

Liv discusses how for many within the community, a pride badge symbolises a safe space - that if she saw someone wearing it, "as a queer person, I’d feel like, not that that person is my 'friend', but I don’t need to feel threatened by them".

Kamalakanthan adds, "It’s like you're welcomed… it's just, I think, a marker of support. I guess when I see it, I want to feel like this is going to be a supportive space and maybe I can say my pronouns are they/them."

Thinking back to how various tragedies involving the LGBTQ+ community were presented and circulated in the news, Liv speaks about the global HIV/AIDS pandemic that began in 1981 and the impact of political agendas.

"The whole AIDS crisis was quite heavily politicised; they could have prevented so many deaths if the government had cared, but there was obviously so much stigmatisation around it.

"People thought that if they touched a gay person, they’d get AIDS, leading to the famous Princess Diana photo," she says, referring to when the Princess of Wales was photographed shaking hands with an AIDS patient without gloves in 1987.

In 2016, a flood of people on Twitter tried to use the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub tragedy in Orlando, Florida, as a tool for putting forward their political views, which many people found outrageous. There was desperation from people trying to emphasise that these victims were real people above all - people regardless of their sexuality.

Ultimately, the extensive politicisation of the LGBTQ+ community risks overlooking the individuals it concerns, and this was a key example.

Both Kamalakanthan and Liv spoke about their respective journeys of discovering their identities.

Kamalakanthan discusses how the exploration of their feelings about gender identity was quite gradual. "I think it was only when I started reading more around gender queerness that I really started to engage with gender as a construct. I think there's been a real build in confidence, like feeling that freedom in genderlessness."

Liv explains how her upbringing in a small conservative area of Cheshire, with limited media representation of LGBTQ+ people and regular attendance at Sunday church, impacted her relationship with her sexuality. "I remember carrying around an intense feeling of shame every day, which definitely influenced a lot of my teenage years and growing up," she says.

She credits going to university and creating a queer family of her own as a way of celebrating her identity and bonding over similar and shared experiences.

"A lot of people are like, 'Oh my god, why do you make being gay such a big part of your personality? It’s literally just who you have sex with', but it’s more than that. It’s something you grow and it’s the community, and you bond with people over it," she says.

Perhaps it’s essential to distinguish between being political and being politicised. Many people within minority groups will agree that politics inherently underlies almost every aspect of their life, by the nature of their status within the social sphere. Someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ may lack the same level of freedom to just choose to ignore politics like your average white, straight, cis, able-bodied man if aspects of it will always concern them.

If you have a typical female biology, you’re automatically political in having your reproductive rights monitored and restricted by politicians and lawmakers. If you are a person of colour, your existence is made political by the long history of systematic oppression in the UK. Throughout history, politicians have taken it upon themselves to decide what LGBTQ+ people can or cannot do - whether that’s getting married, joining the military or otherwise.

Kamalakanthan argues that "the political, cultural stew that we're all in is, I think, more likely to harm you, or not be uplifting if you are within a minoritised group or intersection. But whether that individual chooses to identify with a political kind of stance - there's no obligation to."

Liv believes that "if someone says they’re not political, I guess that is a kind of active choice" but notes that different scenarios and different spaces allow for varying levels of comfort in speaking up for what you believe in.

On whether as a member of the LGBTQ+ community she feels pressure to be seen as political and a constant activist, she says: "I guess the expectation kind of comes from within myself. But sometimes when people say something and you want to call them out, it’s also like, 'Is this actually a safe place to do so?'"

She explains how in situations like that, there seems to be a level of responsibility in advocating for the LGBTQ+ community as there may be someone in the room who hasn’t come out yet and may internalise what has been said.

Kamalakanthan speaks about the importance of boundaries, as they explain, "I can't really disengage from my own sense of queerness, right? I guess that's always the thing. But what I can do is disengage from the outside world. I can disengage from social media… because it's too much input into my brain."

No minority person should have to feel constantly pressured or obligated to bear the sole burden of social inequalities, along with dealing with them.

Sometimes, Kamalakanthan finds that they need to avoid presenting as queer when it isn’t safe. "To me, that is a political act - like safeguarding myself from queer phobia in whatever way I can," they say. "So not always speaking out, looking visibly queer, and resting, like declining pride speaker requests if I need to, is a political act. Because looking after myself is the most important thing."

The need for spaces that are safe, accepting and comfortable for LGBTQ+ people is, therefore, clearer than ever. Events like the Primadonna Festival, which are committed to creating this space and giving priority to guests who are LGBTQ+, women, people of colour or disabled, are a start in welcoming such marginalised communities.