Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Personal Is Political, Unlike Coq Au Vin

"The Personal Is Political" is not my turn of phrase. I borrow it respectfully from the Women's Liberation Movement of the 60's, as it was first brought up in a paper by Carol Hanisch. You can read the paper, and her explanatory introduction, HERE. Please enjoy my first and possibly only post from 2017,,,

As I write this essay, I have Coq Au Vin cooking in the crockpot for a dinner I am sharing with a friend tonight. Have you ever made anything in a crockpot? If you have, then you have noticed how the smell of the cooking food infuses every space in your home. I can assure you that this is the case in my home at this moment. The recipe that I am making makes use of packaged beefy onion soup mix as a "cheat" step, but the finished product tastes the opposite of a short cut! Nevertheless, the apartment smells as though I am brewing a cauldron of onion soup. The beefy kind.

I want you to also get a visual sense of what is going on. My apartment is in the front of the building, and the patio door faces west toward the setting sun (in the evening, of course). My front door is opposite the patio door, but facing south, and opening into the drive that separates the two buildings of the complex. Here in Los Angeles, the wind mostly blows from "off-shore", meaning that it blows in from the ocean from west to east. Because of this, I often get a good breeze blowing through my place from the patio door toward the front door. If I have both of these doors open, the smells from whatever I am cooking waft into the drive, and every tenant with a nose is made aware of what is happening in my kitchen.

Fortunately for me, this phenomena has resulted in more mouths-watering than scrunched-noses, if I am to believe the reports. Were I to prepare a dish that was not favorable to a particular tenant, I would assume that I would receive more of the latter than the former, as tenants in this building are not shy about sharing their discomforts with me.

I sometimes feel as though my ways of thinking are similar to a slow-cooking pot of Coq Au Vin, with the significant difference being that my thinking, when expressed, gets more scrunched noses than watering mouths. I tend to be a private person, meaning that I like to keep the "doors" of my thoughts closed to most. Even my essays are more about "themes" than my life in particular. But over time I have come to accept that thoughts, like smells, often travel underneath, around, and through closed doors to the public space beyond the private.

What I mean to say is that, like it or not, I am a political person by the very nature of how I think, move, and live in the world. The very act of holding a man's hand in public or not saying "amen" during a church funeral or wedding service are choices that, despite discretion, get noticed by others. And this noticing then influences how others respond to me, even if all they know about me is what they gather from the observed act. And the reason that the act gets noticed at all is merely because it is often not what most people do. That makes it political.

What happens when we see, hear, read, smell, or taste something that is not immediately familiar or within what we know? Do our mouths water, or do our noses scrunch up? We all know the answer to that one, I suspect. My best friend and I are true foodies, and there have been many times when I have found myself in a restaurant with him where he will ask me to taste something I have never had before. In these cases, one of two outcomes happens: either I blind-taste the item and give my system a shock of unfamiliarity; or he will tell me what the item is "similar to", priming me to expect a flavor/sensation that I am acquainted with. Whether he primes me or not, I generally have more mouth-watering experiences in these cases for the simple fact that we tend to dine in good restaurants.

But what about when people are not primed?

Atheism is one of those ways of thinking that people are, more often than not, not primed for. In 2017, fewer and fewer folks are scrunching up their noses at, say, homosexuality, or transgender people. We see them on TV, and sometimes even in our families. We hear about them in the news and read about them in the magazines (does anyone read magazines anymore?). But atheism is still relatively in the closet, meaning that the darkness prevents clear viewing, or even simple acknowledgement at times. I have no doubt that the U.S. would more readily elect a gay or lesbian president before they would elect an atheist one, and if ever a gay or lesbian atheist were elected, I would fully prepare for the pitchforks to come out. In the same way that homosexuality used to be linked with perversion, atheism is often associated with not having a moral compass. The idea of a man loving a man is easier for America to digest than the idea of a man not loving god.

Just because you don't understand something does not mean that it is okay to judge it. How many times do I say this to the couples who come to my psychotherapy practice for help?

Let me clarify that I am commenting on the issue rather than complaining about it. I have nothing to complain about! As a cis-gender, white, masculine, tall bio-male, I pretty much have the world at my fingertips. My oddities are not in plain sight, unless you are paying very close attention (it never happens!), so I suffer very little compared to most. Additionally, my atheism is a choice, whereas my attraction to men is not. But regardless of a feature being from nature or choice, I notice that only those on the "shortlist" get a free pass.

What is on the shortlist?
-being heterosexual
-being and/or looking male
-being and/or looking masculine
-being and/or looking white
-being Christian or a variation of that (preferably)
-believing in God, not just a god
-being cis-gender

What is not on the short list?
-being gay, lesbian, bi, asexual, or any variation that is not straight
-being agender or non-binary
-being of color, particularly if you are "dark"
-being trans
-being genderqueer
-being Muslim
-being atheist

Notice that the last two on the list are choices, but often identify a large part of a person's identity.

For this essay, I am focusing on being gay and the choice to be an atheist, but only as the context from which to present a perspective on how who we are and what we do often becomes political, whether we want it to or not. Besides, it is what I know, so I stand a greater chance of being nearly right. And I like being right.

What does it mean for the personal to be political?

I did not know myself until my personal actually became political. How did I know that this was happening? Well, people started being upset with what I did, who I was, what I said, and how I said it. I know that happens to everybody some of the time (and perhaps some of the people all of the time), but the difference between regular upset and when the personal gets political is that with the latter the upset is really upset! When others would get upset with me for how I said something, I take full responsibility for that. I readily admit that my "how" needed working on over the years, but that was the pendulum swinging from zero to full speed.

Initially, politicization began because I was "sensitive" as a boy (not allowed!), or so I was told again and again, and as I got older it showed up when others found out, or suspected, that I was gay. I remember one time as an adult when I was in Hollywood with a guy I was dating, chatting and saying goodbye in front of his building at the end of a date night. We were leaning into each, but not making out, just showing the kind of close physical contact any couple who were dating might do at the end of the night. Suddenly, some guy on the sidewalk yelled at us, "Oh my fucking god, are you two faggots?" At first I thought it had to be a friend of ours, making fun of us in the way that gays sometimes do, but then it continued. "Are you guys kissing? I think I am gonna be sick! Do you like suck dick and fuck ass too? That's fucking disgusting!"

Now, this was Hollywood in the early 2000's. Not exactly the place where one would expect intolerance and hatred to show up. I looked at the guy, who was walking his dog with his girlfriend, and I replied with the first thing I noticed about him that I could attack. "Well, I may by gay, but at least I am not fat."

Dear readers, I want you to know that the thing about a good retort is that it not only hits the target, it obliterates it. I caution you to not go after any seasoned homosexual, because in all likelihood he will obliterate you with his retort. (Sorry, lesbians, you do not generally have this particular skill--but don't worry, you have other gifts.) This skill is not about being being queeny. This is about attack, and knowing, from years of observation, what people's weak spots are. Do not underestimate this ability, or you will likely perish under its effect. 

When I called the guy fat, you should have seen his face. He has just verbally attacked me and my date with a vulgar, homophobic outburst that was not provoked by anything other than two gay men "being gay men". But once I called him fat, he acted as though a line had been crossed. He approached me with hatred in his eyes and all of a sudden I realized that I might have to defend myself. Fortunately, I continued my rant toward him, and I am not a small person, and the opposite of fat, so he stopped short, perhaps renegotiating his chances of success in a confrontation. I do not know if I would have beat him up, but I do know that some of the things I said to him hit like a punch. I do know that I was ready to protect myself and my guy.

Fortunately, I did not have to. My date recognized the attacker as a tenant of the building they both live in, and he warned him that he intended to report this to the manager, a gay man who had zero tolerance for homophobic behavior. The guy backed off, but the damage was done. My date and I were both shaken, and the "shame" of being gay, reinforced by the verbal attack, forced a wedge between us. Who wants to be with the enemy?

Growing up, my family celebrated all holidays together, as most families did until, I don't know, they didn't. When I became an adult and moved out of the house, I felt there was an expectation that I would continue to celebrate holidays at home, and I did in fact do this at the beginning. My mother, as I have described in earlier essays, relied on homemade dishes as much as she did canned items, so our holiday celebrations were a mix of cooked meats, homemade gravies, cooked frozen or canned veggies, and store bought rolls. My mother was, truth be told, really good at warming things up for dinner, but that was par for the course in the late 60's and early 70's. Frozen Dinner Night was considered a special treat--so that should give you an idea of the times.

As an adult, I sensed a shift in the family dynamic, but I also recognized that I seemed to be the only one willing to admit that things were changing. I was also aware of the differences in how my brother and I were treated regarding our dating lives. The personal became political when I dared to comment on this difference, which consisted of pointing out that his girlfriend was granted validity by the family, while the anyone I was dating was treated like an "imaginary friend". Not real. My love life, which I was expressing in the only way that was natural to me, was not considered "real", while my brother could fuck whomever he wanted and reward her with a prime seat at our holiday table.

The personal had become political in my family, and I spoke up about it, as anyone would, but was immediately reprimanded for being selfish, needy, and inconsiderate of "other's" needs. Didn't I see how hard my mother had worked to make dinner? (May I remind you that she mostly warmed things up?) Why did I have to turn everything into a gay thing? Why was I causing trouble? Why couldn't I just stay quiet? I thought I was just talking about how I felt, I didn't feel like I was being political. But this is the point. For those for whom their personal is political, that label is provided by others.

Now just to show you that I can see both sides, I will admit that I was not the only one in the family whose personal was political. My mother was a woman who had been divorced three times before she met my father--not acceptable in those days! And my father was a dark-skinned Mexican man who married a white woman in the late 50's--enough said about that! But my parents differed from me in one aspect: they did not embrace the political nature of their choices, they ignored it. I, on the other hand, could not ignore it, primarily because I was not allowed to do so, and secondarily because the source of my political nature was not a choice. The world reminded me, on a daily basis, that who I was and what I chose to do about it was unacceptable. And because I could not pretend that this was not happening, I pushed back. I became political.

Pushback has an iffy chance of being successful, but then that also depends on what it is you plan to be successful about. In my case, pushback succeeded in making my family upset with me, and it succeeded in my feeling even less understood than before, but more justified in my loudness. On a deeper level, though, let's face it--pushback rarely works. This is because it is an effect of marginalization rather than a solution to it. In other words, it is still part of the problem! The only time it actually changes things is when it is done in a way that cannot be ignored: the early actions of ACT UP during the AIDS crisis; the Occupy Wallstreet movement (at least until it became just another reason to hang out and get stoned); the initial thrust of the Black Lives Matter movement. These examples of pushback were so loud that they resulted in change--for a while.

And yet what other choice does one have when their personal becomes political? Well, the approach that I am currently experimenting with, somewhat successfully, is just to "live my life, being me". While this might not strike you as revolutionary, I have noticed that I am able to be an agent of change on the micro level rather than the macro, and that this change--one person at a time--is not only longer lasting, but also willingly undertaken by the other instead of forced. Change is happening because I am giving others an experience of being myself, a political person, without shame and without agenda. The ones that notice this have an opportunity to be influenced by it for the better. This is why my current approach is not part of the problem, but a solution. So far, so good.

It works with most. But there are some in my life where the political has outweighed the personal. Not surprisingly, those I am referring to all happen to be family. Ah, family--what to make of it? We are thrown into the mix with these people without a say in the process, at least until we become adults and have say. In my case, that say has resulted in me not talking to my brother in 3 years, one of my nieces for the same amount of time, and one of my female cousins. The crime? Being political. But truth be told, there is more to it than that. I really don't like any of these aforementioned relatives. I have, in the past, but I don't like who they are now, and I don't suppose that they are that fond of me either. However, in my defense, I was at a disadvantage from the start due to my being political in ways that "bother" them. At some point, ya gotta make a choice, folks. And I chose to be responsive to what I was feeling. I have no regrets. I wonder if they do?

 Coq Au Vin is not the only dish I make in my crockpot, but it is one of my favorites for the simple reason that it is ridiculously easy and crazy delicious. Isn't that the point of crockpots, to make life easier? When I make this dish with the packaged beefy onion soup, I realize that I am taking a shortcut that, most likely, will not be noticed by those who share the meal with me. What they don't know won't hurt them.

I have not yet found any similar shortcuts when it comes to being an authentic human being. In my experience, this process has to be done the hard way, because authenticity is not a given in modern culture and is often chosen in response to feeling the effects of its opposite. As much as I dislike the people who have made my personal political (and the cultural narratives that create the divide in the first place), I also must be grateful for the push this gave me toward my own authentic expression of self. Meaning, I am not interested in hiding what makes me political anymore. I don't pursue provocation (much), I just live my life as I am, and that, some might say, is the most political of all actions. Those who still find me to be political are, I suspect, not only living their own lives, but also the lives of others. Otherwise, my personal would remain personal. This intrusion on their part is controllable, unlike the scents from my slow-cooker Coq Au Vin. How I wish that others could live their lives as tempting invitations, like the scent from my cooking, instead of as unwelcome intrusions, like the actions of my brother, niece, and cousin. When this happens, their political becomes personal for me.

But as they say, it's no skin off my ass. I have a full time job assessing my personal without worrying too much about another's political. But this is also a tightrope walk, as the political is becoming more dangerous in recent months. I am beginning to suspect that my responsibility is greater than just living my life, but the form of that responsibility is vaguer than the urgency to figure it out. I tend to prefer changing systems instead of individuals, as there is a greater chance of success with systems at times since individuals need to affect change on themselves. But both are valid. In the case of my brother, niece, and cousin, I think we consider the other to be a lost cause, so I long ago shifted my focus from individual change to the deconstruction of religious brainwashing, racial separation, gender inequality, climate change denying, and homophobia in all its forms. Perhaps I am being petty, but you can't say I ever denied being human. I admit to holding grudges where they are earned, but I let them motivate rather than stagnate. Can you blame me? My personal is political.


  1. I stop by regularly hoping to see you post. I am delighted when you do. It may not be often but you always write marvelous and erudite entries. I appreciate them so.
    I continually struggle to take the Gregory Peck approach with bad and ill mannered people viz. not to stoop or return rudeness with rudeness.

    I love your use of coq au vin as a metaphor.
    BTW making this dish is on my bucket list of recipes to someday do.

    1. I highly recommend trying this dish--it makes a proper supper! Also, I feel that rudeness is appropriate at times. Even Gregory Peck could not be Gregory Peck all the time!

  2. Hello Tony. Another good read!
    I am a firm believer in thinking pretty well everything we do IS political. How could it not be? If we have an ounce of brains at all we come to conclusions/decisions having to be made/evaluating life experiences etc based on how we feel and have dealt with these in the past either successfully or not, and what we modeled from friends and family growing up. Some of us learn to think for ourselves and the FUN begins.

    I was always a peacekeeper in my very large family and went along with most everything that occurred......keeping my true feelings in all the while.
    Then I started to speak my mind and question certain siblings/parents about their very vocal views on things/issues. Once I started to do this I was immediately 'put on the back burner' and my views were no longer considered or listened to. In this process I have also distanced myself from a sister and brother who had treated individuals in their respective families in a very cruel and disrespectful way.

    Yes, personal is political and we had better be prepared to defend ourselves and accept the consequences ..... or be walked over and disregarded completely.

    1. I wonder why so many gay men were the peacekeepers in their families? Perhaps because we were the ones who noticed what was going on. And, of course, being gay helps lead us to thinking for ourselves. Speaking up is a dicey option--we have to be prepared for both the benefits and the costs. Sounds like both of us have accepted the costs.

  3. I am what I am; if you (not you personally, tony) don't like it, fuck right off. I ain't changing to please you. I like myself just the way I am; if you don't, not my problem, screw you. gotta be tough, philly tough to survive.

    1. I hear ya. We change not because we are forced to, but because we want to. We do that for those we love even if we like ourselves the way we are!

  4. Hi, Tony!

    This is a very good post.

    I thought my readers might also enjoy it so I included here:

    Top Reads Round-Up (World AIDS Day Edition): #Blog2BlogLuv


    - Shane, Editor,