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Ideas is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

Like every stringy-haired, freckle-faced girl, middle school wasn’t exactly a haven of bliss for me. I’m not sure if it was my dirty no-brand tennis shoes or my ill-fitting mom jeans, but I was never invited to sit at the cool kids table.

Ever the realist, I decided not to push my luck with the popular crowd and instead resigned myself to bus rides spent reading and doing homework. It was during that time of solitude that I fell in love. Not with a boy. Not with a girl. But with politics. I buried my nose in my history books and relished the idea of a society where hierarchy wasn’t determined by birthright or the type of shoes you wore. Instead, everyone was born equal and treated equally. It was at this point that my life course was decided: I wanted to work in politics.

So like any other Type-A child, I dedicated my spare time to ensuring my success by signing up for extracurricular online classes in AP Government and Latin, memorizing the map of the world and the capital of each country, and even skipping school on Election Day in order to volunteer at the local call center.

Years later, my persistence paid off. I landed a scholarship at one of the most prestigious liberal arts schools in the country and graduated with my Bachelor’s in Political Science. By the time I was 23, I had already staffed a presidential campaign and was working on Capitol Hill as the press secretary of a prominent congressman.

My mornings started with a 5:30 am workout in the Capitol Hill staff gym, followed by a relaxing shower and scrub with my lemon bar soap. Toweling off there in the restroom, I’d take a look at myself and smile, thinking of how much the awkward 11-year-old girl from middle school had changed. I was no longer just dreaming of having a place in the political world. Now, I actually did. The sacrifices I had to make to get there were hard, but it was worth it. And I was proud of myself.

However, my confident world came crashing down at a friend’s 24th birthday party. Between cinnamon roll shots and bites from the turkey and cheese platter, the group’s conversation turned from the latest gossip toward the concept of blowing off steam from a stressful workweek. Nothing prepared me for the reaction I received when I uttered the six words, “I work for a Republican congressman.”

My new gay acquaintance, with whom I had been chatting the whole night, abruptly cleared his throat and walked away, while the remaining party guests who heard my comment bombarded me with a series of assumptions and questions, like how could I vote for Sarah Palin, why I was in favor of global warming, and whether I considered myself a feminist even though I’m against women’s rights. In the conversation that followed, my confidence evaporated, and I was reduced back to the stringy-haired, freckle-faced kid of middle school.

I was no longer the poised, accomplished woman I was 15 minutes before. Instead, I felt like a mortified child who just got ejected from the cool kids table.

With the prevalence of social media, constituents have a more hands-on interaction with politics than ever before. News articles from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times can be posted on private Facebook walls, e-mails can be leaked, candidate’s conversations can be secretly recorded and then released to the masses. There is no lack of information, but rather a surplus of opinion. Unfortunately, those who scream the loudest are heard the most—a reality that is leaving our nation more polarized than ever before.

Libel and slander have become socially acceptable as we isolate one another in an attempt to garner more votes. I won’t even dare to claim that only one party is to blame for the propagation of lies and falsehoods. However, I have experienced first-hand how a misunderstanding of a political ideology can leave people feeling like outcasts in society.

Although I’m proud of my accomplishments, when I’m in a crowded room with new faces, I secretly hope nobody asks me about my work background. I hold my breath as I admit that I work in politics and wait for the inevitable question of, “For which party?”

Being a staffer in the Republican Party isn’t exactly the sexiest job title, but what makes me cringe is knowing that somebody is assessing who I am as a person based off my business card. I’m proud of my career and believe in my Party, but I’m ashamed to admit to my peers that I’m a Republican because of the stigma associated with it.

Why does everyone assume that all conservatives are homosexual hating, gun-toting Tea Partiers who demand President Obama’s birth certificate? At what point did the Republican Party become classified as the rich white people party?

Are we all ignorant of the true roots of the Republican party—how we are a political group that favors laissez-faire economic policies rather than government regulation; how we support corporate tax breaks that lead to job creation in place of stronger entitlements; how we believe in equality for every American, even the Americans still within their mothers’ wombs?

Contrary to popular thought, not every conservative is against same-sex marriage and not every liberal is in favor of signing nuclear deals with Iran. As uncomfortable as it may be, it is vital in a democratic society to encourage open conversation and debate rather than pigeonholing people into assumed beliefs.

So allow me to start the conversation by debunking some partisan myths. I’ll admit that I am similar to other conservatives in that I am an advocate for limited government, energy independence and entitlement program reform. However, I do hold a few beliefs that aren’t held by other members in my party.

For one, capital punishment. Call me a softie, but I’m not a fan of the flawed human race having the capability and authorization to sentence one another to death. Besides, I find the judicial process imbalanced in several states. Although 42% of death row inmates are black and 43% are white, cases involving white victims rather than black victims are significantly more likely to result in a death sentence—an impartiality that I find unethical.

“Gun control”: the two scariest words to conservatives. As a born and bred Southern girl, I’m in favor of protecting our Second Amendment rights. However, gun control and regulation are two totally different things. The prevalence of guns that are bought and sold illegally at gun shows is staggering. Each state has different laws regarding gun sales, licensing and concealment. However, the horrific number of shootings in recent years has made additional conversation regarding arms registration and licensing imperative. It isn’t an issue that we should shy away from.

Undoubtedly, the beliefs of individuals don’t always fall within the dogmas of party lines. Therefore, not every political issue is black and white, nor is every political party segmented by skin color. Contrary to popular belief, the Republican Party is not comprised solely of white Americans. In 2014, I worked as the campaign manager for an incredible Congressional candidate, Glo Smith. A Jacksonville, Florida native, Glo was a gorgeous kind-hearted non-career politician running for Congress in a primarily black district. Going door to door during the campaign, our volunteers were astonished by the number of constituents who assumed Glo was running on the Democratic ticket simply because she was a black woman.

The Republican Party is not a party of exclusion and isolation any more than the Democratic Party is a party of entitlement or marginalization. There are plenty of black American Republicans just as there are copious amount of white Democrats. There are also old Libertarians and young Tea Partiers as well as wealthy individuals in favor of higher tax brackets and low-income citizens in favor of Social Security reform.

So let’s stop segregating one another with labels and assumptions. Instead, let’s allow the bright reds and deep blues of the political parties to fall to the ground as we enter an election cycle not wrought with ideological hatred, but with a willingness to listen and hear the voices of others.

Brittany Tony wrote this article for xoJane.

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