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[ I Wasn’t Born This Way ]Or maybe I was. Or maybe I changed along the way, or maybe I decided to live like this. It doesn’t actually matter, though.
Spectacular rainbow outside the settlement of Humbolt-Dewey, near Prescott in Central Arizona. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection.
I know I’m supposed to say I was born this way. That is the party line for LGBTQ people, and I understand why, but I can’t in good faith stick to that line. For more, I don’t actually know if I was born this way. More importantly, however, it doesn’t matter whether I — or anyone — was born this way or not. The real issue is about who is good, who is valid, who may or may not live freely in society — and that is a moral argument, not a scientific one.
My moral claim is that all orientations and genders and (generally speaking) personal identities are valid and acceptable. This is true regardless of whether someone was born that way or not. I make no claim about to what degree anyone is or isn’t born this way — no such claims are necessary, after all. You might have been born this way — I’m not saying you weren’t! — but I can’t say that I was, and I won’t pretend so just for the sake of maintaining a rhetorical position I don’t believe in.
For the sake of completeness I want to try to address some of the reasons why born this way is the party line. I don’t want to toss it out without some consideration. It is too deeply rooted in the way society tends to think about this to silently disregard. There are, however, some very good reasons to abandon it in favour of a more strident moral position that more explicitly affirms the goodness and rightness of LGBTQ people.
As Defense Against Society
Born this way is a position that attempts to avoid any moral attacks by categorically divorcing sex/gender/identity from morality. If our nature is immutable and absolute then there is no choice involved, and since no choice is involved there can be not wrong choices, implying there’s nothing morally wrong about being LGBTQ. If you accept this line of reasoning there is no need to justify your sexuality and gender since there is no agency involved.
This is both a weak position to take and an effectively useless tactic. It’s weak because it makes no attempt to say that it’s OK to be e.g. gay — there’s no real position of pride, nor of goodness and acceptance, merely the claim that because gayness is natural and can’t be helped we therefore can’t blame anyone for choosing it — no choice was made. To shrug and say ‘well, it’s not my fault’ imples that there is still fault. This would mean that it’s still correct for society to label LGBTQ as bad, and only wrong to blame people for it.
It would be a stronger position to say that it is not wrong at all. It is not even wrong to choose it, should that choice be found to exist. To fail to take the stronger position is to leave the bigotry itself unchallenged. This stronger position is independent of any potential study regarding causality and sexuality so we don’t have to sit back and hope science publishes the correct data for us to remain valid and acceptable.
Perhaps more importantly it is also useless to try to avoid responsibility for our nature because those who judge us don’t whether we were born this way or not. The fascist may also believe you were born that way, or may believe you decided to live that way — and will try to kill you for it either way. Conservatives believe we’re born with certain natures — some good, some bad, and you gotta punish the bad and reward the good. They’re happy to punish you for being born the wrong way. Again, bigotry is rooted in a moral position, fundamentally, and born this way is not a moral argument. The issue is not about what is and isn’t natural, it’s about who is good and acceptable. Bigotry is about values, not facts.
As Defense Against Shame
It’s normal to internalize the norms of our community to such a degree that even if we are physically safe from attack by others we still attack ourselves for breaking the rules. Born this way promises to protect against those attacks by externalizing our sexuality and gender identity — it isn’t us that did it, it’s just nature, just some mysterious combination of factors entirely outside our control. No agency means no shame — in theory.
In practice, though, there still remains shame. We may still believe that it is bad to be as we are, even if we’ve found a way to avoid taking responsibility for it. If we make no moral claims to counter those of society we’re left believing that we are wrong. Born wrong, maybe, but still wrong. We can’t let go of shame until we realize there is nothing wrong with being LGBTQ, and once we know that there is no reason to fuss over the exact origin of our sexuality and gender. Born this way doesn’t do much to heal the soul that hates itself, ultimately.
As An Appeal To Science
Science remains the most trusted authority on what is and what is not true. This isn’t universally true in all subcultures, of course, but overall in this Enlightened world it is science that is the way, the truth, and the light. If you want to be seen as legitimate you would be wise to find a way to get within the protected realm of the scientific. Facts don’t care about your feelings, after all, they just are.
Since science can only speak about the measurable world, there must be something measurable about how we are born this way. There is an ongoing search for e.g. genetic reasons for being gay, among other potential facts. Science has so much well-earned clout that any bit of evidenced and peer-reviewed proof is taken as desperately-needed legitimacy in a skeptical society.
It’s sensible to apply science to whatever is unknown, of course. There’s nothing wrong with studying sexuality and gender. However, none of these potential facts can address the social criticism and threats LGBTQ people face. The fascist will say, as before, that plagues and vermin arise naturally as well. Being natural by itself does not make us any more acceptable, and so science is no real ally unto itself.
Moving Beyond ‘Born This Way’
Since it is so useless against salient threats both from society and from our own inner judge, we’re wise to stop treating it as something vital to our cause. This means taking a moral stand, which means making and justifying moral claims about what is good and bad, right and wrong. That’s something worth pushing for, both for our continued freedom and acceptance in society as well as our own self-love.
It’s not enough to just avoid responsibility by saying we were born this way — that is not a hill worth dying on, there is nothing worth defending there. We should own ourselves and proclaim the truth of our moral righteousness. We are not an unavoidable mess we are no mess at all; we are beautiful and good and right. That is my claim.
There is also the matter of free will. Speaking from my experience, I just can’t erase my own agency and remain honest with myself. I do have power, and I do have the ability to make choices. The exact nature of that agency is unknown to me, but it is possible I have made choices that brought me to this way of being. I won’t deny that for the sake of a weak and useless rhetorical position. I’m happy to own myself entirely and in all ways and insofar as I created myself I am proud of my creation. It pleases me even as it complicates my life by displeasing others.
Was I born this way? I don’t know and I don’t care.