At the end of last year, the United States Congress voted to enshrine protections for gay couples as part of its Respect for Marriage Act. This represents a rapid turnaround on what was a political third rail just a decade ago. Some credit this change to American society’s shift in its understanding of queerness as an identity one is born with rather than as a choice. In fact, 2015 was both the first year a majority of Americans believed people are born queer as well as the year the SCOTUS decision on Obergefell v Hodges guaranteed gay couples the right to marriage. The belief that queerness is not a choice has been shorthanded after Lady Gaga’s queer anthem, “Born This Way.” The resulting discourse seems to have carved out two roughly defined camps: queer people and allies espousing born-this-way versus homophobes who believe that people choose to be gay. But this distinction, and the born-this-way narrative at large, is fraught. This narrative marries the tenuous struggle of queer liberation to faulty science while also conceding a need for queer people to prove themselves. It is essential then, to step back and take a closer look at the born-this-way narrative armed with two key questions: is it accurate, and is it helpful?
For starters, are people born gay? In the wake of born-this-way’s explosion, many were obsessed with the possibility of discovering the “gay gene”—the not-so-subtle name for a hypothetical sexuality-determining gene. Absurd name aside, the logic appeared sound: If people are born gay, we should be able to find out why. Attempts to find such a gene have taken scientists from studying finger length to prenatal testosterone exposure with no clear conclusions. Then in 2019, a study on sexuality—the largest of its kind—was published in the journal Science. This study concluded that sexuality was “influenced by not one or a few genes but many.” Moreover, they asserted that many genetic and social factors influence sexuality. So people are only kind of born-that-way?
Now on to question two: If this narrative is not correct, is it at least helpful? Sadly, according to a study from the University of Tennessee, the belief that queer people are born-that-way is roughly the same for both homophobes and allies. As someone who has spent his whole life in Catholic school, I can testify to the personal side of this. In Catholic and other Christian communities, there is a core belief that God created everything inherently good. Thus, many religious allies and queer folk have embraced born-this-way as proof that an unerring god crafted their sexuality. On the other hand, conservatives have incorporated born-this-way into their bigotry. These conservative elements accept born-this-way, but frame it as a temptation from God—arguing that queer people must bear their cross and abstain. One particularly disgusting assigned reading in my high school’s Catholic Ethics class even compared queerness to a disease like alcohol addiction.
Born-this-way has not been very helpful in the past, and I fear it may pose issues for queer liberation moving forward. Born-this-way focuses too heavily on appealing to the ethos that only innate characteristics are inherently good and thus deemphasizes the lived experiences of queer people. The key struggle in queer liberation should not be conforming to oppressive questions of nature but instead advocating that queer people, love, and sex are good things: queer liberation on queer terms. While the science is now conclusive that social factors play an essential part in determining sexuality, it simply does not matter why, or frankly whether, someone is queer—and we should embrace this. Born-this-way concedes the most fundamental principle of liberation: it pathologizes queerness as something deviant that must be proved or justified. Society has already taken so much from queer people; we do not owe it any more.