Born This Gay
Full transcript (with fancy links!) available below the cut.
Here are some things I know I was born: bald, naked, and screaming.
Here are some ways I identify now: geeky, book-obsessed, and political.
In my everyday life, the latter descriptors are far more relevant. Far from bald, I have thick curly hair that pwns n00bs and takes names. I reserve my birthday suit to some seriously select company. And the screaming — well, that’s sometimes still relevant. But it’s no longer my primary method of communication.
Like most of you watching this, it’s been a little while since I was born into this world and since that time, I’ve learned some new ways to express and exchange my ideas. I mention this, largely, for the “inborn” trait my list does not include. It does not include my sexual orientation (lesbian or queer) — which is perhaps the only trait with a pop song proclaiming it inborn.
(Mmax breaks into song-and-dance along with a recording of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way. After the two lines “I’m on the right track, baby/ I was born this way,” the regular non-song-and-dance routine resumes.)
I’ve written before about why I think the “born this way” argument is ill-advised for LGB activism. But it struck me again, with the hubbub over Style proclaiming lesbian identity a trend. So often the issue people saw in that multi-layered instance of fail was, essentially, “but we can’t turn gay!” Which frankly, I consider irrelevant. I don’t support attempting to alter someone’s sexuality; nor do I support the social institutions enabling that malpractice. I do, however, wonder when we got so damn sure that a trait for which we had no word prior to the 1800s was inborn.
But wait! You say. Ancient Greece and the animal kingdom and homosexual behavior since always!
Well, yes. And also, no. Ancient Greece and the animal kingdom and humans with certain parts doing “sexual” things with humans with the same parts. Since, it appears, always. But the invention of heterosexuality — as a concept, as an identity — is much more recent. Listen to what Hanne Blank has to say on the subject in this excerpt from Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality:
It has, in point of actual fact, only been possible to be a heterosexual since 1869. Prior to that time, men and women got married, had sex, had children, formed families, and sometimes even fell in love, but they were categorically not heterosexuals. They didn’t identify themselves as “being” something called “heterosexual.” They didn’t think of themselves as having a “straight” sexuality identity, or indeed have any awareness that something called a “sexual identity” even existed. They couldn’t have. Neither the terms, nor the ideas that they express, existed yet.
So, heterosexuality – and by extension non-heterosexuality, aka Teh Gay – have only existed for just under than 150 years. Before that, no one was said to be “born” gay or straight, because no one identified as those things, period. Which raises the question, why do we consider the trait to be inborn now?
And if all orientations were valued, equally, would it matter if they were present at birth?
Really, what the obsession with “born this way” speaks to is a cultural bias that equates science — particularly biological science — with reality. If we can attach our lived experience to a gene or a hormone, it becomes justified because it becomes “real.” There’s a misguided cultural drive to believe science, more than any other area of study, is objective. The search for a gay gene, the reminders that other species behave homosexually seek to legitimize queer identity by linking it to unchangeable, indisputable science. Some other things which “benefit” from the bias toward the natural: kids whose parents are their parents biologically. (Ever heard the phrase “I get it honest?” — in which “honest” means “through the culturally sanctioned heterosexual relations of my parents”?) What about “she’s a born writer” when substantial skill is chalked up to biology or genetics? Our rhetoric is telling. The real and true are one, supposedly, with the natural.
There are certain identities this ideology props up. But there are (by default) others, which it denigrates. Personally, I’m interested in activism that does not appropriate the tools of legitimacy but rather, destroys the legitimate/illegitimate distinction entirely.
Here is one rather key identity into which we are born: human. As humans, we have the capacity to interpret and shape our realities in new and changing ways. We interact with that reality through language. Science! says, when we observe the world, we change what we’re observing. Science! says, when we give words to our reality, it changes how we experience it. We don’t need inborn gay identities to justify our gayness. It needs no justifying. What we need is the freedom to be human, to interact with ourselves and our culture, and to make sense of that experience (however we choose) without sacrificing our rights.
That’s not the world I was born into. But it’s one I’m invested in, regardless.