A diverse group of people and organizations ranging from Lady Gaga to the Pope to republican presidential candidate John Kasich have claimed that gay people were “born this way.” In a world where conversion therapy still exists and far right pundits claim that being gay is an unhealthy “lifestyle,” the “born this way” narrative makes strategic sense. After all, studies show that straight people are more likely to be tolerant of queers if they believe that homosexuality is a biological characteristic rather than a choice. But is this belief true? And if it isn’t, is it possible that the born this way narrative is actually harmful to queer people?
As Jane Ward articulates in her Feminists Pigs blog post “No One is Born Gay (or Straight): Here are Five Reasons Why” and Suzanna Walters explains in her book The Tolerance Trap, our sexual desires are not biologically innate, but, like nearly every other aspect of our personalities, largely constructed by the norms of the society that we live in. Scientific studies that attempt to discover the biological origins of sexuality, while well-intentioned, often end up conflating sexual orientation and gender, naturalizing heterosexuality, further otherizing homosexuality, and erasing the fact that sexuality is fluid and can change over time.
Moreover, just because you have had same-sex desires for as long as you remember does not mean that it is biologically innate. For example, as Ward humorously points out, you might have loved cheese for as long as you remember, but that does not mean you were born loving cheese. Furthermore, choices can still be significant parts of your identity. Religion, for example, is not a biological trait and it still can be a central component of an individual’s life.
The BTW narrative is not only untrue, but also ultimately harmful. Supporting LGBQT people because they are “born that way” subtly implies that society should accept queer people just because “they can’t help themselves.” This belief de-legitimizes the choices individuals make about their sexuality. It implies that queer thoughts, desires, actions are only valid if they are controlled by anatomy and therefore inevitable. Furthermore, the “born this way” narrative suggests that homosexual identities and experiences are lesser than heterosexual ones. Ultimately, the “born this way” narrative undermines the very cause it is trying to support.