This article was published in Middlebury College's newspaper on Thursday, May 9, 2019
We, the members of The BTW Project, seek to trouble popular LGBTQ rights advocates’ ‘Born This Way’ narratives. You know these narratives. They are so prevalent that you may have internalized them without fully thinking them through. (Even Lady Gaga tells us that LGBTQ people are born that way.) Informed by readings we completed for GSFS 289: Introduction to Queer Critique, we propose a queerer alternative, one that does not pathologize queerness. We reject the commonly held belief that gay people are born gay—a belief that has spurred much scientific and medical inquiry into the ‘problem’ of ‘homosexual’ biology. The ‘Born This Way’ narrative inherently others queerness by defining it as something that can’t be helped, as something that some biological aberration has unfortunately predetermined; that is, it implies that if we could choose our desires, we would obviously choose not to be gay.
Our goal is to inform LGBTQ activism on this campus by generating discourse about the ways in which our desires are constructed, conditioned, and cultivated. We intend for this project to speak to LGBTQ rights- and justice-minded students across disciplines. In light of this, we hybridized our methods, to capture the attention of STEM students and humanities students alike. Our methods are multifaceted. We hope, for example, that this Op-Ed will encourage people to check out the resources on the website we created. There, we have collated media that challenges the ‘Born This Way’ narrative’s biological determinism: you will find a video essay we produced that reveals and interrogates how the ‘Born This Way’ narrative has permeated pop culture; PDFs of the artistic and provocative posters and fact sheets we designed and distributed; links to supporting scholarly articles, and detailed explanations of our motives. You may have noticed our posters around campus already. They intentionally deploy confrontational language that emphasizes (perhaps obliquely) the difference between sexuality and gender, the limitations of perceiving desire as compulsory and fixed, and the importance of dismissing a political narrative that suggests queerness is a problem to be scrutinized, objectified, and corrected.
We hope to complicate LGBTQ rights-minded students’ infatuation with ‘Born This Way’ ideas by presenting “queer” as a verb. Our “‘QUEER’ IS AN ACTIVITY” poster may be the most confounding, but also the most hopeful piece in our project, as we explain on our website:
Maybe it’s easier to rally conservative tolerance around a definition of “queer” as a thing someone immutably is, but this definition is pretty flawed. As sociologist Jane Ward points out, if sexuality is biologically predetermined, then why do even liberal parents worry their daughters will turn into lesbians if they get too into feminism in college? Why do they worry that allowing their kids to watch too many queer TV shows might “encourage” them to explore homosexuality? To some extent, we all know that our desires are socially-conditioned and cultivated—this doesn’t make them any less real[...] Acknowledging this opens up our understanding of “queerness” to include all those transgressive acts performed by people who didn’t identify as “homosexual” (let’s recall that the English word “homosexual” has only been around since the late 19th century, and that corresponding terms in other languages, such as Arabic, are even younger). If “queer” is something we do—if it’s defined by those acts we perform that resist heteronormative expectations—then suddenly our politics become much more active.
In short, our slogan asks viewers to think about how our politics might change if we defined “queer” as conscious behavior rather than a helpless, inherited burden?
You might be thinking: Sexuality isn’t just a “choice”! Or, How can we expect conservative homophobes to get on board with this?? To that we say, why not rethink the biology/choice dichotomy? And yes, why not rethink the whole conservative “tolerance” thing? (Don’t we queers want more than just recognition, anyway? What about economic justice for unmarried people, or better healthcare for trans or HIV-positive people?)
Our project doesn’t mean to just “call out” a narrative as “problematic.” It means to generate new and difficult conversations. In light of this, we want to hear from you. Comment below, and be sure to visit our website at go/btw.