We live in a world of tasty sound-bytes and “Born this Way” has, through its simplicity and well-meaning heart become an LGBT slogan for an American generation. I’ve heard/seen it uttered as the ultimate trump card in a debate against those who belittle queer sexualities by arguing it’s a choice (therefore, immoral) more times than I’ve seen Star Wars, (and that’s a fucking lot) and every time I’ve ended up scratching my head wondering if the slogan ultimately does more harm than good. “It’s not fair to say I shouldn’t have same-sex attraction, I was born this way, I can’t help it any more than you can help your hetero-lust, dammit!”
Ethically it’s very dangerous to deprive people of their choices
Casting my mind back to days when I was a homophobic teenager (as I mentioned before that I was), I recall thinking in a similar way. The simple logic of “Why would anyone choose this life for themselves?” Coupled with the notion of “it’s a little disgusting, so I guess people must be compelled to do it against their will,” persuaded me that there was a gay gene of some sort, forcing us to act out its morbid ideas of sexual fantasies that the rest of us never could and never should understand. (Nowadays I wonder what evolutionary benefit a gay gene would offer. How would it replicate itself through natural selection exactly? Thoughtful answers appreciated. Creationist ones, not so much. Comment below.) I didn’t dislike gay people; I just felt sorry for them and refused to try and understand their desires.
Growing up in England we’re not overwhelmed with this same style of rhetoric, perhaps because the gay debate is a little more divorced from religious debate. Or at least there’s less potency to the religious debate. Nobody ever pressured me or my friends to live a strict religious life or follow a religious moral code. Religious concepts rumble on in the background but Christianity doesn’t take over our culture, and my own secular atheist mind-set is rarely frowned upon. The impression one gets from American culture is that religion is a big deal and that being gay does not mesh well with religion. God will not be impressed with you if you make the choice to have homosexual sex since marriage in The Bible is between a man and a woman. Religion often relies on the power of its rhetoric, and anti-gay religious groups have chosen to focus on the rhetorical idea that “choosing” to be gay is a sin against God. It’s a gay apple, really (eateth of it and you’ll discover the joy in being queer as well as naked, but you’ll be cast out of heaven!) What has clearly proved useful for LGBT groups in the past is to have a rhetorical comeback of their own that religious groups struggle to argue against. The “born this way” message of “God made me this way, I have no choice,” really screws with their ethical systems. If he made you that way then why would he punish you for it?
When you’re a teenager going through puberty and scrabbling to learn about your place and purpose in the world, it’s easy and seductive to latch onto the idea that you have no choice and that your emotions control you completely. Life and lust is confusing at the best of times, and if you’re 15 and you have gay thoughts that set you apart from a rabid anti-gay crowd, it can be potentially very frightening. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are adamant that they wouldn’t have chosen a gay life for themselves because of the social outcast they felt it made them, and certainly it’s hard to think that someone would willingly make their own life that difficult if they didn’t have to.
People are, then, likely to develop a set of sexual preferences based on their discoveries at puberty and then form their teenage-adult identity around them and be defined by them. And it’s this obsession we have of thinking in male/female binaries that’s causing problems: what is never discussed is that people also have an equal tendency to shape and define their sexual preferences over time, depending on where they are and what they are doping in life. Sexual preference covers a whole lot more than male/female, it covers a wide spectrum of taste from body size, age, hair colour, ethnicity, to activities such as kink & BDSM, romance, voyeurism, exhibitionism, watching porn and so on. As a teenager it’s impossible to appreciate that you can and probably will – gay or straight – jump around a spectrum of sexual taste throughout your entire adult life. (My own tastes, for instance, change from month to month. Sometimes I’ll be into women, then Asian women specifically, then ripped men, then androgynous men. Then just Scarlet Johansson) Therefore “Oh fuck, I think I’m gay” becomes an all-powerful and all-pervasive thought, and a defining thought. In a less controlling world that thought could just as easily have been “oh fuck, at the moment I am feeling same-sex attraction.” See how the latter, whilst still distressing, doesn’t hole you up in a box for life? It’s the difference between “ I am gay” and “I like gay sex”. Of course, I’m categorically not stating that there’s anything wrong with identifying as homosexual, I’m simply pointing out that we’re all in an awful hurry to label ourselves up, and we feel as a society that puberty is the time to do it; and I think we are in such a hurry because we desperately want and need an identity for ourselves. We want to know who our friends will be and what box to check on the census forms.
The problem is the way that the rhetoric we use likes to divide things up into simple binaries and throw them into simple boxes so that we can make simple sense of them. If, for instance, it’s not the case that I discovered my sexuality by waking up one morning and thinking “I think I’ll try out gay sex today” then it seems to be argued that being gay “cannot be a choice”. Being gay comes with a lot of negative societal consequences and so for a lot of LGBT supporters being gay “cannot be a choice.” If gay is not a choice, then therefore it must be genetic – And there we have it, the battle-lines have been drawn from which no-body will budge. It’s a WWI trench warfare of words between the LGBT and Religious homophobes.
I don’t really see how there can be a bisexual gene that allows desires to shift and change over the course of a lifetime. Desire may not express itself as a simple choice like picking a movie or a flavour of ice-cream, but it does involve agency on the part of the desirer, and the will to actively entertain and pursue the multiple desires that s/he is capable of feeling. Desires grow within as we contemplate them, entertain their possibilities within our brains and consider the different pleasures that different scenarios might bring us.
I’d describe it as something of an existential choice. It’s a choice that society is eager to deny because society is afraid and doesn’t want to understand it, just as I was an afraid teenager who wanted to feel that sexuality controlled us and that we could never harness our desires or enjoy expressing them in a free and liberated way. I’ve talked about how men and women are strongly defined by a patriarchal society elsewhere, and this seems to be another consequence of patriarchal power politics. Men have to be one way, women another or the power systems in place will, it seems, crumble right around us. It’s my own assertion that to break the restrictions that society constantly tries to place upon us through media, advertising – efforts to box us up and sell us dreams that mostly won’t ever come true – we need to embrace existential choice and take a greater ownership of our passions. The huge problem that I have with “Born This Way” rhetoric is that it’s an apology, a defense for being gay as if a gay lifestyle somehow needs to be apologised for. “I’m sorry, I don’t fit in with the structure of your society properly, but please accept me as I am and I promise faithfully not to cause any trouble.”
It’s ethically dangerous to deprive people of their choices and unfortunately a lot of people seem to feel that it’s more dangerous to give people the opportunity to make their own free choices about how they want to live their lives. I for one am happy to state that I wasn’t born this way. I wasn’t this way until I reached my early twenties. But why on earth would you judge me for my sexual choices? It needs to stop.