Born This Way?

The following is a guest blog by Suzanna Danuta Walters, Professor of Gender Studies, Indiana University*

Spending time in Provincetown – Cape Cod’s mecca of all things homosexual – is both a thrilling inversion of everyday life where queerness is the banal majority and a depressing reminder that normative ideologies can seep into even the most festive of gay milieu.  As New York made history by approving same-sex marriage, Ptown vacationers congratulated each other as they slathered sunscreen on their finely chiseled bodies and circuit-partied until the sun came up.  But pro-marriage T-shirts (“Put a ring on it”) were soon eclipsed by the T-shirt slogan de jour “Born this Way.”

Now, I’m the last person to dis the wondrous Lady Gaga, but her well-meaning ode to immutability is less helpful to gay rights than Guiliani in drag. If marriage and military access are conjured as the Oz of queer liberation, then biological and genetic arguments are the yellow brick road, providing the route and the rationale for civil rights.  The medicalization of sexual identity – and the search for a cause if not a cure – has a long and infamous history. This history includes well-meaning attempts by social activists to create a safe life for same-sex desire through the designation of homosexuality as biologically predetermined but also, more ominously, includes the sordid history of incarceration, medication, electroshock “therapy” and numerous other attempts to rid the body (and mind) of its desires.

Notions of homosexuality as “inbred,” innate and immutable were endorsed by a wide variety of thinkers and activists, including progressive reformers such as Havelock Ellis and not so progressive conservatives, eager to assert same-sex love as nature’s mistake.  Richard von Krafft-Ebing in the 1880s and Magnus Hirschfeld in the 1903s – both pioneer sexologists and generally advocates of “toleration”– came to believe in some notion of “innate” homosexuality, whether through theories of a kind of brain inversion or through vague references to hormonal imbalances.  These theories mostly had little traction, and no evidence whatsoever, and were further undermined during the heyday of the early gay movement which included a deep commitment to the depathologization and demedicalization of homosexuality, manifested in a long-term attempt to remove “homosexuality” as a disease category in the DSM.

Theories of biological origins of “gayness” have ebbed and flowed during different historical and social moments, most obviously intersecting with the rise of eugenics and other determinist frameworks in the early part of the last century.  There is no question that the romance with biological and/or genetic explanations for sexual “orientation”  has ratcheted up in recent years, due in no small part to the combined force of the gay marriage debates and the increasing “medicalization” and “geneticization” of behavior and identity, spurred on by the initiation of the human genome project in 1989 which furthered the already booming interest in genetic bases for behavior, personality, disease, etc.

This turning of the century seems to provide a “perfect storm” moment in which the idea of immutability takes hold of the public imagination. Even the hit Broadway musical Avenue Q couldn’t avoid having its homo puppets chime in:


No cultural moment sums it up like the otherwise quite illuminating debate that took place in August of 2007.  Logo – the all-gay cable network – joined with the Human Rights Campaign to host the first ever Democratic primary presidential debate.  At one point, host Melissa Etheridge asked the inevitable “born with it” question to Bill Richardson who clearly answered “wrong” when he responded that he didn’t know and even uttered the awful word “choice” in speaking about gay identities.   Etheridge was quick to correct him, for how or why – she asked – would anyone choose to be gay?

Three years earlier, John Kerry made the same case in speaking of Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter.  “We’re all God’s children,” said Kerry when asked a “gay” question by the moderator.  Referring to Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Kerry said, “She would tell you that she’s being … who she was born as. I think if you talk to anybody, it’s not choice.”  Strangely enough, it was George Bush who said, “I just don’t know,” once again demarcating the “choice” position as the conservative one!

In our present political context, gay volition is like Voldemort – dangerous even to be uttered.  This “born with it” ideology encompasses gay marriage, gay genes, gayness as “trait” and is used by both gay rights activists and anti-gay activists to make arguments for equality (or against it).   This is bad science (mistaking the possibility of biological factors with wholesale causation) and bad politics (hinging rights on immutability and etiology).  Causality is – of course – the wrong question and will only get muddled answers.  The framing of “gayness” as an issue of nature vs. nurture or destiny vs. choice misses the point about (fluid, chaotic) sexuality and about civil rights.  It’s not our genes that matter here, but rather our ethics.

*Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America and the forthcoming The Tolerance Trap: What’s Wrong With Gay Rights

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