I recently saw a memory on Facebook which prompted this piece. I’d linked to a piece by rampant homophobe, Bill Muehlenberg, which linked to a really interesting article by David Benkof. These points are made about being gay because that’s my experience, but I suspect that a lot of this may translate to the fight for Trans rights as well.
A friend and I had discussed Benkof’s piece before Muehlenberg’s article. We explored the sensibility of claiming that sexuality and sexual identity have been the same throughout history, and are therefore immutable across time and space, and whether “Born This Way” was a good strategy for claiming equal rights.
Perhaps in our struggle for rights, we should not be relying on a claim we don’t actually know the truth of. We don’t really know if or how we are “Born This Way”.
Sexual identity is a social framework built around sexual attraction. That’s how we have straight men who still have sex with men. The way you’re wired biologically combined with the social climate you’re in will affect the way you identify, all of this without making a specific choice. “Being gay” is something that only happens in societies where “being gay” is an option, though same-sex sex occurs throughout human history.
So where do our rights come from?
The right to have a child without being in a relationship is enough in itself to permit motherhood. Or the right to be in a relationship as a de facto couple without having to solemnise it as marriage. These changes were achieved without a requirement of immutability – these rights are, explicitly, the protection of a person’s right to choose what is right for themselves.
The same goes for anti-discrimination. There are lots of attributes that we protect with our anti-discrimination laws. There are three broad categories these attributes fall into: Things that are inborn, things that you choose, and things we don’t typically choose but might not be inborn.
- Race is inborn. That’s the way you are the day you were born, and you can’t really make a choice to change it.
- Political opinion is something we largely choose. even if you haven’t consciously chosen it now, you can choose to re-examine and change your political opinion.
- Disabilities are things we don’t typically choose for ourselves, but many people acquire well after they’re born.
In our society, the immutability or innateness of an attribute is not a requirement for its protection.
With these examples in mind, the rights of gay people to carry on a consenting adult relationship is surely enough in itself without us needing to be “born this way” to achieve equality.
The disturbing subtext of “Born This Way” is “Not My Fault”. And when we’re talking about fault, we’re typically talking about something “bad”. “I was born gay, why should I be punished for something that isn’t my fault?” Thinking like this feels right to many of us because we instinctively know we didn’t make a choice – that’s why it’s such a tempting argument to make. It also has the benefit of being compelling. But does this throw bi or pan people in same-sex relationships under the bus? After all, they could have chosen to be in a heterosexual relationship, right?
Why does it have to be “not my fault” in order to have my relationship treated equally under the law when my religious views are protected even if I’m a recent convert to Christianity?
Our right to safety and happiness as queer folks should not and must not require that our sexuality or gender identity is inborn. The notion that “being gay” is not strictly biological isn’t a reason to deny equal treatment to gay people.
Given that we don’t really understand how sexuality and gender identity happens, I worry about building our rights on the “Born This Way” mantra. Because what happens if that foundation turns out to be false? I don’t want to re-fight the fight for our rights because we picked the wrong basis for our original arguments.