Born This Way

I recently had a lengthy and interesting conversation with a friend about a variety of things queer. One of her questions was about the whole “born this way” issue, and why some LGBTQIalphabetsoupcanwejustsayqueer? queer people insist that they were born that way, while others object to that assertion.

She said: ‘I’m born this way, but it’s not a biological thing.’ What? The classic argument is ‘I can’t not be gay, I was born this way’. But then gay people are very opposed to the idea that there is a gay gene/ hormone/ synapse. Isn’t that a tad hypocritical?

Here’s how I answered her:

There are two sides to the question: Is being gay/straight/bisexual/transgendered/ genderqueer/asexual, etc an innate tendency, or is it a choice, like whether to get a tattoo or how much bacon to eat? When people who have a problem with queers call it a “lifestyle choice,” they are equating sexual orientation and gender identity to being a vegetarian or a hipster or a smoker. It’s not that simple.

I was definitely born with the temperament, genetic coding and brain chemistry that makes me sexually attracted to a variety of genders. Most people aren’t. Most people are (mostly) heterosexual, at least in their behavior and how they think of themselves. Not me. I have always been just about equally attracted to both men and women, and as I’ve become more aware of nuances in gender, I’ve found more genders to be attracted to.

But I do make choices about whether and how to act on my sexual attractions. I am also making a choice, as a transgendered person, to try to live with an outward appearance that more closely matches the gender identity I have inside.

Bear with me here, this next bit may sound a bit pedantic, but I can’t figure out how else to say it.

Assuming you are female bodied and female gendered, imagine trying to be sexual with an attractive (to you, let’s not get hung up on the beauty standard here) woman. If it does absolutely nothing for you, but imagining the same scenario with a sexy man is hot stuff, you’re heterosexual (and you probably understand at least a little bit what it feels like to be a homosexual man.)

If on the other hand the possibility of sex with a woman isn’t completely alienating, maybe your sexual orientation isn’t exclusively heterosexual. Maybe you’re 90% heterosexual, but there’s 10% that could see the appeal in same-sex relations. Or maybe you’re 70% straight, but there’s a 30% attraction. Or maybe it’s some other blend. The closer that ratio gets to 50-50, the more bisexual you are.

If you’re me, who is solidly in the middle, then both scenarios are equally appealing and you are bisexual, pansexual, ambisexual, multisexual… Personally I like multisexual, but it might sound a little gimmicky, so I’ll bow to convention and stick with “bi” as a self-identity.

If both scenarios leave you utterly uninterested, maybe you’re asexual.

If the woman sounds awesome and the man is less interesting than doing your tax return, then you’re probably homosexual.

Now try to imagine how you’d feel if you woke up tomorrow morning with a penis, body hair, a deep voice, and no breasts. Does it horrify you? You’re a pretty solidly cicgendered female. Does it intrigue you? Maybe there’s a little bit of genderqueerness in you. Does it make you sigh with relief that you can finally stop hating your body? Transgendered.

Now, all that taken into consideration, the next question is why anyone would be any of those things. And the answer is — we don’t know. But we’re pretty sure there’s a good dose of nature in there. There probably is a gene, or something like it.

Being born with a tendency to be sexually attracted to many genders and to feel internally as though I were male despite my body being female doesn’t necessarily make me defective or mentally ill. Yet that is the flip side of the “born this way” argument (and one of the reasons a lot of transgendered people have a problem with the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis). “Poor soul,” the homophobe seems to say, “he can’t help it, he was born that way. If only we could find a cure. Of course if it were a choice, then he could choose to stop, but he can’t, bless his heart.”

Personally I believe genetics and choice both play into it: I was born this way, and I choose to act in a way that conforms with my inner sense of gender and sexual orientation, because it feels right and makes me happy. That’s something to be proud of.

My friend then said: But I choose to be straight because that’s what feels natural, and I wouldn’t choose to be gay because the idea leaves me cold. I know that sounds homophobic, but it I don’t know any other way to say it.

I responded: That doesn’t sound homophobic, that sounds like exactly what all the “born this way” proponents are saying about themselves regardless of their sexual orientation. Actually, I think you’re probably coming to the question from a position of already believing in the “born this way” scenario. You were born straight, and so you act straight, because acting straight is what feels most natural to you. And I was born queer so I act queer because acting queer is what feels most natural to me. That doesn’t sound homophobic in the least.

I’m pretty solidly in the “born this way” camp myself, as are, I think, most people who are even a little open-minded and scientific.

The “it’s a choice” people seem mostly to come from a mindset that can’t imagine that something that feels natural to them could possibly feel unnatural to someone else, and vice versa. To them, a man who has sex with men must be acting against his “natural inclination” to be attracted to women. Where as to us it’s fairly obvious that he is acting on his natural inclination to be attracted to men.

The question as to whether science ought to be looking for the “gay gene” or the gay part of the brain, or whatever else might be responsible for gayness is also predicated on an assumption that gayness is something inborn. If there were no societal prejudice against gayness, then there would be no controversy about the research.

Perhaps it’s a bit like a scientific search for the origins of red hair. If there is no serious societal prejudice against people with red hair, then figuring out that red hair is caused by a recessive gene on one arm of a particular chromosome (or that it’s caused by hormonal influences in utero, or by the pregnant mother eating strawberries and sardines during the second trimester on the night of the full moon, or whatever the cause may be) is just an interesting scientific fact. Maybe one or two people will try to make sure their child is born ginger, and one or two will try to avoid it, but on the whole gingerness is just another detail that makes a person unique.

It’s when there is sufficient societal prejudice against an inborn trait that it leads to attempts to treat the condition or cure it, or abort fetuses carrying that trait, that a search for the cause of the trait becomes problematic. Are we defining gayness as simply an inborn trait like hair color, or are we treating it like a genetic defect, like cystic fibrosis or sickle cell syndrome? But gayness is not a maladaptive trait that causes illness.

We could just as easily look for the genetic roots of timidity, or daring. What is it that makes 10% of the population thrill-seeking? What if we can correlate that thrill-seeking trait with some negative effects, like a higher mortality rate, and with some positive ones, like a higher likelihood of financial success? What about timidity? Are the more cautious likely to live longer, but succeed less? If you look at gayness as an inborn temperament like that, does that change anything?

Anyway, my completely unscientific survey of the people I know shows that being queer (gay, bi, trans, asexual, etc) is as natural and inborn as being straight is. I don’t know anyone queer who argues that they are going against their natural inclination to be straight. There’s probably a gene. Or a meta-genetic effect. Or a hormone. Or a combination. Probably one that makes you straight, too.

You know what I’d like to find and cure? The gene for prejudice.

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~ by Nezu on 31 May 2011.

2 Responses to “Born This Way”

  1. You know what? Just a tad more polishing, and you could probably get this published somewhere.

    • Wow, thanks! I’d love to talk to you about the polishing. I was afraid it was a little disjointed.

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