Next in my series on bland well-meaning platitudes with embedded fucked-up ideology (hopefully this time I won’t end up being called a whiny fascist bitch) is “born this way” and all it’s essentialist variants.
Except in this case it’s not so much about the idea that some people are born gay or straight or bi or whatever. While it doesn’t make much sense to me that gender is performative and gender identity is fluid, but what gender you’re attracted to is innate and fixed from birth, if that’s how you understand and experience your sexuality, who am I to say you’re wrong? In fact, I’m sure the “this is just who I am”/”baby I was born this way” epiphany is really important for some people, particularly those who had previously been trying to suppress or deny their desires.
The problem is, “born this way” has become the compulsory narrative for all queer people, and is aggressively policed by certain sections of the community (check out the reaction to Cynthia Nixon’s claim that she chose to be gay, for example). It’s a narrative that erases the experiences and identities of countless people.
Personally, I’ve never felt strongly that any sexuality particularly describes me. There was no eureka moment where I suddenly realised “this is what I’ve been all along”, more a gradual realisation that I was attracted to people not genders and that that’s ok. At various times I’ve identified as gay, straight and bi, but none of those really described me, and it’s caused me a lot of anxiety. Trying to choose from one of the pre-packaged identities on offer was quite a rough experience emotionally. Eventually I settled on ‘queer’.
I’m pretty sceptical that I popped out of the womb with that aspect of my identity fully formed and that I’m now just living out a script written in utero by genes and hormones. I’m pretty sure my unique socialisation – my exposure to anarchism, queer theory, feminism, postmodernism etc., and to a community of radicals where not just tolerance but acceptance and understanding of difference is expected, and where normative assumptions about identity are questioned rather than being taken at face value – plays a huge part.
(You’ll notice I haven’t bothered with any of the scientific stuff here. That’s because I don’t really care. Empirical evidence can at best point us towards interesting correlations between certain genes and hormones and sexuality, none of which implies causation, and certainly none of which is enough to establish that sexuality is innate from birth in every case. But, more importantly, because you don’t just get to erase people’s subjectivities by going “look, science”.)
But anyway, “born this way” isn’t actually an attempt to accurately describe queer people’s experiences of themselves – it’s a political statement, which is the product of a particular politics: the mainstream (liberal) LGBT civil rights movement. It’s a politics that’s fraught with problems – mainly that it aims at LGBT inclusion (or more correctly assimilation) within oppressive institutions that we should really be struggling against (the US war machine, nationalism, the State, the capitalist class, the cops, marriage and the nuclear family, among others) and in doing so has allowed LGBT struggles to be co-opted by reactionary agendas (Israeli apartheid, Islamophobia, consumerism, family values) in exchange for small concessions from the State.
As a political statement, “born this way” is related to a whole bunch of different issues. I’ll try and sketch some of the main ones here.
In the United States, in order for a group to qualify for certain legal protections as a ‘suspect class‘ under the 14th Amendment, it is important (but not strictly necessary) for that group to demonstrate that they possess an immutable and/or highly visible trait that distinguishes them as a group (similar requirements exist in many other jurisdictions). As a result, liberals who see pursuing civil rights through the courts and voting for progressive legislators as the primary methods of political struggle need to establish that sexuality is innate and immutable, and those of us who that doesn’t apply to had better just shut our mouths and stop ruining it for everyone else.
This demonstrates pretty clearly the poverty of the liberal approach to struggle. Rather than actively combating homophobia through grassroots struggle and direct action, they instead attempt to piggyback on the victories of the black civil rights movement by making sexuality like race, even though it clearly isn’t (although arguably race as a political and sociological category is at least to some extent performative, but that’s a different discussion).
It’s all pretty naive stuff. Rights, or freedom from oppression, can’t be granted as gifts from above, only won through popular struggle. Anti-discrimination legislation hasn’t abolished institutional racism, rather it’s outlawed certain overt forms of discrimination. As long as race-thinking and white privilege still exist, institutional racism will just change form in response to legal gains; the language and tactics of racism change, but racism persists. Similarly, no amount of court judgements and no amount of saying “we were born this way” will win queer emancipation if we’re unwilling to fight for the right to fuck who we want without shame.
A major fear is that if we admit that having sex with members of your own gender is something people do for all kinds of different reasons, rather than an immutable part of a person’s biology in every case, it opens the door for various kinds of horrific ‘therapy’ practised by religious bigots designed to ‘cure’ homosexuality.
I’ve never had someone offer to cure me, but my likely response would be “fuck off there’s nothing wrong with me” not “sorry dude I can’t help it, there’s nothing you can do”. Our response as a community should be to empower queer people to make that stand for themselves, and you don’t do that by talking about their sexuality as if it were an incurable disease. If your argument against homophobia is that their bigotry is illegitimate because sexuality is innate, the obvious corollary is that if it were a choice, their bigotry would be legitimate, which makes it a pretty shit argument.
As for the legal side, surely the fact that these therapies have been shown in every case to cause massive psychological damage (and often suicide) is a strong enough argument for them to be banned?
Not unsettling heteronormativity
Most heterosexuals love the idea that their sexuality is innate, because that means their access to heterosexual privilege is also innate and unthreatened. “I was born gay just like you were born straight” is a great thing to hear in a society where it means they were born normal and will never be anything other. It’s a great way to win (tokenistic) support from the oppressor class without unsettling their privileged identity. On the other hand, the idea that they too might find themselves attracted to someone of the same gender is a direct threat to their privilege, and it’s an uncomfortable thought.
If your aim is to win gradual small gains by compromising with an oppressive system (i.e. if you are a liberal) then it makes tactical sense to say things that heterosexuals find easy to digest. But if your aim is a world without heteronormativity, then combating essentialism is pretty essential (pun intended).
Ok that seems like a decent enough ending. Next post will be about the centrality of class in understanding oppression.