Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Was I Born Gay?

Was I born gay? Did I come out of the womb hitting on my female nurse rather than the male doctor? Did I play sports as a child because I was genetically predisposed to later want to sleep with women, or because I was hyperactive and needed to constantly move? Do I have a deep voice because I’m gay? Or am I gay because I have a deep voice, and was therefore treated a certain way by the society around me?

These questions are almost impossible to answer. Perhaps that’s why most people—and certainly people representing gay leadership in this country—don’t even try. The prevailing argument is that we were born this way, and therefore we should have equal rights to every other human being.

I heartily agree that everyone is equal, no matter who they are. But here’s my answer to the question of whether I was born gay: I don’t care. And not only do I not care, I think the question is harmful. And I think a gay community that focuses on whether or not we were born this way is doing more long-term harm than short-term good.

Sexuality is an incredibly complicated thing. Who knows why we are attracted to the people we’re attracted to. It could be physical: strong arms, beautiful smile, small/big breasts. It could be a kind of look that comes out of someone’s eyes. It could be their attitude toward life, or their sense of humor. It could be that we sense that we have something to give that they need, and vice versa. We are attracted to people for a myriad of reasons, and we rarely question it. Until it jumps gender. Until the things that draw us and move us and speak to us are found mostly in people of the same sex. Then we crawl all over ourselves trying to find an answer to why we’re gay.

The question of whether we were born gay does not come from us. It’s a response to the prejudice surrounding us—to the prejudice we grew up with that still frames the way we see the world. It’s more directly a response to Christian nationalists, who have charged that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and, therefore, we can change. This argument is patently absurd. Whether we are gay because of a genetic variance, or whether we are gay because of a lifetime of moments and interactions with the world—or some combination thereof—is beside the point. We still can’t change, no matter how we are raised or how much psychotherapy we have. Who we are is largely immutable, whether it’s genetic or not.

What I can’t figure out is why our entire gay identity is wrapped around responding to the bullies in the playground who insist on defining us. They say, “You can change!” and our response should be, “Yeah, that’s completely ridiculous. What rock did you crawl out from under.” Instead, our response is, “No I can’t! I was born this way!”

We’re playing their game, on their field, responding to the rules and parameters that they’ve set up. Who are WE? And why aren’t we fighting the battle against ignorance on our terms?

By insisting that we were born this way, we’re essentially saying that we can’t help it. And we’re implying that if we could help it, we certainly would. And from that we’re implying that if we can help it, and we choose not to, then people have every right to discriminate against us.

I would not change if I could. I like being gay. I like being outside the mainstream. Standing apart from gender norms and expectations has given me a perspective that most people don’t have. I am me—not what people expect me to be—in every part of my life. It’s tremendously freeing. And it is the one thing that Christian nationalists are most afraid of.

And yet, for some reason, talking about gender norms, talking about the relationship between sexism and homophobia, turning things around and asking people what they’re afraid of, is the one argument that the gay political community steadfastly refuses to make. We don’t want to expose the weakness of the bullies in the playground. Instead, we end up—I am sure unwillingly, in many cases—making them stronger by answering them to begin with.

Let’s look at it this way: I’m Jewish. If I ever went out into the world and said, “I can’t help it, I was born Jewish,” I would be excoriated as a self-hating Jew. Let’s set aside the fact that I actually do suspect there’s a better chance I was born Jewish than born gay (because loud, intelligent, opinionated women have been part of my DNA for millennia—long before someone decided these traits in women were bad and, therefore, deserving of a negative stereotype). One might assume that I could change my religion. Many people have. The composer Felix Mendelssohn was not Jewish. But his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was one of the first Jewish scholars in the Prussian/German state. But in today’s world, the mere suggestion that I should change my religion in order to get ahead or not be discriminated against would create howls of outrage. Jews do not answer anti-Semitism with “We can’t help who we are.” We answer it with, “Who the hell do you think YOU are?”

I understand that there are many people in the world who think that being gay is a choice. Some of those people are well-meaning, and are just espousing what they learned in church or growing up with their family. We can’t let that argument go unchecked. But we also can’t get lost in it. When people say, “Gay people can change, it’s not innate,” let’s try not answering them by insisting it is innate. Let’s try, instead, to ask them why it matters to them whether gay people can change or not. Let’s engage in a discussion about how one person’s life affects theirs. Let’s, gently, get them thinking about all the things about them that perhaps aren’t innate. Those conversations will not change people’s minds overnight. But they are the conversations we need to start having in order to take away the power that gay haters seem to have, and to move forward toward true equality.


  1. I wouldn't change who I am, either. I'm completely on the fence about either being born this way, or not, although I wasn't until recently. A friend of mine informed me about the scientific research they're doing on mice (typical) at the moment and how they've discovered the 'gay gene'. It comes down the, whilst in the womb, if the female fetus gets additional testosterone, she'll be born a lesbian. If a male fetus gets additional estrogen, he'll be born gay. I wish I had some links to share, sadly I don't, but the idea that it's a gene blows my mind. And although it's not 100% relevant to your blog, I just thought I'd throw it out there.

    Having said all of this, the last time someone asked me why I couldn't just 'not be gay', I asked them why they couldn't just 'not be creepy', which not only confused them but made me chuckle. It wasn't until I'd already walked away that they finally realized I'd not only insulted them, but used my charming sarcasm as well!

  2. YES. I agree that insisting people are born into their gender and sexual identity and can't "help" it is harmful to the equal rights movement and sometimes to individuals as well. When I was a teen I struggled very hard with my identity, less because I thought liking girls was morally wrong (though there was definitely some internalized homophobia at work) but more because the media had drummed into me that people were "born gay" and that "being gay isn't a choice." I understood this to mean that I had to make certain I had no alternative but to like girls -- that liking girls was a last resort. So instead of exploring my feelings or reaching out to others, I locked myself away to overanalyze every thought or impulse I had in isolation. I would have had such an easier time if I'd believed then, as I do now, that it doesn't matter why people are attracted to certain people, and that we don't have to assign labels or biological explanations or anything else to our feelings. The "born gay" approach also denies/diminishes the fluidity of gender and sexual identity that so many of us experience.

  3. So I have a deep voice too...wonder why I like boys? Or do I, really? And who the hell cares?
    One of these days, hopefully in our children's or grandchildren's future, we will all just be people, and love who we love.

  4. WELL SAID! And ... FINALLY. THIS is exactly what I've been thinking/feeling for years but didn't know how to put it into words! Totally re-posting on FB!!! Brilliant.

  5. Nice piece. I think the choice argument is one that buttresses the "natural law" argument which ennobles homophobes to hide behind a veneer of syllogism to mask their bigotry. There is a slippery slope in countering the "natural law" argument against homosexuality, as you rightly state, because it makes discussions on sexuality reductionist when, in fact, sexual identity is multi-factorial. The idea that one's identity is conceived in the womb is too simplistic to be given merit. Thanks for the insights. Nice work.

  6. I really enjoyed this article because it does a wonderful job of distilling the "who cares?" attitude:


  7. I agree. I am a Christian, and I say who cares, as well. Not all Christians are extremist-homophobes. We all need to be respectful, kind and helpful towards one another. That's what we should be concerned with.

  8. Soy mujer lesbiana, tengo una hija de 9 años. Soy mamá no biológica, mi ex pareja mujer es quien la gestó. Creo básicamente en el amor, en la honestidad, en la verdad, en la tolerancia, en el respeto mutuo. Eso es lo que le transmito a mi hija en un contexto de familia homoparental. Eso es en lo que creo. Me encanta tu blog.

  9. The other question is: Are STRAIGHT people born that way? But no one ever wants to ASK them, 'cuz well -- they're "normal" and "natural" so what does it matter? Does that make sense? I believe all humans are normal and natural whatever their sexual orientation is. There's no choice going on in the matter, and neither orientation can be "learned". Behavior, yes. Innate attractions and desires? NOPE! :)

    You might really enjoy my blog, about just this topic: