Yesterday, Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain clashed with Piers Morgan about whether or not people are born gay. Here's the video:
The important thing to know is that Cain sets out saying that "homosexuality is a sin" because of his "Biblical beliefs," but Morgan quickly steers the conversation into "born this way" territory, outraged that Cain won't concede his point. Cain's response: "What does science show? You show me evidence other than opinion, and you might cause me to reconsider that... Where's the evidence?"
Morgan is horrified. He asks, "You genuinely believe that millions of Americans wake up—in their late teens normally—and go, 'You know what? I quite fancy being a homosexual.' You don't believe that."
Here's the thing: There are many, many reasons to affirm and embrace LGBTQ people and our rights, but none of them of them have anything to do whether or not we were "born this way."
I think this video illuminates why the "born this way" rhetoric is problematic. Morgan's horror is not, I think, born of a genuine sense of injustice. No, he just cannot fathom the the possibility that anyone would ever choose a fate as horrible as being "a homosexual." The thought process goes like this: Why would anyone choose to be maligned and oppressed by culture and society? Who wants that?
Don't get me wrong. I am very glad that the Lady Gaga song in question has inspired so many LGBTQ teens—many living with the kind of bullying that erodes one's commitment to life—to keep going. I'm deeply concerned about the rash of youth suicides, and I'm glad to have any affirming anthem that speaks to kids. Damnit, I cried when I first heard this little girl play the song too:
Whatever the problematic elements here, I'm glad that kids have found a pop star who inspires them to love themselves, who tries to affirm "the way God made them." Kids need to hear that they're okay no matter what.
I'm not so sure, though, that the "born this way" rhetoric needs frame political debates about whether or not we should have access to rights and acceptance. Here are just a few of the problems that I find inherent in the discourse:
- Republicans cast our identities as "choice" in order to argue that they are "sinful." Why should we be so ready to concede that "sin" has a place in public discourse at all? If it does, how can we possibly determine how to legislate based on what is—or is not—sinful? Take the Ten Commandments, that document that many Jews, Christians and Muslims taken as a foundational document about sin.
Consider the fourth commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image..." There are conservative elements in monotheism that read this as an injunction against making artwork in the likeness of a person or animal. It's just patently absurd to suggest that we should base contemporary law on the Bible, and this is just one example that underscores that.
- What if there isn't conclusive scientific proof? As soon as Morgan asked, Cain countered with a demand to see the scientific evidence. But should the existence of a gene that proves inborn sexual orientation or gender identity have anything to do with our access to rights?
The implication is that, as long as no one finds irrefutable proof of a gene, our rights should be interrogated and withheld according to the whim of public opinion. Acquiescence to this rhetoric means accepting the idea that we don't deserve acceptance or affirmation if there isn't any proof.
- What if there is scientific proof? Who's ready to get the blood test that determines whether or not our identities are legitimate? Are you sure you were born this way? I'm not. I did not feel that I was intrinsically "different" by the age of five except for the fact that I was shy. I wasn't entirely sure of my sexual orienatation until my early twenties. I have no idea what a scientific test might say about me.
Does this make me a less legitimate member of the community? Does it make anyone whose test doesn't show the right results wrong about who we are?
- Some of us do experience an element of choice in coming to terms with our identities. And this is only threatening if we've conceded that LGBTQ identity is a horrible burden to bear, something so terrible that no one would ever choose it. I recognize that societal judgment keeps people in the closet. However, it seems to me that, if we want self-acceptance, we shouldn't frame our identities as prison sentences. Do we want to apologize for this unfortunate way that "God made us," or do we want to celebrate it instead?
- It is possible to believe that social construction has a role in shaping one's identity and still experience sexual orientation or gender identity as something that is real. We need not have been "born this way" in order justify our identity claims. We can concede that social context might have played a role in shaping who we are without agreeing that this means we are sinful. I can work for marriage equality alongside a woman who feels that she was born a lesbian with no problem. Because essentializing truth about identity is just not the point.
Whether or not we were born this way, we live and love and go on with our lives. "Born this way" rhetoric is a construction of the Christian Right and a straw argument. Rather than insisting that we were born this way, we need to keep reminding everyone—and ourselves—that it doesn't matter whether or not we were. We can be "beautiful" without attributing a creation myth to the story, regardless of whether or not God had a hand in it. And we are.