Saturday, 18 June 2011

Born this way

Now I'm going to stick my head in a hornet's nest. But this is annoying me, and massively common. My problem is the phrase "Born This Way". I'm straight...ish, I was born with the gender and sex I have now, those two are the same, so I just want to make clear, this is an outsider's perspective. But I hope it's an interesting one. "Born This Way" is not the right way to make the argument for gay rights, not the right way to make LGBT people seem like full humans, and factually it's problematic.

The idea behind the phrase is simple. "Being LGBT is not a choice I am making it's something I was born with". This is to counter a line of attack on gay rights that can roughly be rendered: "gay people are a kind of group, like criminals, smokers or drunkards that it's acceptable to discriminate against". Discriminating against groups and stopping them doing what they want to is acceptable for certain kinds of groups, stopping convicted child abusers from working in schools is acceptable and indeed sensible. However, the claim is, being gay isn't like this, it's not a choice, it's an identity. Discrimination against people for being gay is like discriminating against people on the grounds of race or sex.

Except that's not how discrimination works. It's not ethically tenable. It might actually not be true. And it presents a huge danger of surrendering a point that should not be.

First trivial point, if you're a transsexual you just weren't born this way, that's kind of the point. Staying how you were born is not always a good thing and it's problematic to assume it is.

More seriously though there's a lot of problems with the assertion. The first is a simple factual one. What if it's not true? I am not up on the sexual research literature. I dont know how the balance is falling at the moment. But I'm quite confident when I say it is not certain that people's sexuality is fixed at birth. In fact I'd bet a small amount it's not true. People's sexuality inevitably evolves with time, what your particular fetish is will change, what kind of person attracts you will change, I see no reason at all that what gender you're attracted to could change, totally naturally and gradually. Almost everyone is not a Kinsey 0 or 6.

So if we are to defend gay rights and we are to use this line ... then someone comes along with serious objective unbiased research to suggest it's just plain false. What happens then? Lets get hypothetical, suppose that serious objective science concluded as conclusively as it could that people's sexuality can be changed and is not fixed at birth, whatever you think about the reality consider the possibility. If you've built your arguments on this line then either you have to adopt a denialist stance, reject objective reality and become insane, or your arguments fail, gay rights fail. This is dangerous. The beautiful thing with basing arguments on facts is that if you're wrong you always loose.

Even if it's true though, even if it's objectively the case that sexuality is fixed at birth. Is that the argument? To me "born this way" is too easy to interpret, or even to be meant, as "I'm born this way, it's not my fault." To mean "this thing that I am is bad, but I cant change it". To mean "I would love to stop being gay, but I cant". Obviously this is not what is meant by those who use it. But I worry that this connotation exists. I worry that there's something being given up by using this claim. I worry that an offensive line is being missed.

As I say I'm straight, so this is a non-LGBT perspective. But I really think one could argue forcefully with the line "yeh, I've chosen to be gay, have you got a problem with my choice?" Denying that a choice has been made avoids the point that's the most important in the LGBT debate: Is being gay actually a bad thing? I would love to see "I made the choice to be gay, and I defend that decision as being an ethical one" used as a serious argument. I'd like to see a more aggressive and active support of an LGBT lifestyle as an ethical choice, rather than a defensive cop-out argument of not having any choice in the matter.

This demand that how people are be respected per se is too close to a line used by some liberal religious folk that I hate. To me "born this way" sounds too much like "hate the sin love the sinner". It sounds too much like "we support you in spite of your being gay. Obviously it's wrong, but we are such generous people that we can forgive you your sin." It's a great line, it manages to claim great moral points from the most offensive comments. It manages to say "Something that is core to your personality is profoundly unethical", surely one of the most offensive things that can be said, and yet comes out leaving the speaker believing the other should be grateful for this abuse. "Born this way" sounds to me like it's feeding this mentality by allowing people to claim to support gay rights whist condemning the LGBT people they appear to support as fundamentally immoral. It's by this kind of get out that the key debate can be obscured and people can claim the moral high ground whilst offering the most rankly offensive statements.

My last thought is that if the basis for the thought is that discrimination against some groups is unacceptable because they were born that way then some very confused thinking is going on. It is of course fine to stop smokers as a group from excercising their group identity, but that's got nothing at all to do with any kind of inbuilt "born this way" tenancy. You can stop people being smokers because it hurts others. If it were the case that people were born addicted to nicotine and nothing could stop them from wanting to smoke. We'd do a lot to try and give them nicotine patches and whatever else. But we'd still stop them.

We dont fail to discriminate against people on the basis of sex or religion because they were "born this way". We do it because per se these things are not immoral. We shouldn't not discriminate against LGBT people because they are "born this way". Indeed we *should* discriminate against LGBT people if it turns out they are harmful to those around them. The argument we need to hammer home is that they are not harmful. We should not discriminate and we should push for the full acceptance of LGBT people as proper legitimate humans for this reason and this reason only.

1 comment:

  1. Really insightful post. I've always thought the 'born this way' argument as a concept, whether scientifically quite true or not is a fair one to make since the idea of there being a choice seems to me to be irrational - you can choose an action, but choosing a preference, at least on a conscious level, is impossible. But you're absolutely right that this misses the point that people's sexual preferences, however derived, are no business of, or problem to society.


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