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The Problem With 'Born This Way'

I was 21 when I came out to my mother for the third time. She was visiting me in Tucson for my college graduation, and we were in the car, her driving. We were stopped at a red light and she said “Are you dating anyone?”

“Yes,” I said, taking a deep breath. “It’s not too serious, but we’ve been on a couple of dates.”

“So tell me! What’s his name?”

“Her name is Sarah,” I said.

I remember several decades of silence, but in reality it was probably a moment or two.

“Oh, okay,” she finally said, and there was another long pause before she added, “I hope you know that I don’t have a problem with that.”

“I know,” I said, although I had been worried.

“There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” she said. “I love you no matter what. I just worry that your life will be so much harder than other people’s.” She sighed. “It’s not fair, but it’s true. When I think about what gay people go through–it just isn’t what I would choose for you.” Another pause. “But I know you don’t have a choice.”

There’s no way this all happened in the span of one red light, but that’s how I remember it. I stared out the window. I was relieved that my mother wasn’t angry, wasn’t freaking out or threatening to disown me or insisting my queerness was a phase, but I was still obscurely disappointed by her reaction. It felt a little bit like she said, “Well, I know you’d be straight if you could.”

The coming-out narrative we’re all most familiar with goes like this: Queer and trans people know from an early age that we’re not like everyone else. We try desperately to conform, to make ourselves what the world would have us be, but we can’t be happy in fitting into those clothes. We’re miserable and constrained and living half a life, and the only way to be free is to embrace our true selves even if society rejects them.

The story is set against the backdrop of our suffering. It argues that, having paid our penance, having done everything in our power to fit into the cisgender heterosexual paradigm, we now deserve to be excused. But what about those of us who could fit in, but didn’t want to–or who never bothered to try at all? While it’s unquestionably true that some LGBTQ people remember a deep sense of their own identity or orientation dating back to early childhood, and many of us do struggle mightily to suppress that aspect of ourselves, this narrative leaves out more people than it includes.

Claiming that LGBTQ people are “born this way” has indisputably been useful for the equality movement. It’s helped our society as a whole let go of the misconception that queerness is due to a failure in parenting, or a trauma, or some other stumbling block in the road to heterosexuality that can be corrected for or removed. The Human Rights Campaign has used “being gay is not a choice” to argue against harmful conversion therapy practices intended to “cure” queerness. Several of my LGBTQ friends deployed it during their own coming out process to help their families move toward acceptance.

But is that enough? There’s a huge chasm between “grudging resignation to what can’t be changed” and real support for LGBTQ people. If our equality is predicated on the assumption that it’s less good to be queer than it is to be straight, doesn’t that undermine the potential for creating our own, authentic, fully realized queer lives? Will we always exist in the shadow of the heterosexuality that could have been?

When we fight for our rights on the grounds that we can’t be any other way, we’re letting bigots get away with the assertion that if queerness were a choice, it would be a wrong choice. As a bisexual woman in a same-sex relationship, I find that particularly painful. Gay people and straight people might not have a choice in the gender of person they fall in love with, but bi folks do–at least, we have a choice in which of our attractions to pursue. I might have been born bisexual, but I made a conscious choice to stop dating men, and devote my energies to the kind of love I really wanted. I am attracted to people of all genders, but I chose my queer love, my queer family, my queer life.

Remember when Cynthia Nixon said “I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better”? Oh my GOD, people were so mad. Everyone was losing their shit about how she had reified the worst accusations homophobes could make about us, that she had cost us decades of progress by saying in public that, nope, she wouldn’t rather be straight. Has enough time passed that I can tell you my soul sang when I read those words? Nothing else has ever so succinctly captured how I feel, as a bisexual in a wonderful same-sex relationship. There is so much joy in being queer. We shouldn’t have to pretend there isn’t just because some assholes don’t like it.

From the viewpoint of the zealous homophobe, there’s no excuse for me: I chose to marry my genderqueer partner instead of waiting to fall in love with a man. Who knows? It might have happened. I can picture a life where I would have been happy and satisfied in a long-term relationship with a man (specifically Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). The life I have now is not something I was forced into for lack of another option.

Do I deserve fewer rights, less support, more oppression, because I could have found love with a dude and I didn’t? Should I be harangued and marginalized until I suppress my bisexuality and shove myself into the status quo? Or is it perhaps the case that my relationship is valid because it is valid, not because I am incapable of experiencing boy-girl love and this is my consolation prize?

The idea that our equality is contingent on our inability to change doesn’t just hinder queer self-actualization; it casts aside bisexual, pansexual, gender-fluid, and other people without clearly delineated identities. It suggests that you don’t have a right to your LGBTQ identity unless it’s been steadfast since time immemorial, and that struggling and failing to change who you are is a fundamental milestone. This is such an unhealthy thing to teach our LGBTQ kids. When Mary Lambert sings, “I can’t change, even if I wanted to,” I wish someone were singing about not wanting to change, even if we could.

I write an LGBTQ advice column, and I have gotten a handful of letters over the years from young bi or pan people whose families don’t understand why they don’t just choose straight relationships. These letters and the confusion and pain that radiate from them have stayed with me for longer than just about any question except for the one about whether it’s safe to finger-bang with nail polish on. Lest we forget, bisexual people comprise a larger percentage of the LGBTQ community than those who identify as gay or lesbian. If the story we’re telling about queer equality leaves that many of us behind, or allows straight people to see us as less deserving of liberation, something needs to change.

Those who arrive at a realization about their identities or orientations at a relatively later point in life are also ill served by the “born this way” rhetoric, emphasizing as it does the longevity of a trait as proof of its validity. Orange is the New Black writer Lauren Morelli wrote that she struggled with coming out as gay after marrying a man, thinking “If I was really gay, I would have known when I was younger. There was a prescribed narrative, and everything about my own story challenged the accepted one.”

Of course, some people will always say “I had no choice in being queer or trans. This aspect of my identity has existed as long as I can remember, and nothing could have changed it.” That experience, which many people share, deserves to be recognized and celebrated. But it’s not the only experience, and it’s not the reason LGBTQ+ people deserve rights and protections and safety.

The science on orientation and gender is still in its infancy. Evidence suggests a genetic component, but our DNA alone doesn’t explain who we become. We may never really know why some people are LGBTQ and others aren’t, and individuals may always answer that question in a whole spectrum of different and equally legitimate ways. But I don’t think “born this way” is the hill to die on even if there is eventually scientific consensus that queerness is innate and immutable. “[W]hy play their game and pretend the only forms of difference that deserve justice are those we were born with?” asks Brandon Ambrosino in an article for BBC Future. And why oppose conversion therapy on the grounds that it doesn’t work, instead of on the grounds that it’s inhumane and horrific? The actions described in this article would still be monstrous even if the child exposed to them had become straight afterward.

If someone invented a drug tomorrow that would turn everyone who took it heterosexual, I wouldn’t touch it, and I think most of the queer folks I know wouldn’t either. The truth for most of us is that we’re not just queer because it’s that or die inside. We’re queer because our queerness is an inextricable part of our beautiful, weird, creative, funny, sad, painful, brilliant lives, and to change that would be to change who we are, and we like who we are.

As the movement for LGBTQ liberation struggles forward in a society where hostility toward us is on the rise, I believe we need to be cautious about embracing a slogan for short-term gain without considering its broader implications. We need to make room for complexity, and not let those who hate us set the terms of the debate. Whether nature, nurture, or ineffable chance made us the people we are, we deserve to be seen for our unabridged, authentic selves.

Image via Getty