This week Jeremiah Keenan reminded the Penn community of the question on whether people are really born gay or not (he forgot to mention other identities often roped with gayness like the L-B-T-Q-I-A of the queer alphabet). It came to us as a surprise because this issue seemed settled with the release of Lady Gaga’s iconic 2011 single, "Born This Way." He attacks the central theme of her song, which is that “It doesn't matter if you love him or capital H-I-M … 'Cause you were born this way, baby." Now that Keenan has opened the question again, we would like to suggest some additional considerations.
The "born this way" rhetoric is advanced for two main reasons. First, many individuals with same-gender attractions report having these desires from an extremely early age. For a large number of queer individuals, they truly do feel born this way. But, if that is inconsistent with the scientific truth, we suppose we can just dismiss their lived experiences entirely, right? Not so fast. Even Keenan indicates that there is no scientific truth in terms of biological bases of sexuality. Without any scientific consensus, there is no basis to dismiss these lived experiences and the narrative that queer people collectively put forth.
Secondly, the "born this way" narrative is advanced in response to the ongoing history of violence inflicted upon queer people. For centuries, queer people have been murdered, burned at the stake, ostracized and criminalized for being queer. Soon after its first use in 1869, the term "homosexuality" became a psychiatric diagnosis and was used to put people away in asylums and conversion therapy. Even to this day, being queer is seen as something deviant, something that must be attacked, quarantined and cured. As a defense against this violence, the queer community began to argue that they are born this way, that they are natural.
Let's consider other explanations for gayness. The question on whether gay people are "born this way" is one half of an overarching debate on nature vs. nurture. On the nurture side of the argument, people suspect that gayness is due to childhood sexual trauma or overbearing mothers. This theory is embedded in a pervasive system of victim blaming, as gay individuals are still accused of and persecuted for having been improperly parented, traumatized or abused. But, these explanations, whether scientific or flagrantly based in fear, point to the larger question of why people care so much about how someone becomes gay.
Why do people care so much if gay people are not born this way? What if they were nurtured this way? Why the fear that gayness is result of trauma? Instead of asking the nature vs. nurture question, we should ask what difference does it make one way or another.
This fixation on the source of queerness stems from the fact that society see queerness as an anomaly. Whether the public or science is right, the reality is people are still working to "explain" away the gay. People see queer individuals as freaks, monsters or threats unless they can be explained. They still look to genetics, environmental factors and childhood experiences to explain the distance they see between themselves and the LGBTQ community.
In bringing science into the conversation, Jeremiah forgets that science is part of the systematic oppression of LBGTQ individuals. Research is often misrepresented to advance a particular agenda. The authors of the 2000 study and the Columbia and Yale study that Keenan clearly warn the readers of their limitations in isolating genetic effects from environmental effects in their study designs and to take their analysis with a grain of salt. They encourage their readers not to take their words as the conclusive remarks on the nature vs. nurture debate.
Science is just another tool society uses to scrutinize queer individuals, to put further distance between queer individuals from the rest of society. This scrutiny is an act of othering queer individuals, reducing them to strange phenomena requiring explanations. This scrutiny is part of society's obsession with origin stories of monsters and pathogenesis of diseases. If queer individuals' difference can be explained, then they would not be so abnormal and can be accepted on the legitimacy of the explanation. Or so people think.
Instead of fixating on the source of difference, we should focus our energy on accepting each other as who we are and undoing the long history that has isolated the LGBTQ community from the larger community.
As Lady Gaga reminds us once again in her most recent album, “I am what I am … As good as gold.”
Ian Jeong, Cody Smith and Sean Collins are members of Lambda Alliance.