Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The “Born This Way Fallacy” or Why we shouldn’t feel the need to resort to biological determinism to invoke our human rights

It’s December, it’s been grey outside for weeks and Matron has far too much work to do. What better time to procrastinate on something complete unrelated to the day job?* 

In this case, the plan is to vent on another one of those “gay rights” arguments that periodically come up between Matron’s generation and the next (and the one after, and the one after that) and it’s about the best way to frame the call for recognition of LGBT (QIP… and any other letter in the alphabet that anyone cares to add) rights. It’s about biological determinism and whether we should use our bodies and the alleged immutability of our sexual preferences and desires in the context of legal and policy discussions. It’s been something of a bug bear of Matron’s for a while, so the emergency exits are here, here and here.

For the last few years, and particularly in the context of the equal marriage debate, the case for equality has often been based on the argument that people are “born this way”, that they can’t help who they love and that discrimination on the basis of something that is innate and that they have no control over is inherently unfair. 

Of course, Lady Gaga hasn’t helped matters, although in actual fact, Matron has (almost) no beef with Gaga’s particular take on the statement (beautifully embraced in one of Matron’s favorite Glee numbers ever), which is much more about self acceptance than about what other people think of you in response to whatever deviation from the norm you represent. So, she’s fully on board with the Gaga sentiment:


"Don't hide yourself in regret,  
Just love yourself and you're set, 
I'm on the right track, baby 
I was born this way"
But as Suzanna Danuta Walters explains in some detail in her article "An Incomplete Rainbow", there is a bright red line between self acceptance and asking for acceptance from others, between demanding rights regardless of who you are and asking for tolerance because of who you are. Because rights and equality are things that I should have by virtue of the fact that I am a human being among other human beings. Tolerance is something that is handed out to me by someone who feels that there is something (wrong? abnormal?) about me that they are willing to overlook because they are nice. In that way, the “born this way” argument is a deeply flawed, apologist approach by a community that is begging for crumbs from the table rather than stamping its authority on the rights discussion we are all involved in.

It is an argument that relies in no small way on a certain kind of biological determinism. As Walters highlights:
“[T]he idea that sexual desire and identity are hard-wired (through lavender DNA, or an endocrine system that washes the infant in homo fantasies, or a kinky hypothalamus) reaches into legal arguments, familial conversations, political speeches, Broadway musicals, teen television, movement websites, and, of course, pop songs.”
It is nevertheless a fallacy, for several reasons.

For one, if biology can be used to demand tolerance, it can be used to justify discrimination. As @nigelwUK pointed out to her on Twitter, the old UK headline about the benefits of identifying the “gay gene” was “abortion hope after ‘gay genes’ findings”. As a serving Kraut, this speaks deeply to Matron given the way in which her home country has previously used biological characteristics to “cleanse” the population from all undesirable genetic elements.

But it is also a fallacy because it isn’t true, at least not for all the people all the time, and it is the rights of those people for whom it isn’t true that are sold down the river when queer activists base their campaigns on a “born this way” argument.

Before Matron came out at the tender age of 21, she had had three serious and meaningful relationships and a small number of hook ups with men. There is no regret about those relationships and encounters, including their sexual aspects, and some of those men are still her friends. There was no epiphany at the time about how she was always supposed to be with women and how those previous relationships were a mistake or a failure and there is no general - biologically determined - bar on her possibly hooking up with a man again, should she and the current Mrs Matron ever decide to call it quits.

Nevertheless, Matron calls herself a lesbian, rather than bi-or pansexual, because the right to define her own identity is up to her and because on a day-to-day basis she prefers to be with a woman rather than a man for a host of reasons too complex (and too private for a privacy lawyer) to go into in a blog post. Her lesbian identity is therefore as much a (political) choice as a physical reality. But because she hasn’t been with a man in more than two decades, this truth, which is clear in her own mind, is in constant danger of being subsumed into a “won’t do men, because she can’t do men” narrative in the mind of others. And in the context of a born-this-way based argument that leaves her vulnerable. 

Because if her lesbianism is a choice, she cannot use an immutable biological state of affairs as a reason to call for, say, marriage equality. If she really wanted to, she could get married in ever country on the planet– to a man! She could live the gender-role conformist life most people would expect her to lead and while that might still do untold harm to her sanity, it would not be physically or even emotionally impossible. Which is why, before the gay liberation movement, a multitude of lesbians and gay men through the ages have chosen to do just that, simply to be able to have any kind of life that was acceptable to the societies around them.

And because this is so, less enlightened people in a born-this way world could use this as an argument for why she and others like her should not have the right to be married to a woman. Because she could do different, she could do “better”, she could do right by everyone, she could marry a man.


But Matron doesn’t WANT to marry to a man. Heck, she isn’t even that keen on getting married to a woman, but if marriage was on the agenda, there would currently only be one – decidedly female – person in the frame as a potential partner-in-crime. So what rights do we give someone, who is not “born this way” but has freely chosen her own personal brand of deviancy?

As an old-style 1980’s feminist, Matron can’t help but be frustrated about the way in which we as a community are going backwards on this issue of ethical reasoning, even as we are making significant headway towards a more equal society on a factual level. Of course, Matron is fully aware that there are any number of LGBT people who see their sexuality as fixed and immutable, who do not think that they have a choice in the matter and who cannot see themselves ever falling for someone of their non-preferred gender. And that is fine - for THEM. But it isn’t like that for all of us.

Matron is also aware that people in some quarters (I'm looking at you, crazy religious fundamentalists) will quickly use any admission that sexual orientation/preference/desire may be more fluid to advocate a light course of sexual re-programming or worse. And for those that are subjected to this kind of treatment, the effects are undoubtedly severe. 

But should the answer to this problem really be the establishment of a politically expedient “public truth” about the immutability of sexuality if this truth denies the lived experiences of quite a few members of the LGBT community? Or should we rather argue that the way in which each of us defines ourselves and our identity is a question of personal autonomy and self-determination, and that nobody, NOBODY, has any right to interfere with that autonomy unless the expression of that identity personally harms them (and quite honestly, how could it)?



There was a time when, as a community, we realized that sexuality was a spectrum on which people came down at different points, and not always at the same point during the span of their lifetime. There was an acceptance that things can change, that sexuality is a many splendoured thing and that you can fall in love with the person, not the gender, even while you are using your “deviant” relationship to highlight discrimination and to make the point that the personal is political. Queer campaigning was a much less timid, apologetic, making-nice-with-the-powers-that-be art form than it is now and in Matron’s wistful, old fogey view we were the better for it.

Because rights should be for all of us, regardless of where on that spectrum we reside and whether we tap dance about on it by choice or otherwise.

In other words, I’m not asking you to treat me fairly because I was born this way and can’t help myself being gay. I’m demanding you treat me fairly because I’m a fucking person and you have no reason not to.






*Also, today is the day that equal marriage becomes legal in Scotland for the first time, so this is kind of topical after all.

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