Matt, a 34-year-old pansexual in Georgia, isn’t sure that he was “born that way.” For the first 25 years of his life, he was happy to identify as straight, and says he felt “repulsed” by the idea of sexual contact with men throughout high school. “This was when the word ‘gay’ was perfectly synonymous with ‘bad,’ like a South Park–style opposite of ‘cool,’” he says. “I don’t think I was ever actually homophobic or had a problem with gay guys; it was more like I had internalized the idea that, even though there’s nothing wrong with gay people, I shouldn’t be one.”
Once he went off to college, though, his feelings toward men changed. He underwent a “slow burn” shift from finding men sexually repulsive, to being unbothered by the idea of sexual contact with them, to being attracted to some in certain contexts — one of which was during his consumption of porn comics. Here, he says, he initially felt only artistic admiration for the portrayal of hot men — “I can appreciate how this guy is attractive because of how well-executed this piece is” — but this eventually morphed into an acknowledgement of the attractiveness of hot men more generally. “But even after that,” Matt continues, “I didn’t find myself turning my head to look at a hot guy on the street for another year or so.”
Matt says he’s spent a lot of time “banging [his] head against a desk” trying to figure out if he’s always been sexually attracted to men. He can remember getting a “very specific feeling” around men when he was much younger that he now identifies as sexual attraction, but he’s not sure that it means he was always pansexual. “I have no idea how much of my repulsion toward men was sociological conditioning,” he says. “But if someone is straight for most of their life, then has a few gay experiences, then doesn’t feel straight anymore, I don’t think that necessarily means that they weren’t straight to begin with.”
The idea that gay, lesbian and bisexual people are “born this way” and “don’t choose to be gay” has been a rallying cry of the gay rights movement for decades, reaching critical mass in the 2000s and early 2010s as the fight for same-sex marriage was being won. The idea informed civil rights campaigns and infused pop culture: Lady Gaga’s 2011 hit “Born This Way” became an immediate gay anthem, and Macklemore’s 2012 single “Same Love,” recorded during the campaign for a referendum to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington State, made heavy use of the idea (“And I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to”).
It’s still being used, too. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg issued the ne plus ultra “born this way” defense last year when he quipped that “if you have a problem with who I am, your problem is with my creator,” suggesting that to deny the innateness of a person’s sexuality isn’t only wrong, it’s blasphemous. It’s an ingenious rhetorical strategy given that opponents to gay rights are often Christian conservatives who believe that gay people engage in deviant “lifestyle choices” that they can be discouraged from indulging through conversion therapy. “The ‘born gay’ narrative is very useful politically to get conservatives to empathize with queer people,” says Tara Pond, a PhD candidate in psychology at AUT University whose work explores the intersection of gender and plurisexuality. “If we’re born gay, it’s not our fault, and therefore, we deserve the same rights as everyone else.”
But the “born this way” narrative doesn’t resonate with everyone, and some doubt whether it’s a useful basis on which to advance the rights and freedoms of sexual minorities. In their research on this topic, Lisa M. Diamond and Clifford J. Rosky concluded that advocates shouldn’t use the idea of sexual immutability to advance the rights of sexual minorities for three reasons:
- They’re unjust, because they implicitly accept that same-sex attractions and relationships are inferior (“I can’t help but be like this”).
- They’re unnecessary, because judges have used grounds other than immutability to protect the rights of sexual minorities, like anti-discrimination, privacy and the harm caused by laws targeting same-sex couples.
- They’re unscientific, i.e. it’s just not true that all people experience their sexuality as fixed — it can change and be chosen.
This last point has been attested by high-profile lesbians like Julie Bindel and Cynthia Nixon, who have openly contested the idea that sexuality is never a choice. “For me it’s a choice,” Nixon told The New York Times, “and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. … Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate.”
Women in particular may find the “born this way” narrative alienating, as a defining characteristic of traditional womanhood is to promote other people’s wants and desires above your own. This makes it difficult for women to determine what their desires even are, let alone to doggedly pursue them in the face of societal disapproval. “Women are taught from a very early age that making men happy is our job,” reads Reddit’s Am I a Lesbian? Masterdoc. “We’re supposed to be pretty for men, we’re supposed to change the way we talk so men will take us more seriously, we’re supposed to want a man’s love more than anything else.”
This results in many women denying or misunderstanding their attraction to other women for years, pursuing relationships with men that they don’t really want or avoiding relationships with women they actually desire, out of a mistaken sense that they’re not “really” gay — and the “born this way” narrative can facilitate such confusion (“If I was really gay, I would have always known”).
People who experience their sexuality as fluid also sit uneasily within the “born this way” framework. Anna, a 21-year-old queer woman in Oxford, says that her sexuality is “always changing, both by choice and not by choice.” “There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding who I’m attracted to,” she explains. “Some days it’s masc looking people, others it’s exclusively femmes.” Pond, whose research centers on the experience of bisexual women, agrees that the “born this way” narrative “often leaves out the experiences of people who don’t fit into the gay/straight dichotomy,” and that her research participants are often negatively affected by dominant ideas about sexuality being binary, biological and fixed. “Many [bisexual] interviewees worried about not being able to figure out their ‘true’ sexuality,” Pond says, “because we’re so focused on gay and straight identities in our society.”
Trans people, of course, are also deeply impacted by concerns about “realness.” “The whole ‘born this way’ narrative works slightly differently for trans people,” says Grace Lavery, a queer trans woman and associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. “The first thing to say is that there is certainly a class of trans people who report always knowing that, despite the sex assigned to them when they were born, they felt much more strongly identified with another sex or gender identity. There is also, however, a class of trans people — probably larger than the first, but who knows — who develop a trans understanding of themselves at some point after childhood, either through a process of discovering something about themselves, or experimenting with some new way of thinking about themselves.” (Lavery’s own experience fits in the latter category.)
The reason this becomes politically charged, she says, is that anti-trans activists often raise concerns about what they call “rapid onset gender dysphoria” to describe the second class of trans people. “This term has no basis in medical research,” Lavery continues, “but is used by parents who want to justify preventing, for example, teenagers exploring trans identities from gaining access to competent health care.” It’s a nasty catch-22, because Lavery says anti-trans activists single out trans women who transition later in life for “hatred and opprobrium,” but have also made it a major political goal to prevent children from accessing gender-affirming health care, making delays more likely.
Cruelly, these narratives about authenticity can cause trans people to delay transition even when health care is available to them. “The notion that only some fraction of trans people are ‘really’ trans can be something that we use to beat ourselves up with,” Lavery says, “or use to prevent ourselves from beginning hormones or trying out a new name or new pronouns in a particular space.”
And for queer trans women, the combination of transphobia, homophobia, misogyny and compulsory heterosexuality can make the “born this way” narrative almost laughably simplistic. In a recent video by Natalie Wynn on the topic of shame, in which the prominent YouTuber comes out as gay, she explains how the shame of being a trans woman compounded with the shame of being a gay woman into a kind of super-shame that’s the natural result of, well, shaming. “Most forms of transphobia are harsher on gay trans women than they are on straight trans women,” she explains. “Take this trope that trans women are men who transition to creep on women in bathrooms — in response to that, it feels really good to say, ‘I’m not even attracted to women.’”
She says the fact the latter isn’t true sometimes makes her feel “like a monster.” “This shame has actually made it more difficult to accept that I’m a gay woman,” she continues, “than it was for me to come out as trans in the first place.”
The difficulty, as with cis gay people, is that the “born this way” narrative does describe the experience of some trans people, and its political usefulness makes it a delicate thing to challenge. Adrian, a 22-year-old trans man based in Canada, doesn’t like it because he says it “feels like there’s this pressure to reshape my own past into something that it wasn’t” and that he “didn’t hate every second of being a girl.” But he understands why some trans people are uncomfortable with “the ‘I used to be a [gender]’ framing.” “It’s a really obvious starting point for transphobic attacks,” he continues, “so I have tons for sympathy for people who want to cut off that avenue before it even starts.”
That said, Adrian still prefers an ethical framework for trans civil rights that doesn’t hinge on “always having known” or being “born this way.” “My framework for justification is that my gender and my body belong to me, and I can use, dispose and modify them as I see fit,” he says. “I feel like there are very few scenarios in which it’s ethically legitimate to stop other people from doing something that doesn’t materially affect you.” And transitioning, he says, isn’t something that materially affects others. “What’s the non-hypothetical harm that a transphobe is experiencing when I do my T [testosterone] shot? Nothing!”
Matt, too, has come to a similar position. “Where queerness ‘starts,’ for want of a better word, is something worth thought and study, but ultimately, it doesn’t really matter why you’re whatever flavor of queer you are,” he says. “If everyone had a Darth Vader box on their chest they could fuck with to dial down their sexuality and gender, I don’t see why anyone shouldn’t have the right to set it however they want at any given part of their life.”