“Born This Way” Or Not: No Justification Required

To get us started, take a listen to some of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” A few warnings:

  1. There’s skin. If you’re at work, it might not be appropriate.
  2. The music video itself deserves a Nursing Clio post, but there isn’t space here. Leave some comments if you’d like us to deal with it in the future.
  3. It’s kind of long, so start at the bridge, at 5:17 or so.

In the past few weeks I’ve heard the “born this way” argument pop up all over the place in classes and everyday conversation. I quite appreciate its value as a strong, proud anthem of self-empowerment in the face of an unaccepting world. It’s also a pretty sweet jam. The foundation associated with it seems also to be up to some great things, and I certainly agree with their mission “to foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated.”

I’m not here to critique the song. But it is a handy jumping-off point for a larger issue: “born this way,” like other more explicitly biology-based or culture-based arguments, is at root a justification. It’s similar to some of what Tiffany K. Wayne noted in her “Same-Sex Marriage Does Threaten ‘Traditional’ Marriage” post from the other day. She points out, regarding marriage equality, that “it’s not just a matter of a ‘right to privacy’ or live and let live. We are trying to argue it as such. But it’s more foundation-shaking than that.” The “born this way” position is very much like the “right to privacy” and “live and let live” justifications for same-sex marriage. All are largely missing the more radical goal of making human relations — sexuality, marriage, employment, etc. — more gender neutral.

Saying “I was born this way” in the context of sexual orientation still suggests that there is something about “this way” that needs to be explained, excused, or justified. Sexual orientation should require no more justification than hair or eye color, music preference, or height.

The problem is, “born this way” is complicated and hard to take a step back from. Why?

First, biology is quite convincing and difficult to get past. This is an issue the disability rights community has been dealing with perhaps even more than the gay rights community. It is very hard for us, embedded as we are in our culture, to step back and see how many of our assumptions aren’t “natural” or “obvious” — two words that often denote biological explanations.

Paul K. Longmore (1946-2010), Professor of History at San Francisco State University and became Director of the Institute on Disability in 1996.
Paul K. Longmore (1946-2010), Professor of History at San Francisco State University and became Director of the Institute on Disability in 1996.

Historian and disability rights activist Paul K. Longmore argued that “for the vast majority of people with disabilities, prejudice is a far greater problem than any impairment: discrimination is a bigger obstacle for them to ‘overcome’ than any disability.”[1] This perspective on the border between “difference” and “disease” is similar to arguments against sexual orientation discrimination. Eve Sedgwick notes, for example, that there is almost no strong or explicit defense of being gay or lesbian as a positive good; at best it is often accepted only as a tolerable reality. Most efforts to “understand” or find the “cause” of homosexuality are often based in a desire to “fix” it.[2] Neither sexuality nor disability is a “natural state of corporeal inferiority, inadequacy, excess, or a stroke of misfortune.”[3] The tendency to link such characteristics to particular embodiments is the result of a set of cultural processes with a long history.

Society has not historically perceived sexual orientation as culturally defined. The most recent example is so recent as to be hardly history. In June 2010, Alice Dreger, Ellen K. Feder, and Anne Tamar-Mattis published an essay on The Hastings Center’s Bioethics Forum about the practice of offering dexamethasone (“dex”), a steroid, off-label to pregnant women carrying female fetuses suspected of having congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). These doctors, and researchers who support their experiments, believe that dex received prenatally might prevent the “masculinization” characteristic of CAH and other conditions that lead to prenatal androgen exposure.

(Umberto Salvagnin/Flickr | CC BY)
(Umberto Salvagnin/Flickr | CC BY)

Some researchers, though, link “masculine” biological features with “masculine” social behaviors and sexual orientation. They theorize that “gender-related behaviors, namely childhood play, peer association, career and leisure time preferences in adolescence and adulthood, maternalism, aggression, and sexual orientation become masculinized” in women with higher androgen levels. “These abnormalities,” the researchers continue, “have been attributed to the effects of excessive prenatal androgen levels on the sexual differentiation of the brain and later on behavior.” This study recommended that these outcomes may be reduced with fetal dex.[4] There is also a long history before the twenty-first century, including sexology research and eugenics, of doctors and psychologists who pathologized homosexuality and sought ways to identify it, predict it, and eliminate it.

On the bright side, many more people today than in the past recognize that the “cause” of homosexuality is unclear and, like most things, probably rooted in an indistinguishable combination of biology and culture. Culture makes meaning of biology, and physical realities shape our lives. The problem, then, lies in the cultural definition of homosexuality as a problem that needs to be explained. Same-sex desire, for many Americans, is still neither neutral nor celebrated.

A second reason “born this way” is hard to step back from is that it resonates; it is personally powerful. Revisit Gaga’s bridge on the right.

Saying “I was born this way” feels empowering because it feels so true. It’s not as theoretical as cultural arguments often feel, and it can celebrate differences we feel we’ve lived with all our lives. But does it undermine the argument that these identities are culturally constructed? I don’t think it does, but I do think we need to work hard to find a way to both celebrate diverse identities that culture makes real at the same time we don’t fall back on biological determinism — the explanation that has traditionally been used to try to prevent homosexuality.

Barbara Gittings, Franklin Kameny and John E. Fryer as "Dr. H. Anonymous" at a 1972 dialogue discussing psychiatry and homosexuality. (Wikipedia)
Barbara Gittings, Franklin Kameny and John E. Fryer as “Dr. H. Anonymous” at a 1972 dialogue discussing psychiatry and homosexuality. (Wikipedia)

And we shouldn’t let “nurture” explanations off the hook either. A variety of groups and professionals today (though thankfully not including the American Psychiatric Association) still advocate efforts related to conversion or “reparative” therapy. This technique for “fixing” homosexuality falls somewhere between biology and society in identifying it as a mental disorder — which the APA did do before 1973 — that can and should be corrected.

So there’s the rub. Most positions depend on trying to explain, justify, or excuse a characteristic that should be value-neutral. Sexual orientation, along with race, gender, (dis)ability, and countless other identity categories, is a difference that ought to be celebrated not explained. I have faith that we can do it. Historically speaking, we’ve come quite a long way, but we still have a long way to go.


  1. Paul K. Longmore, “The Second Phase: From Disability Rights to Disability Culture,” in Disability: The Social, Political, and Ethical Debate, ed. Robert M. Baird, Stuart E. Rosenbaum, and S. Kay Toombs (New York: Prometheus Books, 2009), 144. (Originally published in Ragged Edge Online, 1995, by Paul Longmore. It is also printed on the Independent Living Institute website.) See also, the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability. Return to text.
  2. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “How to Bring Your Kids up Gay,” Social Text 29 (1991): 26. Return to text.
  3. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Integrating Disability, Transforming Disability Theory,” in Gendering Disability, ed. Bonnie G. Smith and Beth Hutchison (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 77. Return to text.
  4. Alice Dreger, Ellen K. Feder, and Anne Tamar-Mattis, “Preventing Homosexuality (and Uppity Women) in the Womb?,” Bioethics Forum, June 29, 2010. Return to text.

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Helen McBride

This reminds me of the debate with Trans identity. Like the “biologically determined” argument of sexual orientation, putting forth the gender-as-a-construct argument in order to rationalize attempts to delegitimize transgender men and women, is pointless (and dangerous) outside the theoretical vacuum. As you so rightly point out “culture makes meaning of biology, and physical realities shape our lives.”

Also, thanks for the mid-day Gaga pick me up!

Tiffany Wayne

Exactly. And thanks for the nod. 🙂
Many within the LGBT rights community are completely invested in “born this way,” and I have met resistance when trying to argue, but does it matter? From a rights and “choice” and sexual freedom point of view, does it matter, and, in fact, shouldn’t we be arguing that it doesn’t? Born this way is a catch-22, as you point out, when the alternative is to demonize sexuality as a sin or a crime or a “lifestyle.” The argument that homosexuality is in-born, however, has had a lot to do with the slow social acceptance of both homosexuality and marriage/civil rights.

David Harley

Before the late 17th century, Nature had been viewed for centuries as “God’s Second Book,” to be read alongside the Bible, as revealing the divine purpose. Natural philosophy was the handmaid of theology, the “Queen of the Sciences.” Religious dispute, schism, and bloodshed led to a perceived need, especially in England, for a basis for morality that would be beyond the reach of the private hermeneutics of the sects. The Calvinist moral theology that had dominated published works for a century had lost overt support after the expulsion of the most strongly Calvinist groups after the Restoration of Church and Monarchy in 1660.

There was a move to minimize the public importance of particular providence, relating to individuals, and special providence, which guided nations and God’s People. On the other hand, general providence, the rules by which the natural world had been constructed, came to be given even more prominence than before, because Nature could be interpreted in non-sectarian ways. John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, preached that maternal breast feeding was an even more binding rule than anything in scripture, because it was inscribed in Nature and therefore binding on all. Carl Linnaeus, an admirer of the English natural theologians, was moved to emphasize this by inventing the category of mammals.

This emphasis on Nature became a cornerstone of reasoning among the Enlightened, its theological significance often barely concealed. The genteel man-midwife William Hunter countered the overuse of the obstetric forceps by insisting on the need to wait on Nature. His associate Elizabeth Nihell, in her polemic in favour of female midwives, strongly leaned on arguments from Nature, which she unabashedly identified as the Providence of God. This tradition remained strong into the 19th and 20h centuries, notably in the work of William Paley, which influenced Darwin, the Bridgewater Treatises, and the eminent Gifford Lectures, which continue.to this day.

In the 20th century, we have seen a strong reliance on Nature as a source of moral authority, often pitted against supposedly unnatural science and technology, Natural childbirth and natural breastfeeding are advocated, especially in English-speaking countries. Opposition to nuclear power, ecological activism, and arguments against genetic modification have frequently been grounded in the appeal to a reified or personified Nature.

Given the moral, religious and political freight that is carried by Nature, it is hardly surprising that arguments about homosexuality should place so much emphasis on Nature.

Lee Amir

Thanks much for addressing these issues!
I wrote this song to address the fact that many view their sexual orientations as something they were born with and that some like myself think the choices we make about our sexualities are pretty great. I wanted to embrace the different points of views I was hearing. Link below to a live version of “Damn Good” performed at the glbt-friendly Midtown Out Loud open mic in Sacramento, California. Enjoy…Lee Amir

David Harley

Sexuality and the Appeal to Nature

Same-sex intercourse, especially between men, has been classified for centuries as yhe “crime against nature”, a phrase still found as a heading in the laws of Virginia, for example.

In the early days of Gay Liberation, there was a tendency to portray same-sex preference, especially among women, as a counter-cultural choice based in the polymorphous sexuality and bisexual nature of infants, prior to socialization. This appeal to Nature, derived from a selective reading of Freud, was a response to the pathologization of homosexuality as being against nature, since the invention or popularization of the category by Krafft-Ebing in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1886).

From the outset of the gay liberation position replacing less overt groups, a clash between radical and often separatist femnism and the essentialist view, aimed towards acceptance, was built into open lesbianism, just as we have seen a conflict between gay integrationism and queer identity. Such divisions are perhaps more of an issue in the US than in countries where socialist or anarchist feminism has been prominent.

Opponents of homosexuality in the United States has not abandoned the psychiatric view of homosexuality. James Dobson, the founder of both Focus on the Family (1997) and the Family Research Council (1981), was formerly a psychologist.on the faculty of USC. He argues for parenting as the main source of homosexuality, which becomes a sinful addiction. The more secular NARTH group also stresses environmental rather than biological causes, although it claims to recognize the free choice of individuals in matters of sexuality. Religious programs often rely on counselling methods that derive from exorcism and religious conversion, and reject biological explanations. Studies of the success rates of the various programs have found a wide range of results.

However, in broader circles, perverse and sinful choice has been emphasized, credited with the divine punishment of AIDS, as has the inherently promiscuous and corrupting lifestyle, blamed for the spread of AIDS. Both of these are associated with the “They’re Coming for Our Children” pattern of thought, previously seen in drug panics concerned with the destruction of the godly family.

In the early 1990s, when Simon LeVay produced research results which seemed to show a genetic basis for homosexuality, his work was widely decried, but within a few years the utility of biological arguments was recognized as a means of providing access to US Constitutional protections. If the gay man or lesbian was “born that way,” the only choice involved was whether to recognize and express this natural tendency. Civil rights should specifically include a gay or lesbian identity, whether based on gender or sexuality, as it was no more chosen than belng black, female or disabled.

Nature comes to the fore again, and individual choice is eliminated. To some extent, this was involved in the resistance of many gay and lesbian activists to the move to include bisexuak and transgendered people, from the mocking attacks of the 1960s to the various political objections of recent years. Monosexual normativity has not gone away.

For integrationists, especially those who want a respected place in employment and suburbia, the appeal to Nature as a guide, encapsulated in “Born This Way,” is an invaluable gift. For others, the ghost of past pathological definitions is seen on the horizon, with all that might be involved. For yet others, personal change, choice and counter-culturalism are not to be abandoned.

Today, even some religious opponents are accepting the biological evidence. The Family Research Council continues to reject it, but it is fighting against the tide. Acceptance that homosexuality is inborn has been ensconced in the Catholic Catechism for decades, The National Organization for Marriage, funded by Catholic and Mormon sources, is highly active in opposition to same-sex marriage but accepts the biological argument. For such groups, Nature has been rejected as a source of moral authority, and the insistence is that homosexual desires are a burden to be carried prayerfully, while resisting temptation.

Given the prevalence of Natural Law arguments, sophisticated among Catholic lawyers and philosophers, less so among conservative evangelicals, and given the prevalence of appeals to Nature in secular and New Age groups, Nature is not about to disappear as a source of authority on this or many other issues in the near future. One has only to glance at writings on transgender, transexual, and intersex issues to see its use as a crux.

The appeal to Nature in the campaign for same-sex marriage may look retrograde to some, but its origin seems tactical (The Advocate, Feb.1996). Nevetheless, the issue of Nature is used by mainstream activists to attack those who are “Queer by Choice,” just as it has been used to attack homosexuals, and many other issues with arise in future.

Ahavia Lavana

I am a 67 year old Lesbian ‘fem’. My son and sister, both who have passed were also Gay/Lesbian. I do not believe we were born this way. We were born intelligent. Smart enough to be Out and Proud of who we am and were and how we lived. My sister and I had children by the different ways folks can be parents, birth from former hetro relationships, artifical insemination, foster and adoption. If I was not a Lesbian, I would become a Lesbian as I love women and my Gay son and brothers. Blessings to us all.

Anitra L Freeman

In conservative comments on equal rights, I often see “This has no parallel to racial civil rights and women’s civil rights because homosexuality is a choice.” I have long thought that “No it isn’t” was the wrong counter to that. My counter is “Religion is a choice, too, and we have freedom of religion. What we say is a choice, and we have freedom of speech.” Whether sexual orientation is genetic, induced in the womb, or freely chosen is irrelevant to whether only heterosexual orientations are socially and legally acceptable.

Whether I inherited the addiction to books from my parents, or their home environment conditioned me to it, or it was my own choice, I still have the right to read uncensored.

Terri Eagen-Torkko

I have a lot of trouble with the “born this way” argument, because it makes being gay sound like something that happened to you, something with which you’ve simply learned to cope. And, no. That’s not how it is for me. I never was attracted to men at all, but if I could have chosen, I would have chosen this.


I wish that we could leave the “born that way” argument behind us. In matters of social justice, it doesn’t matter whether people were wired the way they are in the womb, in the crib, in preschool, or wherever: People are who they are.

The “born that way” argument will never eradicate anti-gay sentiments. I was born a woman, but telling people I was born a woman never got me an equal voice or equal pay. The fact that persons of color were “born that way” does not make it easier for them to flag down cabs or be taken seriously in job interviews. Does being “born that way” give a congenitally disabled person more justification to demand to be treated fairly than a person who became disabled through some other effect? (Answer: NO.) The “born that way” argument implies that there are tiers of justifiable equity/inequity. It buys into the notion that people who are anomalies do not deserve equal treatment, when the principle we should all be fighting for is that EVERYONE deserves equal treatment, whether we are anomalies or not.

Gay author James Baldwin said that white LGBTQ men and women feel slighted precisely because they know that had they been straight, they would have been heirs to privilege. “I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, in a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly.” Their reasoning is that, if they weren’t seen as an anomaly — i.e., if they were seen as “born that way” — then they could reasonably demand to be embraced by society. (Source: http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/gay-will-never-be-the-new-black-what-james-baldwin-taught-me-about-my-white-privilege/)

The example I use with my family is that of language. I was born in the Midwest, in the USA, to white, middle-class parents. Our language was American English. The shape of my lips, the muscles in my tongue and cheeks, and the left hemisphere of my brain all grew up around mastering and accommodating American English. I speak in English, listen in English, read in English, think in English, dream in English. Was I born speaking English? I might as well have been. It doesn’t matter. Being a person who communicates in American English is as much of my essence as is the color of my eyes and which hand I use to write. It is who I am. Whether or not I was “born this way” is immaterial to the fact that this is who I am.

People deserve to be treated fairly regardless of how they came to be the people they are. I look forward to the day when being gay is regarded as something as “normal” as being left-handed or speaking with a Brooklyn accent.

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