Anybody who has spent any time around mainstream, liberal LGBTQ+ discourse will be at least passingly familiar with the idea that queer folks are “born this way”, that is to say that our sexualities and genders are fixed from birth and unchangeable. This is often presented as an alternative to the idea that queer sexualities and genders are in some sense chosen and changeable. This can be considered an essentialist view of sexuality and gender – both are seen as fundamental to a person and the idea that any person could be anything other than the gender and sexuality they were born with is rejected.
It’s not hard to see why this is such an attractive idea. Much of our moral thinking rests upon the idea that “ought implies can”; this principle, often attributed to Kant, states that a moral imperative (a statement about what a person ought to do) assumes that it is possible for that imperative to be carried out. Such a principle, applied to born this way rhetoric, suggests that a moral imperative to be cisgender and/or heterosexual is untenable since LGBTQ individuals are fundamentally incapable of carrying it out. In other words, if we accept “born this way” as true, then demands for LGB folks to become heterosexual and for trans folks to become cis are clearly unreasonable.
Indeed evidence exists that belief amongst straight people that sexuality is a choice is correlated with homophobia. However, correlation is not causation. It is impossible to say with any real certainty that a person’s homophobia is caused by their beliefs about the origins or sexuality. Such an assumption is, perhaps, far too charitable to queerphobes of various sorts, granting that their prejudices rationally precede from some set of beliefs about the world, a difference of opinion, rather than the far more depressing reality that people’s beliefs about the world are often formed post hoc to justify their prejudices. The idea that convincing people of a particular theory of the origins of sexuality is a useful strategy for reducing the overall levels of homophobia in society is fundamentally misguided.
Additional pitfalls exist for the essentialist argument against queerphobia both in terms of the ability of queerphobic organisations to adapt to new narratives and in terms of what such arguments concede.
Many organisations advocating “conversion therapy” (a set of abusive practices that seeks to coercively change a person’s gender or sexuality to more closely align with cis/heteronormative norms) focus not on changing a person’s internal desires and identity so much as changing behaviour. These organisations will claim that it is better to be celibate out of self-hatred and shame than to be open and enjoy one’s own sexuality. Such beliefs are somewhat immune to exhortations to accept that queers are born any particular way, because they want to force us back into the closet, not actually change any fundamental aspect of our personalities.
To focus on whether we can change is to concede the question of whether we should even if we could. I am not interested in being tolerated as an unfortunate aberration, but instead insist upon my freedom to exist and exercise my own bodily autonomy and consent as long as it doesn’t impinge on the autonomy and consent of others. It doesn’t matter where my gender identity or sexuality come from, it matters that they are mine.
Addendum: Shortly after publishing this post I came across a Guardian piece by Shon Faye covering the same topic published yesterday – I’m trans, and I don’t care if we were ‘born this way’. Neither should you – I hadn’t read it at the time that I wrote this but it would be remiss of me not to mention this as a much more in depth piece covering solidarity, neuroplasticity and discourse around some recently published research on trans children’s brains.