My fellow queers and assorted allies: we have got to stop using arguments like “We were born this way!” and “Being queer is not a choice!” as our first line of defense against heterosexists. It might sound like a neat little trick to pull on these people: if we can’t help being queer, then it’s not fair to punish us for something we didn’t do. But in reality, every time we use this argument we are actually weakening our own position. Shouting “Born this way” from the rooftops is the opposite of progress.
The first problem with relying so heavily on this idea is that we don’t actually know for sure if we are born this way. Yes, there does seem to be a growing body of evidence for the idea that sexuality is partially – perhaps largely – genetically determined. But this evidence is very recent and we should not overstate the level of understanding we currently have of how human sexuality works. It is not at all out of the question that our understanding of how human sexuality develops will be radically altered in the future. (Some people clearly do experience their sexuality as fluid, in any case). Relying on the idea that we are “born” queer as the major pillar of our defense is too risky: if one day we get strong evidence that queer sexuality is heavily influenced by easily-alterable environmental factors we are fucking screwed.
The second issue with this argument is that it’s a version of the naturalistic fallacy. The fact of some or all people being genetically coded to do something doesn’t make that thing right or wrong! After all, there is some evidence that serial killers and paedophiles are born that way. To claim that being born with a genetic propensity for something means that thing is good is simply fallacious. It doesn’t fucking matter where a trait comes from, what matters is whether the trait is net good or bad! Argue for or against something based on its merits, not based on its origins.
But I think the most serious problem with this argument is that it reinforces the idea that we need an excuse to be queer. As a result, using this line subtly supports the idea that being queer requires excusing in some way. Don’t use it. Don’t allow straight people to generate an understanding of queer sexuality that sounds like: “Well, of course Bob wouldn’t wish to be queer, but he was born this way. I guess we better give him equal rights – poor Bob, he just can’t help it. We shouldn’t punish him for something he didn’t choose!”
Meanwhile the real reason that you shouldn’t punish Bob for queerness is because there’s nothing wrong with it! It’s the same reason you shouldn’t punish Bob for liking begonias or wanting to become a lawyer. Not because Bob can’t help his desires but because his desires are fine. That is what we should be stressing. The strongest arrows in our quiver here are not our genetic coding, but the fact that a person’s sexuality is nobody else’s business, and that there is nothing wrong with being queer. Focus on the impact that queers embracing their queerness has on ourselves (usually positive!) and on others (none) rather than where it comes from (we don’t know for sure).
There is no serious ethical framework in which consensual same-sex romantic or sexual relationships between adults qualify as moral wrongs. (Obviously I am not counting Abrahamic religions as serious ethical frameworks: any moral code that has a rule against working on the sabbath in the Top 10 Naughty Things list but no rule against slavery or rape in that same list cannot be taken seriously.) Utilitarianism in all its forms finds no fault with any romantic or sexual relationships between mutually consenting adults, and finds fault instead with the bigots who harass these adults. Deontological Ethics and Virtue Ethics – when divorced from Abrahamic religious dogma – cannot find any problem with queer sexuality and can find substantial problem with heterosexism.
Another strong dimension to the argument – much stronger than the “born this way” defense – is the idea that people’s sexualities are not the business of the state or of civil society (when expressed between consenting adults). We would do well to focus on the substantial danger societies are courting when they decide that individuals’ private, consensual arrangements are the business of society or the government. That danger is real and affects everyone: it wasn’t that long ago in some nations that all oral sex was a criminal act. But when you offer an excuse for your sexuality, you are subconsciously caving to the idea that it is other people’s business. After all, if your sexuality is not their business, then where it does or does not come from is also not their business.
Queer people do not need to offer excuses or defend their own existence. If one could become queer by simply waking up one morning and deciding to become queer, for a day, for an hour, it wouldn’t change the fact that being queer is just as good, as valid, as worthy, as being straight. Providing straight people with reasons or excuses for our queerness simply confirms their suspicions that our sexuality really is their business and that we need to justify our existence to them. This allows heterosexists to continue to believe there is something superior about heterosexuality, and that being queer is a deviation from some kind of normal or default sexuality. There isn’t and it’s not.
We don’t need to justify ourselves to anyone. We don’t need a reason to be queer. Maybe we were born this way, maybe we weren’t. Maybe sexuality is fluid for some people and not for others. It’s totally irrelevant either way. The message we need to send to heterosexists is not that our sexuality was foisted upon us and that they should be “tolerant” and “understanding”. The message is: our sexuality is perfectly valid and none of your business, we offer you no excuses, and we are never going away.
If we want to end cultural pressure on women to make their bodies conform to an ideal, we need to reject – not embrace – the idea that “men prefer curvy women” or “men like women to have some curves”. I know it’s tempting for those of us whose natural body shape puts us outside the sociocultural beauty ideal to try to latch onto this idea to regain some confidence. I also understand wanting to propagate a message that subverts dominant beauty standards, and because it attempts to do that, this message is not as harmful as a message that says the opposite. Nevertheless, a cursory analysis of this message reveals that it is not really progress. It does not promote genuine freedom from misogyny and beautyism.
First, by invoking male approval to validate a certain female body type, this message reinforces the idea that men’s approval of women’s bodies is the most relevant and important yardstick by which the quality our bodies should be measured. In this framework, women are seen to be valuable largely (or indeed only) to the extent that they are enjoyed by men. This idea is implicitly invoked whenever men’s approval is deemed the most suitable basis on which women are invited to build their self esteem. Obviously, this idea is deeply misogynistic and seriously heterosexist. It’s also damaging on a psychological level for individual women to base their self worth on the extent to which they please men.
Secondly, this message reinforces the idea there is a need to rank women’s bodies at all. It implies that some kind of hierarchy should exist. People who propagate this message want the current regime inverted to favour women with “some curves” rather than very thin women. This not only ignores but actively undermines the superior goal of destroying the whole concept of a beauty hierarchy. Instead of criticising the whole disgusting concept of ranking people based on the extent to which their bodies conform to the conventional ideal, the message actually reinforces it as a worthwhile exercise.
Thirdly, this message subtextually supports the idea that there is one nebulous, homogeneous entity of “men” who all like the same thing. Although this is what women’s magazines, men’s magazines and many human beings seem to believe, this is bullshit. This erases not only men who do like skinny women, but also men who like other men, men who prefer very fat women rather than women with merely “some” curves, men who prefer genderqueer or intersex partners, asexual men, demisexual men, men who don’t care about any physical attributes of their partners, and so on. Also, the message that all people, or even most people, have highly similar sexual preferences and desires is damaging in another way: it is part of what makes the existence of a cultural beauty standard so poisonous, because it allows our culture to invoke a monolith of attraction/disgust for certain bodies.
It is perfectly fine – important, in fact – for us to make media celebrating the fact that some people are really into women whose bodies are larger than the current sociocultural beauty ideal. Given the state of mainstream culture, it is fast becoming absolutely crucial we make media acknowledging that human sexuality is diverse, and that being outside the boundaries of conventional attractiveness does not mean nobody finds you hot, sexy, gorgeous, or beautiful. That would be real progress. This isn’t.