“It does not matter whether our activities are informed by an element of choice or biology, only that we exist and that we are happy and fulfilled in our lives,” writes Angelus Morningstar.
[Content note: this article discusses medical intervention, dysphoria, erasure, and “reparative” therapies]
Ever since the debut of the anthem ‘Born This Way’ in 2011, the ‘born this way’ argument has become a mainstay political defence for (mostly) gay and lesbian activists.* The argument is set against (mostly) church-led arguments that homosexuality is a choice and therefore should have no special cultural or legal protection. The problem is that while sexuality has some biological origins, depending on a ‘born this way’ argument reduces sexuality to a question of medicine, and that places our political achievements at risk again.
It seems like a very desirable line of argument to make. It asserts that sexuality is an inherent aspect of human nature, beyond the realm of choice. Therefore, the logic follows, it is erroneous and defeatist to make moral, legal, and religious sanctions against homosexuality. Such essentialism defends same-sex attraction as immutable, and beyond the capacity to change psychosocially: as fundamental psychic substrate, it provides the bases for anti-discrimination and legal protection.
The problems of an essentialist position in the context of rights advocacy is a dependency on medical models, as this often reads differences of sexuality (and gender and sex) as pathological. Essentialist positions are vulnerable to pathologising because they attribute sexual diversity as problems of biology, rather than framing them within a societal context. This ignores and erases the social and personal elements that make sexual difference valuable, both to society and to the individuals that affirm said difference. It also subtly buys into an idea that the only way we can validate our existence is through medical authorities, and historically that has been a problem (and still is for Trans and Intersex folk). There is also an underlying critique regarding the fitness of body types and bodily activities, and how we collectively assess the societal contribution of those bodies, but that requires a lot more space to unpack than can be done here.
To complicate things further, the salient features of sexual orientation are behavioural (sex, attraction, and relationships), rather than morphological characteristics. Complex behavioural traits are notoriously difficult to attribute to genetics and other biological factors, and the existing body of scientific literature still disputes many of the recent genetic and other biological discoveries. While there are some correlations to certain heritable characteristics, there is no conclusive link between particular sexualities and their biological origins. The scientific literature is full of discoveries and subsequent caveats, and the best that can be said is that there is a loose consensus amongst geneticists that some evidence exists for a genetic predisposition towards homosexuality, but that it’s highly unlikely that such a thing as a ‘gay gene’ exists.***
The essentialist position of ‘born this way’ further empowers medical authorities to validate and legitimise sexuality. Historically this has been a two-edged sword: the decriminalisation of homosexuality followed the American Medical Association declassifying homosexuality as a mental illness; however, this forgets that this authority created those classifications in the first place. It forgets that such classification came about because the institution of medicine shared the orthodox views of sexual norms, and inscribed them upon sexually different subjects through such a medical view. It then forgets that the declassification of this status was achieved only through the concerted efforts of activists and advocates that challenged the underlying social assumptions that informed those medical opinions.
Since the birth of clinical medicine, medical thought has produced a philosophy of the human subject and how one should live by rendering natural phenomena into an authoritative medical framework. This process, known as medicalisation, has broadened the scope of human phenomena encompassed by medicine, largely through a paradigm of disease and treatment: medical professionals acquire authority and patients lose theirs. Signficantly for homosexuality, medicine gained a monopoly on childbirth (transferred from domesticated and lay-control to hospitalised medical control), and in consequence formulated historic psychoanalytic theories of ‘sexual perversion’, all predicated on a view of sexual health that required sexual dimorphism and ordinal reproductivity.
Ironically, these 19th Century prescriptions provoked challenges from first-wave feminism and emergent homosexual communities; they railed against the institutional perceptions of sexual acts and gendered acts were legislated in ways previously unimagined: from marriage to the gendered use of bathrooms. It was only after activists and advocates politicised their sexuality (and sex and gender) that institutional views were successfully challenged. If you remain unconvinced of the significance of medicalisation, the anti-homosexuality Ugandan bill was significantly inflamed by American ministries pathologising homosexual behaviour in order to incite hatred and homophobia.
Fundamentally, there is a largely unanswered ethical question about how medical authority uses their expertise to impose societal norms upon our bodies and psyches. Berhmann shows strong relationships between Intersex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Such as the way that medical authorities tend to select and assign sex at birth, which reveals an underlying and institutional heterosexism (apart from being intrinsically problematic for people who reject their sex assigned at birth). Such medical opinions are informed by a desire to see the child fitting into a healthy body (i.e., heterosexual and gender conforming). It also manifests in professional sport, such as women athletes forced to undergo clitorectomies in order to compete, where investigations reveal how issues of ethnicity, nationality, and perceived masculinity are interrelated, and authorities “actively investigate any perceived deviation in sex characteristics.” This type of selection conceals bias against Intersex and other forms of sex/gender diversity such as LGB and Trans folk.
Admittedly, the way that medical frameworks subsume sexual difference into normalcy by reducing it into manipulable taxonomies and hierarchies (also following presumptions of fitness of body) can provide security for some; it brings psychological and emotional stability, which is necessary for their wellbeing. The problem begins when we culturally and societally value and preference the security afforded immutability at the expense of security afforded ambiguity or transition.
Immutability implies that the only authentic sexualities are those true over the entirety of one’s lifetime; this is nonsensical as sexuality is inherently mutable. We develop sexually only in puberty (this further compounds attempts to claim authentic genders and sexes are not those assigned at birth). This line of thought completely delegitimates people’s attempts to define and redefine who they are as they progress through different stages of their life.
This usually means that those who may have been bisexual but are now gay, are regarded as having gone through a phase, rather than appreciating that their bisexuality at the time was legitimate in its own right; this tends to generate more stigma for bisexuals.
Furthermore, much of contemporary queer politics is informed by deconstructing traditional sexual norms, wilfully embracing both transgression and transcendence to challenge those assumptions. It is a decidedly postmodern position to embrace fluidity as political positioning, and to deliberately contest the historically modernist frameworks of psychiatric and medical notions of sexuality.
Such politics desire to undermine the way that medical authority has functioned as a control mechanism (anything that is biologically essential is vulnerable to pathologisation and cure rhetoric). Elements of this can still be found in “ex-gay” therapies or “correctional rape” of lesbians.
The moral of this story is that viable rights-claims must acknowledge that the legal system is not apolitical . In order to articulate rights and provisions, the legal system must first distinguish people into categories to determine the reception of entitlements and protections; and also to identify groups of people potentially vulnerable to existing inequities. As law is reactive, it cannot prospectively entitle emerging identities or provide avenues for the actualisation of their emergence; in reaction, the law is conservative.
In particular, Butler critiques the law for reinforcing essentialist determinism, by having a significant impact on how society embraces ideas of gender and sexuality through legal statuses. This means that feedback exists, where the law looks to medical authorities for advice and definitions but then subsequently informs reinforces those views with legal authorities. By drawing upon a ‘born this way’ argument, we perpetuate that cycle.
Instead, activists should implicitly challenge the assumption that our viability and legitimacy must stem from medical authority. Apart from making us vulnerable to therapeutic arguments, our most significant victories emerged from reclaiming our bodies and lives from a system of external expertise. More importantly, I believe we should fight based on ideals of intrinsic worth, distinct from any essentialist argument. We should challenge legal arrangements because they produce systemic forms of disadvantage that target specific groups of people, and we should secure protection for socially ‘deviant’ behaviour that is actually lived experience shared amongst consenting adults.
It matters not whether we are the result of choice or biology, only that we exist and that we are happy and fulfilled in our lives. We have unique dialects, frameworks of meaning, aesthetics, and experiences not found in a mainstream culture, and that cultural difference is worthy of respect and protection
* The focus of this article mostly refers to the way born this way is used in the context of defending homosexual attraction. Discussions around the biology of sex, gender, and sexuality do affect Trans and Intersex folk, but it would be problematic of me to appropriate the issues they face in order to advance the interests of sexuality based politics.
** Please note that some of the author’s descriptions of Intersex are particularly problematic, and shows some evidence some of my later arguments about how medicalisation is a trap.
Photo–Flickr/Hey Paul Studios