Should we Care if we Were ‘Born This Way’?

First published at on February 18, 2011

I am about to commit an act of gay heresy.

It wouldn’t be my first time. But it is the first time I will be challenging, not just an Article of Faith, but also a High Priestess. I’m referring, of course, to Lady Gaga, whose hit single “Born This Way” is being touted as a new gay anthem.

But I can’t help it. So here goes:

I neither know, nor care, whether I was “born this way.”

Before you react, let me be very clear on what I’m saying, and what I’m not saying.

By “born this way,” I mean “genetically hardwired to be gay,” and by “gay,” I mean having the disposition to be predominantly sexually attracted to other men. I am not saying that I was NOT born gay. I’m actually agnostic on the question.

There has been a good bit of scientific research in recent decades suggesting a strong genetic component in sexual orientation. I am all for such research.

But the evidence, while solid and growing, is still inconclusive. (Edward Stein’s 1999 book The Mismeasure of Desire remains an excellent argument as to why.) There may be intermediate environmental factors that also play a key role. Human sexuality is complex, and not well captured in terms of simple unidirectional hardwiring.

Moreover, such research—which almost always focuses on men—does not claim to show that the same factors are operative in every case. Thus, even if most gays are “born this way,” it doesn’t follow that *I* was born this way.

That’s what I mean when I say I don’t know. Now here’s what I mean when I say I don’t care.

Science teaches us about how we come to have the traits that we do. It does not tell us whether such traits are good to have. It does not tell us whether acting on them would be worthy or unworthy of respect, or perhaps morally indifferent.

In short, science answers scientific questions, which are relevant to, but not the same as, moral questions. In my view, respect for gays should no more hinge upon the biological causes of homosexuality than respect for the left-handed should hinge on the biological causes of left-handedness.

Why then, the insistence that we’re born this way?

I think it’s partly because people mistakenly think that one must be born with a trait in order for it to be (a) deep, (b) important, and (c) immutable. But none of these claims is true.

Consider depth. My comprehension of English runs deep. It is (I’m ashamed to admit) the only language I can speak even passably, and I’ve been speaking it for four decades. No other language will ever have the same resonance for me. But—obviously—I wasn’t born wired for this particular tongue.

Now consider importance. Some congenital traits are important for some purposes; others—such as birthmarks—are less so. Some acquired traits, such as religion, are more important to many people than many congenital traits. You don’t have to be born with a trait for it to be deep and important.

Finally, consider mutability. This, I think, is the real issue driving people when they fix on the etiological research. But such fixation is misdirected: how we came to have our sexual desires is a different question from whether we can change them.

The evidence is actually much clearer on the “change” question than on the “cause” question. Sexual orientation in most males seems relatively fixed from an early age (which does not necessarily mean “birth”). For women, it is somewhat more fluid but not arbitrarily so. In both cases, efforts to “fix” or “cure” homosexuals are generally unsuccessful and often quite harmful, which is why they have been roundly criticized by mainstream professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association.

In other words, whether or not we’re born this way, most of us are going to stay this way.

More to the point, whether we can change a trait is a different question from whether we ought to do so. (I can convert to Palinism or join the Tea Party, but I shouldn’t and I won’t.) There are also constitutional implications to mutability, which I leave aside here.

Of course, saying that something shouldn’t matter in theory is not the same as saying that it doesn’t matter in practice. And I don’t mean to diminish the positive social message that Lady Gaga and others aim to spread when they beat the “born this way” drum.

I may neither know nor care whether anyone is born gay. But I know that there’s nothing wrong with us, and I care very much that we be treated with respect.