Last week, Lady Gaga's single "Born This Way" debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Her achievement marked the 1000th number one hit since the list was launched in 1958.
It also seemed to signal the ascendancy of a certain kind of narrative about sexual identity. If gays are born this way - whether because of biology or Creation - then they deserve rights, because their difference is innocent of choice.
There are so many reasons to be skeptical of "born this way" rhetoric. It emphasizes rights over freedom. It reduces identity to a dichotomy of choice or no choice. It relies on bad science. And, historically, attempts to locate difference in biology have been carried out in the service of domination, not liberation.
For myself, I can't help but question the increasing dominance of "born this way" narratives because they don't fit my own experience.
"Born this way" arguments tend to represent queerness as something that is foisted upon an unwilling and undesiring subject. (If you need a pop cultural mnemonic for this narrative, imagine Glee's Kurt tearfully asking his peers whether he would "choose to be mocked every single day" of his life.)
In telling my own story, I've never quite been able to fit my experience into this narrative of reluctant ineluctability. It's not that I never experienced mockery or violence. It's that, in spite of adversity, I still need to speak to the pleasures of being different. I need to be able to testify about the powerful attractions of oppositional identity. Instead of answering a question like "when did you know you were gay," I've been imagining an autobiographical narrative that answers the question that no one ever asks: when did you first want to be queer?
I went to middle school and high school in a suburb of Phoenix, where white teachers euphemistically referred to Chicano kids as "Spanish," and skinhead gangs left spray painted threats on the walls of the gym.
There was a MEChA chapter at my high school, and I was slightly in awe of the MEChA girls. ("What's MEChA for?" I asked a student in my Home Ec class. "To help us succeed," she said, mysteriously.) Those girls had oppositional style, the kind that made adults shake their heads. I yearned to inspire the same frisson of dismay, but it never would have occurred to me to express solidarity or to cross the abyss of social segregation that simultaneously stifled and protected me as a white girl.
I had the luxury of finding my neighborhood of cookie-cutter ranch houses oppressively repetitive. My family had a kidney shaped pool enclosed by a cement block fence. One sultry afternoon, I was hanging out by the pool with my friend Walter--a pasty, queeny, kleptomaniac. (At the time, I thought Walter was the height of sophistication because his parents were gin-soaked Brits. Later I realized that he knew about music and fashion because he was sneaking into gay bars.)
That day, Walter had brought a Phranc cassette. Phranc's campy, folky music was quite a departure from our usual diet of Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy. When the folk-punk anthem "Take Off Your Swastikas" came on, Walter began to sing along with unaccustomed gusto. He danced onto the diving board and strutted his stuff on the makeshift catwalk. With arms akimbo, his pale, skinny, effeminate form was a total affront to the prevailing masculine ideal. As Phranc's guitar built to the taut ending of the first verse, Walter launched his wiry body into the air. The second before he canon-balled into the water, he shouted Phranc's defiant words: "Cause I'm a Jewish lesbian you see..."
From that day forward, we always referred to Phranc by her full title: "Phranc the Jewish lesbian folksinger." I think we felt a kind of glee in simply naming two stigmatized identities. Walter, as far as I know, wasn't a lesbian. Neither of us were Jewish. But we fell in love with the trouncing, shutthefuckup energy of Phranc's pronouncement. I don't want to be reductive, but I think that the moment when Walter shouted "I'm a Jewish lesbian" as he splashed into the water was the moment when I began to fantasize about being queer.
Like my youthful dreams of being a scary punk rocker or a childless urban intellectual, these early lesbian fantasies were less about loving women than they were about expressing some kind of resistance. It was the hairy legs that made me want to be one.* When I went to college, I found out that a whole social movement had been going on while I had been sequestered in my suburban home. I met ACT UP dykes with backwards baseball caps and "Read My Lips" t-shirts. These women were everything that I wanted to be. They had righteous, political anger. They didn't seem like they were waiting for male approval to justify their existence.
Basically, I felt like lesbianism was the coolest club in the world, but I wasn't sure how to join it. I struggled with the idea of inherency. If I was a lesbian, shouldn't I just know it somewhere deep inside of me? Nevermind that nothing in my family or my culture had prepared me to value some kind of authentic inner voice. Yes, I could look back into my past and resurrect a childhood crush on a hirsute camp counselor, but that kind of revisionism felt too forced. Certainly, I felt moments of intense sexual desire, but my desire to be part of queer subculture was the light that never went out.
I was living in an apartment building that was managed by an older butch dyke. Her girlfriend managed the building next door. Between the two of them, they seemed to know a whole army of lesbian painters and carpenters and washing machine repairwomen. I reported a lot of maintenance issues. My daydreams alternated between fantasies of seducing the plumber and fantasies of belonging to a self-sufficient queer community.
I bought a pair of overalls. I taught myself to use power tools. I applied to grad school with a writing sample about feminist porn and--surprise, surprise--ended up in an English department full of dykes. I still struggled with the "born this way" narrative--if I really was one, shouldn't I just know it, somewhere deep inside of me? Luckily, graduate school supplied both motive and opportunity. Queer theory offered a more expansive model of sexual identity. And the lovely scholars of Parlin Hall offered many enticements to let existence precede essence.
Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" is insanely catchy. Despite my resistance to the message, I've found myself humming the song all week. At times I feel hopeless about finding a pithy way to communicate my own experience of identification and resistance. This hazy, disjointed story is my contribution to the cause.
I wasn't born queer, but I got queer as fast as I could.
*I'm citing Marga Gomez and Jose Esteban Munoz. "It was the wigs that made me want to be one."