Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Born This Way?

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | July 06, 2011 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, The Movement
Tags: Born This Way, Chronicle of Higher Education, gay gene, gay marriage, immutability, Indiana University, Lady Gaga, marriage equality, same-sex marriage, Suzanna Danuta Walters

born_this_way.jpgYesterday's Brainstorm column in the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a guest blog by Suzanna Danuta Walters, Professor of Gender Studies at Indiana University, and author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America and the forthcoming The Tolerance Trap: What's Wrong With Gay Rights. Definitely read this column for yourself, and especially check out the fascinating comments section, where academics who have studies the issue weigh in.

Professor Walters discussed her recent visit to P-town, MA, after the historic New York marriage vote, noting this:

"But pro-marriage T-shirts ("Put a ring on it") were soon eclipsed by the T-shirt slogan de jour "Born this Way." Now, I'm the last person to dis the wondrous Lady Gaga, but her well-meaning ode to immutability is less helpful to gay rights than Guiliani in drag."

I sort of agree.

Her argument includes the sad background of the medicalization of "sexual identity," with its search for causes and cures and its history of "incarceration, medication, electroshock "therapy" and numerous other attempts to rid the body (and mind) of its desires." She dismisses the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century theories of Ellis, Krafft-Ebing and Hirschfeld of innate sexuality as having "no evidence whatsoever." She also contrasts these to the depathologization movement that led to removal of homosexuality as a disease category in 1973.

She explains the recent resurgence of innateness theories as due to gay marriage debates and the proliferation of genetic theories of human behavior.

Professor Walters concludes

"This is bad science (mistaking the possibility of biological factors with wholesale causation) and bad politics (hinging rights on immutability and etiology). Causality is - of course - the wrong question and will only get muddled answers. The framing of "gayness" as an issue of nature vs. nurture or destiny vs. choice misses the point about (fluid, chaotic) sexuality and about civil rights. It's not our genes that matter here, but rather our ethics."

We've discussed this many times at Bilerico, as a simple search for "gay gene" in the search box above will show. Personally, I think there's probably some genetic factors involved, as some scientific research has shown that some gay people have some differences in brain anatomy. There is also research showing that some transsexual and transgender people have some brain anatomy differences. I don't think these studies are by any means conclusive, and I entirely agree with Professor Walters that our identities and our rights should not hinge on such factors. There is an element of choice in coming out, even if it's Hobson's choice.

Sure, it helps prejudiced people get over their problems with us being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or transgender. I'm glad that the Obama Administration has issued an opinion that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, based in part on our "immutable" characteristics. However, I note that the memo was careful to say "obvious, immutable or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group". There's no "innateness" in there, perhaps signaling that "innateness" is not necessary from a legal standpoint for civil rights protections, though some legal scholar might disagree as to exactly what formulation the legal precedents might require.

Any port in a storm, I say. But let's not get too caught up in this. I do not believe that I, as a member of a free society, should require justification or proof for being who I am or having civil rights. When we make "Born This Way" our theme song, that's what we're doing.

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It's a freaking song! Seriously. Lady Gaga, her song, the message that means ALOT to some folks in the "community"... Is really the problem?

I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to see a much more TOLERANT "community" here.

So you disagree w/the entire "born this way".
Diversity doesn't mean... As long as you are just like me!!

Uh, I think the song was just used as a jumping board to the larger discussion of being "born gay", not an actual critique of the song. Did you read the other half of the article?

I would also love to see a Gaga fan community that doesn't think calling Asians "Orientals" and Latinos "Cholas" is "empowering/people being too sensitive/justifiable retaliation to homophobia/Gaga reappropriating the pejorative for minority groups that she does not belong to/whatever excuse they want to insert today".

"Latinos "Cholas" is "empowering/people .."

I happen to be a Chola and couldn't be HAPPIER to have this finally visible.

Next?

For the record, she never used the term "Orientals" in the song.

Jaime Dunaway Jaime Dunaway | July 6, 2011 10:59 AM

Personally, Lady Gaga isn't within my music tastes anyway. AS for the message, I'm of the mind that we shouldn't have to justify ourselves to others. It shouldn't matter why we are trans, gay or whatever and if it takes that to win someone over, then what kind of ally do we have? Likely someone that pities us more than accepts us.

Thank you. It assumes that any sexual variation from a heteronormative standpoint is pathological and needs to be explained away. Worse, the Millenials who have glommed onto this expression seem not to have the faintest sense of why it diminishes the LGBTQ community as a whole nor any particular interest in exploring its ramifications. Talk about your EPIC FAILS.

The only thing pathological is the tendency of some people to take something that's ultimately supposed to be fun and uplifting and over-intellectualize it to death.

Take another look at the lyrics - this isn't a song about justifying ourselves to those who would oppress us. It's not trying to win over an unjust society. It's a song of self-empowerment. Of loving oneself unconditionally.

She's giving young people who have been pushed to society's fringes an opportunity to sing along. And when they do, they are claiming a message of personal strength. The world has told them that they are imperfect. This song invites them to throw away that lie, love themselves without regret, and have the courage to know better when someone tells them to change.

This is only a politically activist anthem as far as it encourages pride and strength. It's not for "them," it's for us.

Brad Bailey | July 6, 2011 2:27 PM

This can of worms has been opened up many times on Bilerico.

All I can say is that I never chose to have a homosexual orientation. In fact, I don't know anybody, gay or straight, who consciously chose their sexuality. Neither do I know anyone who chose to be transgender.

I cannot speak for bisexuals.

I could quote in-utero hormone studies as evidence of nature vs. nurture, but I won't. Regardless of which it is, suffice to say that for the vast majority of us, sexual orientation is indeed immutable.

It is only because of this perceived immutability by the public and by state and federal courts and legislatures that we have come as far as we have. Like it or not, that's life, and life is far from fair much of the time.

For every action, there is an equally and opposite reaction. In this case, probably for the much worse. To deny that testosterone has no effect in post natal development is to have one's head buried firmly in the sand. Fetuses? Well, compare the scale. A lot of research results are available. Obviously, the post natal effects of estrogen are very obvious, too. What evidence do we have for "gender identity", especially gender indentity that appears out of thin air? Do we, or do we not have bodies? Do we have inclinations? Does the fact that someone like John Money, Gunter Dorner, Maria New or George Rekkers would "gender" them and judge some of those inclinations as disordered disprove their existence? Does the fact that someone can take the acronym HBS and add an 'er suffix to create a reductio ad ridiculum straw man argument prove anyone's point?

Balanced article but I'm convinced of nature for so very much after my study in the area. That said, it's not a necessary part of the rebuttal and nor should we have to justify. The main points I agree with.

I do think given the fact I tried not to be gay at first would prove I wouldn't have done this by choice.

But my nature lead me here by chance and seeing that it has lead me to this fountain of understanding now, I wouldn't turn back and that's my choice as it stands now.

Sometimes, the best path is one we are reluctant to engage. It would have been more courageous had I pursued this at the outset by choice is all. I'm human though and I do credit myself at least with the courage to have made the sacrifice I did to be true after much soul-searching.

I should add, Lady Gaga seems relevant here but she's just gloss to this conversation which existed long before her. The slogan she uses in her jingle is merely a statement of truth and I don't see it necessarily as rebuttal. Being born a certain way in her context seems to me a way of celebrating who we are and not as a refutation of nurture.

What bothers me most about her song aside from overall aesthetic would be a) how the tune rips off another artist b) how someone must automatically be on the right track by virtue of existing.

In a similar sense, I have an issue with "pride" even though like "born this way", it's an expression with actual utility in the face of ignorance. Ignorant people can do the right thing, even if lead along by other ignorant arguments leading to the right thing. I shouldn't have to require any more pride than anyone else if I'm truly equal. It presume shame like tolerance presumes being detestable somehow by default. Not so. Similarly, while cultural power has strength in numbers, in a perfect world, I shouldn't have to self-segregate myself to Castro to protect myself or require protection.

When I understood that being trans wasn't going to go away, no matter how I tried to interpret it in psychological or spiritual terms, I finally gained the power to act on it. That's what it took for me to overcome the inhibitions programmed into me as I grew up. And acting on it not only set me free, it let me continue to live - so, while I agree that we don't have conclusive evidence, the idea of "born this way" still seems helpful to me. Think of it as an icebreaker, going ahead of the self to break the stasis (it doesn't have to be proven scientifically to WORK); a stasis imposed culturally and in opposition to nature, that much is clear.

I usually explain the different experiences (hard-wired v. fluid) as being a matter of taking into account the "bi" aspect. In sexual orientation - some are hard-wired as "straight" or "gay" - (and some of these will project their own hard-wiredness on everyone else) while others are hard-wired as bi - which means they experience their orientation as being fluid, or toward both, or however it is they they identify.

Yes, mine is a variation on the "we're born that way" idea, but also taking into account that because some experience fluidity, that they can rationally posit that there is a choice (because they themselves are "hardwired" to *have* a choice).

I think projecting choice onto those who don't really have one is not a good idea either

I also think there is a difference between choosing and assimilation, so those who endure a straight marriage before coming out, because they were trying to assimilate, can be hardwired even if they tried to comply with societal expectations against their own natures.

And the same principle works on the level of gender identity.

Cis, trans,and bi(gender).

Bigender includes the genderfluid as well as those with alternating presentations.

Even the assimilation aspect fits (My own personal experience is one of having two periods of assimilation. From age 6 to around 16, it was a reaction to the very strong negatives I had gotten from the period between 4 and 6 - it was either assimilate or be killed (I was *very* afraid of my father). At 16-17, I discovered Christine Jorgensen and realized I was not alone. but bad advice from a mental health professional started the second period of assimilation, from 17-45.

There was a very real experience of suppressing my self during both periods - I sometimes described it as self-hypnosis, the whole process of convincing myself to push the essence of my identity down deep where no one else could see me under the mask.)

In coming out of the suppression, I had a short-term false "bigender" experience - in which I felt almost like there were two people in my head: (I even called them "Joe" and "Jo") - but there were differences in the way I thought, felt and did things. Then I had what I call my "Rosetta Stone" moment, when I realized that nearly all the "Joe" sides to things were an artifact of the suppression. They were the mask I had been wearing, and I didn't have to wear the mask any more. It was both liberating and painful, because I still couldn't *be* me most of the time under the circumstances, because of work and family obligations. But without the mask of the suppression, the pain of still hiding was nearly unendurable. It was only a matter of months before I lost my family and my job, which allowed me to drop the mask altogether.)

My experience is one of being hardwired trans, but spending a long period trying to assimilate.

I know that there are others whose narratives are not the same, and I respect that. Some may well experience transition as involving a real choice, and not one that is more like "transition or die (or if not die, suffer terribly).

I know many who are genderfluid - and I respect that. Even my brief experience of a sort of bigender identity based on the mask conflicting with the reality coming to the surface, gives me a glimpse into what it might be like to experience fluidity without actually fluid.

My friend "Estraven" Andrews posted a note at facebook with some comments and links:

http://www.facebook.com/notes/estraven-andrews/now-bisexuals-are-ugly/220175674687267

My response to her post after reading one of her cited articles

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/finally-out/201107/the-messy-realities-bisexuality

was:

"I think he is afraid of umbrellas. There are people who will doggedly stick with a narrow definition of a classification so that it either excludes others they see as less worthy, or keeps them from being classified with people they see as less worthy. I see this in the trans community, too. Bigender people are the primary horror for transsexual separatists, who lump them with transvestic fetishists as part of their exclusory definitional structure. This individual is defining bisexual in a way that it can't "suck him in." He is determined to both identify and classify himself as gay, and feels a need to narrowly define bisexuality to make sure no one uses that label on him. As with TS separatists, it seems to be a pecking order thing. It does color his thinking"

Now, there is an aspect of this writer's experience on sexual orientation that is very much analogous to my own in gender.

He wrote:

"As I described in, Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, I began life believing I was a heterosexual man, went through a brief period of believing I might be bisexual, and now am completely confident that I am a gay man. Once I aligned my sexual attraction, sexual behavior and my self-identity, the dissonance I had felt for much of my life disappeared."

Now, the experience isn't the same - I knew who I was when I was 4. My experience is one of always having been a pink-blanket person who got handed the blue blanket and tried very hard to wear the blue blanket. But the similarity is in the "brief experience" of bi-ness during the beginning of the transition process is what I want to focus on.

In my case, I see that as having been the process by which I identified the mask I had been wearing most of my life as having been a mask.

In his case, he is describing an experiencing of a fluidity, from identifying as straight, through bi, to identifying as gay.

The difference? My experience is one of taking off a mask and uncoverign the real, hardwired me.

His experience is one of a fluidity (which, in my classification schema, makes him technically "bi" - which is why I explain in my comment to Estraven that he has to narrowly define "bi" so that he can't be included, as a way of protecting his self-perceived "higher status" of being gay rather than bi.

Anyway, there isn't much difference between the narratives.

One can use that to argue that it's all fluid, that some of it is fluid, or that some of us really are hardwired.

When we look at genetic and ontological aspects, it's clear to me that some gay men are really bi, but they perceive gay as a better status, so they suppress the straight side of their nature.

Some straight men are really bi, but they perceive straight as a better status, and suppress the bi side. Some of them gravitate toward religious professions to help the suppression. This also explains that those who "slip" will do so on the downlow.

The whole purpose of right wing religion is to keep those "really bi" folks on the straight side of their fluidity, so they can get married in a straight marriage and make babies who will be the next generation of religious adherents. This also explains why the Christianists are so hell-bent at preventing the recognition of marriage equality. Once "gay" and "bi" are as good as straight, there will be people less willing to suppress their actual sexual orientation.

On the gender identity side, both cis and trans have an issue with bi.

And it's also a perceived status thing there. The whole "umbrella wars" thing that has been going on for over a decade (and more recently here at bilerico) involves some who may have a need for identifying with a "higher status."

The two separatist wings (there *are* two of them) represent different "higher statuses." For the Transgenderist wing, there is the philosophy of Virginia Prince as a guide, which holds that those who have surgery are delusional, or that no one really needs surgery. By doing that, they align themselves with being cis *men* who have a hobby. (This is at the root of the Tri-Ess organization, and one reason why their suburban New York chapter dropped its affiliation.)

On the other side are the mostly post-op (but not most post-op) group that in their identification with "higher status" try to align, not only with cis *women* but more with the kind of radical feminists who see them as colonists.

What may inform that latter separatist movement could be a fear of being identified as "bi(gender)" - regardless of whether they might be or not. That is why they don't want to be labeled under the same umbrella with those who do fit in as bigender or gender fluid.

I think the root of the issues are that regardless of whether it is sexuap orientation or gender identity, the pecking order has the straight and cis at the top, followed by gay and trans near the opposite pole, with the various shades of bi at the bottom.

We have bi activists out there, on the bisexual side, like my friend Estraven. I think that the bi-gender activists mostly have yet to emerge.

Perhaps trans may have to mean "not bi" and maybe we who are hardwired trans should not be augmenting our numbers by including the bigender folks.

Maybe it may have to be trans- and bi-gender, to distinguish the hard-wired from the fluid.

From a human rights law perspective, I think it would be wrong to jettison anyone who isn't cis. But there are needs that trans people have that bi(gender) people don't

Paige Listerud | July 11, 2011 8:24 PM

*sigh*
I'm so tired of "nature vs. nurture" explanations of sexuality. As a queer defense, it's overdone--and so retro, so reductive, so fucking dehumanizing. I realize queer people made feel a deep psychological need to connect with the natural world after being tarred with the "aberrant" and "unnatural" brush for so long. But really, people--victims of our biology? Is that a way of declaring our "innocence"? Don't you find that intrinsically homophobic and sexphobic?

When the Supreme Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional, the majority decision did not rely upon essentialist arguments to establish queer innocence. They went back to basic due process of law and to the Supreme Court case that abolished miscegenation laws. That's what brought us a little closer to full citizenship.

As for me, I'm bisexual and I don't speak for other bi/pan/queer/fluid people. I just think, God help the bisexual who isn't proud to CHOOSE to live life to the fullest and accept all aspects of their sexuality without apology. What with straights and gays telling you to "pick a side," you'd better be happy CHOOSING to be out at bisexual or there's no point to being out as bisexual at all.

Yes, I choose intimacy with people of all sorts of genders and races and backgrounds. If you're handed an opportunity like that and choose to run away from it, ultimately, you end up another Ted Haggard or George Rekers. No thanks.

> Her argument includes the sad background of the
> medicalization of "sexual identity," with its search for causes
> and cures and its history of "incarceration, medication,
> electroshock "therapy" and numerous other attempts to rid the
> body (and mind) of its desires."

She uses the fact that our enemies thought something inborn could be "cured" as evidence against saying we are "Born this Way". Which is like totally illogical. I'm astonished a law professor doesn't see that.

> She dismisses the late
> nineteenth century and early twentieth century theories of
> Ellis, Krafft-Ebing and Hirschfeld of innate sexuality as having
> "no evidence whatsoever."

They had the same evidence as others had for holding the same beliefs about other conditions, before DNA was discovered - children being different from a very early age, and not growing out of it, it running in families, and occurring in all cultures and localities.

> She also contrasts these to the
> depathologization movement that led to removal of homosexuality
> as a disease category in 1973.

She seems like a Jesuit in the way she uses any argument to reach her predetermined conclusion. Homosexuality was never a disease category, but a disorder, without evidence. It was removed by political pressure, and by demonstrating that those so labelled were mentally full healthy.

> She explains the recent resurgence of innateness theories as due
> to gay marriage debates and the proliferation of genetic
> theories of human behavior.

And she is wrong in that assertion. It comes from personal experience and observation, scientific evidence, and the basic human rights background in which all rights are seen as flowing from us all being born equal.

> "The framing of "gayness" as an issue of nature vs. nurture or
> destiny vs. choice misses the point about (fluid, chaotic)
> sexuality and about civil rights. It's not our genes that matter
> here, but rather our ethics."

The stuck up professor would not be able to fit that on a T-shirt. And I am not clear what she means by it at all. Is she claiming superiority for having chosen to be lesbian, or not being a fan of Lady Gaga?

> Personally, I
> think there's probably some genetic factors involved, as some
> scientific research has shown that some gay people have some
> differences in brain anatomy. There is also research showing
> that some transsexual and transgender people have some brain
> anatomy differences. I don't think these studies are by any
> means conclusive...

I wonder why you are moving the goal posts from "innate" to "genetic"? Of course things are not conclusive on genetics: we have not yet found the genetic process. Which is not surprising considering how much is still unknown about the brain, and genetics. But it has to be genetic, and is certainly innate for those of us who were this way as infants.

> ...and I entirely agree with Professor Walters
> that our identities and our rights should not hinge on such
> factors. There is an element of choice in coming out, even if
> it's Hobson's choice.

"Should" is a word rich with the possibilities of self-delusion. Our rights do not, so depend anyway, because religious rights, for example, certainly do not. Are you equating being transsexual with coming out? I know I certainly never had any option to "in", if that is the case.

> I do not believe that I, as a member of a free society,
> should require justification or proof for being who I am or
> having civil rights. When we make "Born This Way" our theme
> song, that's what we're doing.

Rubbish, dear professor. We are simply being proud of who we are, whatever we are. A message many people sorely need.

I have no idea how you got to where you are, that you can rely upon such legalistic talk, or Professor Walters either for that matter. But, me, despite being proudly a woman, for years I felt my origins made me so utterly not part of the human race that the movie that resonated most closely to my heart was 'Bladerunner', and its replicants. To find others like myself, through the internet, then learn parts of the jigsaw of how come I got to be born this way, and now to find millions embracing the chant that they all, however different, are little monsters, and were equally "born this way", is, for me, a progress that is wonderfully liberating.