Is the born this way message homophobic?

The message of “born this way” is that your sexual orientation is something you’re born with rather than something you choose. And it’s considered an important point in the justification of gay rights. I’m a strong supporter of gay rights, but I realised just over a year ago that something about this slogan didn’t sit right with me. I’m now pretty confident that basing gay rights on the “born this way” message can be pretty harmful to LGBT people and other oppressed groups. Here’s why.

1. It implies that being gay is immoral

Suppose that John is a violent criminal because he was born with an inoperable tumor pressing against the parts of his brain regulating aggression. Suppose that Emma is a violent criminal because she enjoys being a violent criminal. We probably think that Emma deserves more blame for her behavior than John does, since John couldn’t easily avoid behaving in a violent way and Emma could. So we seem to think that being “born this way” can mitigate blame for actions that are bad. (We might also think that being “born this way” can mitigate praise for actions that are good.)

If, however, some action is morally neutral – like watching baseball regularly – then we don’t really care about whether a person is born with a disposition to behave in that way. We don’t care about whether people are born with a disposition to watch baseball regularly, and we don’t care if they couldn’t easily avoid watching baseball regularly, because watching baseball regularly simply isn’t blameworthy behavior.

Using the argument that gay people were “born this way” already implies we think they’re doing something wrong, and that their behaviour has to be justified on the basis that they couldn’t help behaving in the way that they do. If there’s nothing wrong with being gay, then we don’t need to worry about whether people are “born this way” in order to justify their rights to things like marriage and equal treatment under the law any more than we need to worry about whether baseball fans were born that way in order to justify extending rights to things like marriage and equal treatment under the law to baseball fans.

2. It’s not going to convince anyone who does think that being gay is immoral

Suppose that although John’s tumor makes him disposed to be a violent violent criminal, it doesn’t force him to actually commit acts of violence: it just makes it much harder for him to avoid behaving violently. We might think that this is unfortunate for John, and hope that a treatment will one day be available. But insofar as he has some control over his behaviour, we would still say that it is immoral for John to commit acts of violence. We’d also want to do everything we could to prevent John from harming people. But we certainly wouldn’t grant John the right to be violent just because he was born with a strong disposition to do so.

Similarly, if someone thinks it’s immoral to have same-sex partners, then the “born this way” argument is at most going to make them see gay people as less blameworthy than we thought before – but not that that their behavior is, ultimately, less immoral. They might think it’s unfortunate that some people are born with a strong disposition to have same-sex partners, but they’re still going to say that gay people shouldn’t form same-sex partnerships insofar as they have some control over their behaviour. They’re also going to want to take steps to prevent gay people from forming such partnerships, and they’re certainly not going to want to grant gay people the right to have such partnerships. Their attitudes to gay people will mirror our own attitudes towards John.

So arguing that people are born gay isn’t going to convince anyone who thinks it’s immoral to be gay. When we say “they can’t help it”, we’re not actually arguing that someone’s behaviour isn’t immoral – just that they’re not as blameworthy as we once thought. Instead of arguing that people can’t be blamed for being gay because they are born gay, we need to argue that there’s nothing wrong with being gay in the first place.

3. It grounds gay rights on something that could turn out to be false

Edward Stein raises the good point that is that it’s dangerous to ground a defense of gay rights on an empirical hypothesis that could turn out to be false. We don’t yet have enough evidence to know for sure that sexual orientation is something you’re born with, and something you can’t change (albeit with a lot of effort.) Suppose we were to find out that people actually do have significant control over the gender they are attracted to. Would this mean a significant reason to support gay rights would have been undermined? Would we think it was ok to then revoke those rights? Surely not.

It’s also important to note that there’s a distinction between whether someone was born with a certain trait or disposition, and whether they have control over it. I was born with brown hair, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change my hair colour if I want to. The “born this way” defense of gay rights is really the “they can’t change it” defense. But even if sexual orientation is an innate trait, we might develop drugs or therapy in the future that would let us change our sexual orientation in the same way that we currently change our hair color. This at least seems possible, and it would mean that every gay person would essentially be gay by choice. We presumably don’t want to say that this would severely undermine the case for gay rights. And yet it seems like this is what is implied if we think we should extend rights to gay people primarily because they currently have no say over their sexual orientation.

4. It’s offensive to many LGBT people and other minorities where choice is a factor

Some people do seem to feel they have a choice about whether to enter into gay relationships or not. Three years ago, Cynthia Nixon faced a lot of outcry after claiming that, for her, being gay was a choice. She later clarified that she felt her bisexuality was not a choice, but that her decision to be in a gay relationship was a choice. Some bisexual people do seem to feel they have a choice over the gender of the people that they enter into relationships with. But if gay rights are founded on the fact those people have no choice, then it seems we shouldn’t extend those rights to people who can choose whether they enter into same-sex relationships or not, like bisexual people. This seems pretty absurd.

Here’s another example: the ruling in favor of gay marriage has led some, like William Baude, to ask whether group marriage should be made legal. At the time of writing, the top comment on this piece, with over 700 recommendations, says: “Gay people are born gay and have no choice about marriage — they can either marry someone of their own sex, or they can’t (honestly) marry anyone at all. That is vastly different from people saying that they would prefer to marry a dog, or three women, or whatever.” And this sentiment is reflected in other top comments.

Setting aside the horrible comparison between polyamory and bestiality, if we accept the idea that group marriage shouldn’t be legal because polyamorous people are making a choice, then shouldn’t we also deny same sex marriages to bisexual people who could have pursued heterosexual relationships instead? This seems like a pretty abhorrent (and bizarre) situation – where whether or not we allow people to enter into a relationship or not, or to get married or not, depends on whether they really had no other option. The implication is that the ‘other option’ (a straight relationship or a monogamous relationship) would be much better, and gay marriage or group marriage are really only acceptable as a kind of ‘last resort.’

It may be that there’s more going on with the “born this way” slogan than I have appreciated. If so, then I hope people will tell me. But my current view is that defending the better treatment of LGBT people by appealing to “born this way” reasoning is both ineffective and harmful. It doesn’t actually defend the claim that homosexuality is not immoral – it just says that being gay isn’t blameworthy – which implies that there’s something to be blamed for. But we don’t need to make excuses for consenting adults to engage in non-harmful behavior with one another, whether that involves same-sex relationships or polyamorous relationships or anything else. And we don’t need to defend our right to engage in such behavior with an apologetic slogan which says that we just couldn’t help ourselves.

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