I’m sick of Lady Gerber, but I have to write about her because of this song she wrote about being born with immutable sex characteristics. The danger is in how she implies that these characteristics are unchangeable.
Upon its release, Lady Gerber’s dance hit “Born This Way” instantly became a brazen vindication of homosexuality’s biological basis. The LGBTQ community revelled in the message that homosexuality was immutable and therefore deserved society’s approval. The problem, though, is that the song’s message is founded on the precepts of biological determinism, a philosophy which reinforces the social inequities that the LGBTQ community and other minorities are struggling to eliminate. In other words, the song’s message relies on a socially damaging cop-out about human nature. Perhaps what we need to do is take a fresh approach to gay and lesbian apologetics by critiquing biological determinism for the way in which it disenfranchises us, because it doesn’t necessarily liberate us.
Essentially, biological determinism states that people are born with certain immutable biological characteristics, and that these characteristics help explain the social inequities we see in society. By contrast, social determinism posits that the behaviour of the individual is determined by social mores and institutions. Since they are both forms of determinism, biological and social determinism are the opposite of free will, a philosophy which states that human beings ultimately possess agency and volition over their actions. Finally, compatibilism states that free will and determinism are not incompatible, and that both work together to influence the behaviour of the individual. And then there is epigenetics, which is relevant but lies outside the scope of this article.
One might think that, ostensibly, biological determinism would serve gays and lesbians, because it transfers responsibility for homosexual behaviour from the person to the person’s physiology, thereby exonerating that person of any claims of moral turpitude. According to this view, if homosexuality is biologically predetermined, gays and lesbians are not sinning against God, because they are blameless. A person’s same-sex affection is driven by the neurochemistry of his or her brain, and it is unfair to blame a person for neurobiological processes they cannot control, hence it is unfair to blame a person for his or her same-sex affection. In short, the idea is, “You can’t blame a person for something they can’t control.”
It seems like a triumphant final “hurrah” in defense of homosexuality, but is it really a good philosophy for human beings in general? Maybe not.
Using biological determinism as an excuse for our behaviour might inadvertently hamper efforts at achieving gender equity. The biological determinist model posits that boys are inherently more aggressive, lustful, and dominating than girls, and girls, more passive, emotional, and nurturing than boys, because of some genetically-influenced cocktail of hormones which shaped their brains in the womb. But is this philosophy scientifically sound, and does it serve boys and girls? As Cordelia Fine points out in her book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, testosterone does seem to determine which set of genitals a baby will develop, but it does not necessarily determine which toys children like to play with, let alone which types of careers they wish to pursue later in life. She also shows in the first section of the book that the scientific attempt to prove that girls are more empathetic than boys is implausible. Fine shows again and again that the “neuroscience” of hardwired sex differences use to justify gender inequity is methodologically flawed, misinterpreted, or simply nonexistent.
If we think about it, we can see the slippery slope of excuses which might be used if we embrace biologically determined sex inequity: for example, when a man rapes a woman, it isn’t really his fault, because he was being controlled by his testosterone levels. In effect, rapists get off the hook because “boys will be boys”, and girls like to please. In other words, men get to violate women because that is what it means to be a man, and women should just lie back and think of England. But biological impulse does not excuse rape, because rape hurts people. I know. Novel concept. If you’re impelled to rape, you deserve to be sequestered, medicated, and treated psychiatrically, not excused because of your testosterone levels. And if you continue to try to rape, a stable of women martial artists should be set on your ass to put you in your place, bitch.
But bio-determinism is dehumanizing for another important reason: empathy is something that defines us as human beings (or as mammals at least), and we need as much of it as we can get, but bio-determinism posits that boys are inherently less empathetic than girls, so, essentially, what it is suggesting is that half of the human race should be crueller than the other half. This is absurd if our goal is to encourage the greatest degree of empathy possible in everybody, male or female. If empathy is so valuable, why are we making exceptions for it? That’s just schizophrenic–it’s shooting ourselves in the foot. Does the LGBTQ community really want to endorse such ridiculously irrational self-limitation? I hope not.
Bio-determinism could even be used to justify racism. As bio-determinists, we might argue that black people are inherently more violent than white people in order to explain the disproportionately high number of black people in American prisons. We might also invoke bio-determinism to explain the higher mortality rate of black people, and why they need this-or-that medicine (the commercialisation of race for the purpose of lining the pockets of drug companies). This racialisation of social ills is roundly criticised by Dorothy Parker in her book Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century. When we embrace bio-deterministic explanations for racial inequity in health and crime rates, we are automatically enabling such inequity to persist. Clearly, promoting the assumption that ill-health and violent tendencies are in the nature of dark-skinned people is detrimental to both dark-skinned and light-skinned people, so we should stop making excuses and figure out the larger reasons why dark-skinned people tend to crowd our prisons and hospitals. For this reason, the LGBTQ community might wish to be cautious about using bio-determinism as an explanation for behaviour.
Ironically, the “Born This Way” maxim might not just hurt women and racial minorities—it might actually end up hurting the LGBTQ community itself. Does it really matter whether or not something is natural? By using biological innateness to justify their desires, gays and lesbians are simply giving power to the oppressor, because they are sort of implying that they “can’t help doing something that might indeed actually be wrong”, as if it’s some uncontrollable disease. In other words, they’re suggesting, homosexuality isn’t OK because it makes somebody happy; it is OK simply because it can’t be helped. It’s kind of like saying that freckles are OK because they’re natural, not because they make somebody happy. Of course freckles aren’t OK just because they’re natural; they’re OK because they make somebody happy. Similarly, homosexuality isn’t OK just because it’s natural; it is OK because it makes somebody happy.
What is taking place here is an “appeal to nature” fallacy, which states that a thing is good because it is natural, and bad because it is unnatural. But a thing is not good because it is natural, or bad because it is unnatural; it is good because it creates pleasure and happiness, and bad because it prevents pleasure and happiness. Clearly, rape and murder are part of human nature, but nobody in their right mind says that these things are good. Conversely, aeroplanes are unnatural, but nobody goes around protesting against aeroplanes because they’re bad. So, what gays and lesbians should be doing is saying, “Even if homosexuality weren’t natural, that doesn’t make it wrong. It is right because it makes people happy. It is also your choice to be a Christian, and that’s a man-made decision, but I don’t discriminate against you because of that.” Thus, to deny power to the oppressor, the LGBTQ community should focus on critiquing the appeal to nature fallacy, not affirming it.
As we can see, Lady Gerber’s widely adored anthem ostensibly vindicates same-sex desire, but in many ways it actually reinforces damaging social inequities for women and racial minorities, as well as LGBTQ people themselves. It hurts almost everyone. Certainly, biology plays a part in who we are as human beings, but it does not necessarily define who we are in a distinct linear fashion from womb to adulthood. Absolute biological determinism, like social determinism, seems a little implausible, so perhaps we should consider paying more heed to compatibilism–the philosophy that allows for a complex interaction between the mind, the body, and society. We might even argue that we have more free will, more agency and autonomy, than we give ourselves credit for. Maybe we weren’t strictly “born this way” after all, and maybe there’s a bigger “socio-biological” picture to why we do what we do, but that doesn’t make homosexuality wrong any more than it makes, say, Christianity wrong. Maybe what we should be doing is defending minority sexual identities for their own sake, not for their basis in biology.
Of course, at the end of the day, it just so happens that there is a mounting heap of evidence defending at least the partial innateness of homosexuality, but, alas, it is exceedingly difficult to teach a religious fundamentalist new tricks, isn’t it?