Preacher's Daughter: Why Do We Have to Be "Born This Way"?

Yesterday, Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain clashed with Piers Morgan about whether or not people are born gay. Here's the video:

The important thing to know is that Cain sets out saying that "homosexuality is a sin" because of his "Biblical beliefs," but Morgan quickly steers the conversation into "born this way" territory, outraged that Cain won't concede his point. Cain's response: "What does science show? You show me evidence other than opinion, and you might cause me to reconsider that... Where's the evidence?"

Morgan is horrified. He asks, "You genuinely believe that millions of Americans wake up—in their late teens normally—and go, 'You know what? I quite fancy being a homosexual.' You don't believe that."

Here's the thing: There are many, many reasons to affirm and embrace LGBTQ people and our rights, but none of them of them have anything to do whether or not we were "born this way."

I think this video illuminates why the "born this way" rhetoric is problematic. Morgan's horror is not, I think, born of a genuine sense of injustice. No, he just cannot fathom the the possibility that anyone would ever choose a fate as horrible as being "a homosexual." The thought process goes like this: Why would anyone choose to be maligned and oppressed by culture and society? Who wants that?

Don't get me wrong. I am very glad that the Lady Gaga song in question has inspired so many LGBTQ teens—many living with the kind of bullying that erodes one's commitment to life—to keep going. I'm deeply concerned about the rash of youth suicides, and I'm glad to have any affirming anthem that speaks to kids. Damnit, I cried when I first heard this little girl play the song too:

Whatever the problematic elements here, I'm glad that kids have found a pop star who inspires them to love themselves, who tries to affirm "the way God made them." Kids need to hear that they're okay no matter what.

I'm not so sure, though, that the "born this way" rhetoric needs frame political debates about whether or not we should have access to rights and acceptance. Here are just a few of the problems that I find inherent in the discourse:

  1. Republicans cast our identities as "choice" in order to argue that they are "sinful." Why should we be so ready to concede that "sin" has a place in public discourse at all? If it does, how can we possibly determine how to legislate based on what is—or is not—sinful? Take the Ten Commandments, that document that many Jews, Christians and Muslims taken as a foundational document about sin.

    Consider the fourth commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image..." There are conservative elements in monotheism that read this as an injunction against making artwork in the likeness of a person or animal. It's just patently absurd to suggest that we should base contemporary law on the Bible, and this is just one example that underscores that.

  2. What if there isn't conclusive scientific proof? As soon as Morgan asked, Cain countered with a demand to see the scientific evidence. But should the existence of a gene that proves inborn sexual orientation or gender identity have anything to do with our access to rights?

    The implication is that, as long as no one finds irrefutable proof of a gene, our rights should be interrogated and withheld according to the whim of public opinion. Acquiescence to this rhetoric means accepting the idea that we don't deserve acceptance or affirmation if there isn't any proof.

  3. What if there is scientific proof? Who's ready to get the blood test that determines whether or not our identities are legitimate? Are you sure you were born this way? I'm not. I did not feel that I was intrinsically "different" by the age of five except for the fact that I was shy. I wasn't entirely sure of my sexual orienatation until my early twenties. I have no idea what a scientific test might say about me.

    Does this make me a less legitimate member of the community? Does it make anyone whose test doesn't show the right results wrong about who we are?

  4. Some of us do experience an element of choice in coming to terms with our identities. And this is only threatening if we've conceded that LGBTQ identity is a horrible burden to bear, something so terrible that no one would ever choose it. I recognize that societal judgment keeps people in the closet. However, it seems to me that, if we want self-acceptance, we shouldn't frame our identities as prison sentences. Do we want to apologize for this unfortunate way that "God made us," or do we want to celebrate it instead?
  5. It is possible to believe that social construction has a role in shaping one's identity and still experience sexual orientation or gender identity as something that is real. We need not have been "born this way" in order justify our identity claims. We can concede that social context might have played a role in shaping who we are without agreeing that this means we are sinful. I can work for marriage equality alongside a woman who feels that she was born a lesbian with no problem. Because essentializing truth about identity is just not the point.

Whether or not we were born this way, we live and love and go on with our lives. "Born this way" rhetoric is a construction of the Christian Right and a straw argument. Rather than insisting that we were born this way, we need to keep reminding everyone—and ourselves—that it doesn't matter whether or not we were. We can be "beautiful" without attributing a creation myth to the story, regardless of whether or not God had a hand in it. And we are.


17 comments have been made. Post a comment.


I'm so glad you wrote about this. Right on. I actually had never thought about how the 'born this way' debate related to the Christian concept of sin -- that it's only a sin if it's a choice. I always thought about this from the flip side -- that in addition to being a "construction of the Christian Right," it's also a construction of confused understanding about gene studies -- that somehow a gene makes something "real." A lot of the scientists that have looked for the gene during the past several decades were themselves LGBTQ individuals seeking to legitimize their identity by showing they were "born this way." Perhaps they were influenced by a Christian upbringing and had a background mentality that they could be absolved if they proved they "couldn't help it"?

Katherine Don

Thanks, Katherine. You know,

Thanks, Katherine. You know, it seems like it's sort of this hybrid question based on confused theological and scientific concepts.

This is a brilliant post. As

This is a brilliant post. As a bisexual woman, I think that bisexuality/pansexuality adds an interesting dimension to the discussion on sexuality and choice. I can choose to date someone of any gender, and I don't see falling in love with a man as any more moral than falling in love with a woman. I imagine that, since I could love either a man or a woman, conservatives such as Herman Cain or Rick Santorum would "encourage" me to choose men over women, but that wouldn't make me straight, and although I love men and women I would hate to feel coerced into choosing one over the other.

legal persepective

the born this way rhetoric or however it is phrased is relevant for political debates because of the 14th amendment of the constitution. for people to be afforded the equal protection of the laws, the majority of the constitutional issues surrounding it are made by comparing sexuality to race or gender, where intermediate scrutiny applies to gender, and strict scrutiny to race. homosexuality only has rational basis = not as much scrutiny= not as many rights as they should have.

therefore, stating that homosexuality is a choice is just not good, even if the phrasing of born this way is not the best, sexuality needs to be something immutable to garner higher scrutiny, like race. it is even more problematic because sexuality is not necessarily visible (unlike race or gender----and yes i know for some it is hard to tell, but im just talking basic con law here). but by saying that there is questioning or it is a choice, gives anti-gay marriage/anti-gay rights supporters more fuel to say that it is not an immutable characteristic, which is what you need for intermediate or strict scrutiny, which is what you need to get 14th amendment equal rights protection, which is what you need to overturn DOMA.

law and politics is not going to be perfect and wont change radically, i think we can look to how long slavery to jim crow to our current state is now to see that. however, you have to use the law to your advantage. AFTER, there is 14th amendment protection, then it would be fine to say i consciously choose to be gay or im not sure, but for now, in order to pass the laws, it isnt going to help, because for equal protection it needs to be immutable, at least immutable without significant surgery. all the case law states this as rationale for NOT giving homosexuals more rights, so why help them by saying or suggesting sexuality is fickle, when we all know that is not.

i do appreciate the article im just providing the legal perspective that SCOTUS uses; this and many other reasons clearly in the law were why the last attempt at certiorari to SCOTUS for overturning DOMA failed.

Something can be real without

Something can be real without having been inborn. I think there is very, very little that is totally inborn.

I don't think racial comparisons are the best here, but since you make them: We also know that race is not an inborn characteristic. Don't you remember all the articles proclaiming that "race is a myth" 5 or so years ago? Well. What did that do besides marginalize claims of racial prejedice? And trivialize reality by taking it out of context? Did it have any bearing on how people experience being Black?

Legal constructs are problematic because they instantiate vulnerability in precisely the manner that you lay out here. My point is that there's no way to "win" if that's the game we're playing. The argument is stacked against LGBTQ equality. You have to start changing the damn discourse.

Also, there are many many things that are true according to the law that do not necessarily shape how we view - and discuss - them as subjects engaged in public discourse.



i actually loathe making

i actually loathe making comparisons or race and gender to sexual preference, but that is what is done legally and in all case law. Which is why before overturning a case or a law, the court will go back and look at everything that happened before. this article talks about the discussion of homosexuality within politics, specifically with a presidential candidate, so i think for this reason the law is very relevant.

of course yes there are changes to be made, but actually the fastest way to change it, is by using the law to your advantage, else get your claims thrown out, which causes even more of a delay.

I dont think racial steretotypes are "inborn" but race is a visible feature that marks certain people and because of that they may be discriminated against. same for certain genders (and yes i know race and gender is not always visible on everyone). i think what is most important, would be for everyone to have equal rights. Youd have to tell me which articles youre talking about, i have read a lot, but perhaps maybe you are talking about the race is a performance issue? im not even discussing that, im just talking about the law. ---although stereotypes are a reason why people are discriminated against.

you go in to get a job, before saying a word you are denied on the basis of (x race, gender, sexuality) and you have no recourse because you have no scrutiny or little to none and it goes the same for marriage.

this is what im talking about, getting pass this threshold which is a big deal.

i definitely think that the article and discussion are VERY important, all im saying is that for 14th amendment protection it needs to be an immutable characteristic. i dont know if many people know that, but it is a fact, as of right now. actually tons of people dont know anything about con law or what scrutiny is, and i think people should know.

im not talking about racialized stereotypes that suggest such and such race can dance or has power. im talking about skin color.
im not talking about gendered stereotypes im talking about the actual gender/sex (which even if you change you still have protection because it is immutable)

Im not saying it isnt real to make a choice, and im not saying talking about gender in such an intellectualized way is unimportant, i am saying that people who we rely on to make these decisions, who we voted or will vote for dont get it, so i think the best move, to have DOMA quickly overturned and to make sure the Hate Crimes law which came into effect is not overturned is to say it is immutable (not inborn or born with) and i made that point in my earlier post about the phrasing not being the best, but just immutable. and i dont mean bisexuality isnt immutable. i mean the fear, their fear, is that it is a choice, therefore it is not necessary, therefore it is not natural, therefore it is not a burden in any way, therefore there should not be extra protection.

of course i DO NOT agree with this logic, but this is what the majority of the people deciding our laws think. i just know that if there was an actual good case that had a chance to overturn DOMA and the plaintiff was like, you know im just not really sure about anything, sometimes i am gay but sometimes i think im straight (not bi), it would fail whereas if there was someone who wanted to get married and said they feel x, have been discriminated because they are x, and x is what they are and will be (whether it is gay or bi) then it would be a much better chance. thats all im saying.

"My point is that there's no way to "win" if that's the game we're playing. The argument is stacked against LGBTQ equality. You have to start changing the damn discourse."

And I think, regardless of what the discourse is or isn't, having DOMA overturned would be an enormous win for many people who are being discriminated against right now, and if we want fast change, that would be the way to do it. law and politics go together, they are intertwined, they use one and the other, so it would follow that a politician or a court would use the law when making a decision about it.

i was just truly saddened to see the last case that went to the supreme court, there was a good chance it would have made it, but for the fact that the pltf's attys forgot about the law.

if neither the pres, nor congress is gonna change it, you go to the courts, unfortunately they dont read intellectual articles about gender theory, and maybe someone who works for them should show it to them, but really, judges dont care. they only read case law and statutes, and the facts of the case. MAYBE if an atty wrote a law review article, they would read it, but that article would contain all the points i made. and knowing that, i would just use an argument that would have success, and if a candidate knows he has a good chance of overturning a prejudicial law by saying it is innate, just to get a law passed, (not stereotypes the fact of your sexual preference) then i think it is ok when i think about all the people being deported, that cant get married, that are discriminated against, not having to suffer.

14th Amendment

Actually the legal perspective is a bit complicated. The 14th Amendment subjects race-based classifications to heightened scrutiny not because race is immutable, but because racial minorities are "discrete and insular" and thus can't always rely on the legislative system to protect them from discrimination. Immutability probably factored into the court's decision about whether racial minorities were "discrete and insular," but it isn't essential. Religion-based classifications are also subject to heightened scrutiny, and it's pretty much beyond dispute people "choose" what religion to follow.

There is some good legal scholarship out there that people should compare sexual orientation more to religion and less to race or gender. Like religion, sexual orientation is "invisible." It is not immutable, but it is also a core element of people's identities and not amenable to change on a whim.

Thank you for clarification!

Thank you for clarification!

yes, but there has yet to be

yes, but there has yet to be a case coming up to SCOTUS with the religious argument as compared to homosexuality, or i have not read one in the supreme court for this, it has all been made under the 14th amendment. it would be very interesting though, maybe it would have a chance, but i can just see the riot with that you know? Since the whole anti-gay marriage is based on the fact that is errr amoral? (i dont agree with this OF COURSE), but i dont know if it would work? maybe?

i just think saying it isnt a choice would be faster.

i would love to see an article on that idea though.

but in all the cases, yes discreet and insular is another factor, but we already know that's true with respect to homosexuality; i dont think we are arguing that that doesn't exist. it's the choice aspect which relates to the immutabilty factor which is brought up in all the cases though. we can agree to disagree on that though, but for me, i think it has to do with race, my skin color being something i can't change, which makes it easier for me to be discriminated against, which is why i need protection, more so than discreet and insular, there are definite states in the US where blacks are the majority or are in control and it doesnt matter, the law is still there to protect. and scalia's words still hang in my mind. and that is where the choice/sin aspect come up, which relates to this article. since he compares it to polygamy and like choosing a baseball team or whatever crap he says. im just saying we need to move AWAY from this and these mentalities.

i just want to say to anyone reading this, i hope gay people get all the rights they deserve and should have had a long time ago, im just providing a legal perspective that could help speed up the process. we know who is on the supreme court and what politicians will and wont do, unfortunately.

have a good night

I mostly addressed these

I mostly addressed these arguments in my other comment below, but I also wanted to respond here to note that an argument that it's *entirely* immutable, *entirely* not a choice, won't be faster because it won't be convincing, and it won't be convincing because it's actually not true.

I actually am a lawyer and believe that the best legal arguments to make are the ones that you actually find convincing.

It helps that when you argue to the Supreme Court these days, you're arguing to Kennedy. Kennedy absolutely eats up arguments about how people should be allowed to live according to their own personal convictions and values. I can't remember seeing any part in Lawrence v. Texas that talks about sexual orientation being completely not a choice - in fact, you see language like "the liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right TO CHOOSE to enter upon relationships in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons." Of course, that was a decision based on the due process clause and not the equal protection clause. But it still suggests that he'd approach DOMA with a similar philosophy.

actually it still is kind of a factor

The DoJ’s 31-page brief asserts that DOMA’s “official legislative record” shows clearly that Section 3 of DOMA, which limits the federal definition of “marriage” to the union of one man and one woman, and “spouse” to indicate a member of the opposite sex, was “motivated in large part by animus toward gay and lesbian individuals and their intimate relationships.”

The brief also contends that homosexuality is an “immutable characteristic,” and goes on to say that “gays and lesbians have been subject to a history of discrimination” in which the U.S. government “has played a significant and regrettable role.”

The case is being argued before U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, a Bush appointee, who dismissed Golinski’s earlier claim on procedural grounds, but left room for her to file a new case.

Earlier this year, Obama’s DoJ had stopped defending DOMA in federal challenges, leaving the legal defense of the 1996 statute up to Congress.

this wasnt too hard to find.

Here's one of the articles

Here's one of the articles comparing sexual orientation to religion. It doesn't perfectly express what I'm trying to say since it relies on the due process clause of the 14th Amendment and free exercise clause of the first amendment, rather than the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment:

Nevertheless, to be clear, religious minorities are protected *under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment*, not just the first amendment. So comparing sexual minorities to religious minorities could still be a "14th amendment" argument.

As for immutability, I would actually read the brief and not a description of it on a conservative web site. The actual brief is here: As you can see, it only needs to be proven that sexual minorities have "obvious, immutable OR distinguishing characteristics" (emphasis mine). That element is only one of several - out of over 15 pages of argument that sexual orientation should be seen as a suspect classification, only two are devoted to discussion of this element.

If I'd been the DOJ, I'd have argued that sexual minorities have "distinguishing" characteristics, not "obvious" or "immutable" ones. Although DOJ chose to go with "immutable," still for the most part they argue that "immutable" just means "deeply ingrained" in one's identity and not amenable to change through "treatment." Neither of these necessarily means there's no fluidity, changeability, or even choice - people who feel they had a choice in sexual orientation are still often going to consider it a "fundamental" part of their identity, and these aren't going to be the same people seeking therapy to turn straight. To the extent that the DOJ addresses choice, it's very briefly and the study they cite in support of that point still showed that 17% of lesbians and 5% of gay men thought there was an element of choice in their sexual orientations (and bisexuals weren't even surveyed!). So I don't think that DOJ's legal team thinks that Preacher's Daughter's suggestion - that there could be an element of choice in sexual orientation - is that much of a threat to their argument.

To my knowledge, most conservative Constitutional arguments regarding this issue don't focus that much on whether sexual orientation itself is a choice, but on the premise that sex and marriage are "actions" and not identities. Kennedy's decision in Lawrence v. Texas pretty adequately addressed why that's just wrong.

Finally, at page 5 of a decision on a previous version of this same case,, it looks like Judge White is prepared to accept that DOMA is unconstitutional, but says the issue hadn't been properly presented to him and denies relief on other grounds (the pending DOJ brief concerns an amended complaint that more explicitly raised the issue). So I don't think his being a Republican appointee is necessarily going to be a problem here.

thanks for this post and the

thanks for this post and the link to the article. I guess for me I'm more for doing what could work on the books using the law, vs. a whole new idea with the chance it could get thrown out. but im not saying it's a bad idea.

but that's the thing, are there "distinguishing" characteristics about being gay--besides the act of sex, or public display of affection? i think that would be more offensive. I mean sure, there are some people who you can tell, but not everyone feels that way. i think it would just get into an argument about what "distinguished" is or isn't. how can an employer know whether or not he is violating some equal protection law, if the characteristic has to be "distinguishable" when it is at the same time "invisible" ? and then does a person have to "come out" to his employer or whomever to get those rights? and so on.

well anyway, you would be an excellent atty for this movement, they need more people who do con law that could work together on this, and make all the best arguments, so this could just be done and we could be up to speed with the rest of the world with gay rights and equality :)

you make some good points. i think both sides could be argued to lock it down if that is what it takes.

Great post!

I read another great post on this topic at Hairspray & Fideo, which readers might enjoy. He also briefly touches on Christianity.

Kjerstin Johnson, editor-in-chief
Did someone say "Comments Policy"?

Excellent points

I don't think the concept of 'choice' should be remotely relevant here, really - so little of what we are is a choice in any meaningful sense, but 'inborn' is not the opposite of 'chosen'. What's at stake here is the old dichotomy of natural and unnatural (which is really a codification of 'normal' and 'abnormal'), where 'natural' signifies 'real' and then becomes identified with 'good'. And I think it's always a very dangerous move to centre your fight around an affirmation of naturalness, because to do so tacitly legitimizes the dichotomy as a reasonable basis for politics and rights. Which is bullshit. To change anything in a real structural sense - not just for marginalized sexualities but for EVERY group who have ever been oppressed for being 'unnatural' - we can't just seek acceptance into the 'better' group of real, good, natural people. At some point we have to say, fuck your entire oppressive conceptual framework.


I think that it's kind of disappointing that Piers Morgan didn't directly address Herman Cain, because the psychological roots of human sexuality do have real scientific research that offer a little bit of knowledge- certainly not empirical evidence of specific genetic markers, but there are definitely multiple factors that produce the results we see as different sexual orientations.
First of all, the way that gender is constructed in our society changes the way that people interact in the roles they were given.
Second of all, there are certain epigenetic factors that may play a role in sexual orientation, such as the amount of testosterone a baby receives while it is in its mother's womb.
However, even if we try and construct a scientific breakdown of the mechanics of human sexuality, it does not make sense that Herman Cain claims that if he saw evidence that a queer identity is not a choice, he may reconsider calling it a sin. Shouldn't his theological arguments be based in theology? Or do I just not know enough about homophobic Christian justification?
The real reason that it's okay to be gay is this: No matter what any religion says about it, no matter if it is a choice or not, there is no explanation how loving someone of the same gender could be immoral. No bigot will ever be able to make that argument.

"born this way" is tactical

I think that the "born this way" rhetoric is a tactical choice made by the Gay Liberation movement. I think it was a good choice, actually. In a setting where it is generally believed that homosexuality is disreputable and wrong, even if not actually sinful and illegal, it's very hard to argue that people should be allowed to choose it. But if you can show that some people are born exclusively homosexual, then banning homosexuality means denying those people any chance at love. That's an argument that can begin to change people's minds.

This tactical idea has its problems; it doesn't leave room for bisexuals, and in fact it sort of explains why bisexuals could be viewed as betraying the cause of Gay Liberation. But I think that, years ago, it may have been the best approach. The question is, is it the right approach now?

I don't think it is. Attitudes and laws have changed enough that such a narrow tactical approach is no longer warranted; now we really do need to make room for bisexuals, pansexuals, and so on, and now we have the strength to support a broader platform. At least, it seems that way to me, living in a cosmopolitan Canadian city; the situation among closed-minded American conservatives may be different.