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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

19 thoughts on “Is the “born this way” message homophobic?

  1. I don’t really understand your difficulty with this slogan. I am heterosexual because I was born that way, or possibly because that is what my early upbringing brought about. Either way, it was not my choice, and therefore cannot have a moral connotation. Right and wrong can only exist in the context of free choice.

    1. I think there are a couple of problems with this line of reasoning. The first is that even if we lack a choice about our orientation, we don’t lack a choice about whether to engage in same sex relationships. For bisexual people, there is the options of pursuing only opposite-sex relationships. And for gay people there is the option of not pursuing relationships. Someone who thinks that same sex relationships are wrong can simply respond that even if we think that being gay isn’t wrong because people can’t choose to be gay, engaging in a same sex relationship is still wrong because people can choose whether or not to do that.

      The second problem is that we don’t seem to think that just because someone lacks a choice about what their dispositions are, those dispositions can’t be immoral. For example, if someone were born with a strong disposition to murder, we wouldn’t think ‘well, I guess we need to respect their right to murder’. We might think that they deserve less punishment, but we would try to treat their disposition and to prevent them from acting on it. So if we think that being gay is wrong, then the only thing that would change if we accept that being gay is not a choice is that, instead of punishing gay people, we would attempt to treat them so that they are no longer gay and to prevent them from acting on their disposition.

      So the idea that a lack of choice over sexual orientation can be used to justify gay rights seems to crumble when we think about analogous cases. Basically: if being gay is wrong then ‘born this way’ won’t justify gay rights – it will at best justify a treatment and prevention response over a punishment response, which isn’t what gay rights is about at all. And if being gay is not wrong, then you don’t need the ‘born this way’ argument in the first place – it makes no difference whether people are born that way or not, because there’s nothing wrong with being gay.

    2. >I am heterosexual because I was born that way, or possibly because that is what my early upbringing brought about.

      That is a very complex empirical claim that we do not have enough evidence to be confident of. But supposing (against my own strong beliefs but still) you are correct. That only excuses your “being heterosexual”. It’s no moral justification whatever for heterosexual *acts*. Right and wrong clearly exist in the context of your free choice to engage in heterosexual activities.

  2. I think you might be mixing up rational and causal considerations here. It’s true that if you think about things rationally, everything you say here is fairly obvious. But that’s a separate matter from whether the public at large will actually react to the born this way meme in any of these ways. The latter is an empirical question, not one that can be settled a priori like this. And most gay rights activists seem to have found it effective. Furthermore, its easy to guess why it might be. All but the most vicious homophobes don’t like being mean to people for things that they can’t control. This might not be real acceptance if you think about it rationally, since it is of course totally consistent with still thinking that what gay people are doing is immoral. But a) in practice it seems like once people lose the desire to be mean to gay people, they lose the desire to think its immoral, probably because there’s no good reason for thinking that in the first place except that you want to be mean to gay people cause they’re freaks, and b) it seems like grudging acceptance snowballs naturally into real acceptance because it allows people to come out, and then people get that they know gay people and their fine. In addition, its easy to see why it might also play well with the other group, apart from vicious homophobes, who are uncomfortable with *full* gay equality, namely those who are very attached to the strict following of religious rules, and sincerely believe those to prohibit gay sex (the intersection between this group and vicious gay-haters is obviously rather large of course). If they don’t especially hate gay people, then they will be sensitive to imposing unpleasant costs on them. Clearly, the costs of losing privilege for being gay are much greater if people can’t simply choose to be heterosexual instead, or at least it can look very much like that from the outside. (There’s actually a substantive point here as well; whilst your right that using the born this way slogan to support the idea that gay sex is not wrong is a complete non sequitor, the ‘sexuality is something that can’t be changed’ idea that people take from it does genuinely show one of the reasons why the costs imposed by homophobia on gay people are severe. I imagine that is part of why the ‘born this way’ slogan resonates with many, though obviously not all gay people, because it makes clear that they haven’t just randomly chosen to do something that other people irrationally think is bad when they could have as easily got similar benefits out of heterosexuality or something.) Of course, this all speculation, but it does seem consistent with the fact that gay rights activists themselves seem to have regard the slogan as an effective one. Furthermore, in practice, no one actually seems to think ‘we’ll if gay rights activists defended it as something they can’t help, that must mean they agree its bad/less than ideal’, probably because they clearly don’t actually think that, as evidenced by everything else they say and do. The idea that the movement might suffer a setback meanwhile, if ‘born this way’ turns out to be false is a bit more serious, but by the time we know for sure, gay rights’ll probably be totally mainstream anyway.

    1. Yes, when I say that it’s not effective, I mean that it’s not effective as an argument. It can be effective causally, in which case I don’t really object to people using it to improve the lives of gay people. My only worries are: (i) it might not be good to do this in the long run, since it’s fairly clear that it doesn’t work as an argument and so it gives gay rights a foundation that I expect to disappear later (although perhaps by that point no one will care), (ii) if people buy the ‘born this way’ argument in this case then they’ll buy it in cases of more harmful dispositions (but hopefully people will be sensible enough to reject the ‘born this way’ argument rather than extend it to harmful dispositions), and (iii) it could delay rights to other groups of people engaging in non-harmful behavior that is perceived as more optional (even if it isn’t): like polyamorous people.

      I agree with you that people don’t like being mean to people for things that they don’t control, but I actually think a lot of what’s going on here is that people don’t actually think that being gay is all that harmful. If they did, then they wouldn’t want to be punish gay people, but they would want to try to rid people of the disposition and to prevent them from acting on it. Insofar as they don’t, I think it’s because there’s actually an implicit belief that being gay isn’t very harmful (certainly not so harmful that it’s worth imposing huge costs on gay people by preventing them from having same sex relationships). And it would be good to focus on that belief more than on the issue of choice.

      But yes, I accept that people should probably use whatever strategies work when it comes to expanding gay rights in the short term, even if that strategy involves an argument wouldn’t actually work if people thought more about it (since it doesn’t justify gay rights if being gay is immoral, and it’s not necessary for justifying gay rights if being gay isn’t immoral), and even if the argument has presuppositions that I think are homophobic.

  3. I think this is right on, and accepting a bad argument for a position you agree with can be very dangerous.

    I think it makes the bar both too high and too low for social acceptability. For the first, as you point out, it may delay acceptability of things like polyamory because they don’t meet the “born this way” bar.

    On the other hand, people who *are* born with a disposition that is *harmful* also suffer. Pedophilia may be a good example (e.g. this fantastic article: https://medium.com/matter/youre-16-youre-a-pedophile-you-dont-want-to-hurt-anyone-what-do-you-do-now-e11ce4b88bdb). For life to get better for these people we need to see it as an unfortunate tendency which we can help them to struggle with, not as an inherently moral failing. But accepting that pedophiles are “born this way” may be totally impossible for the LGBT movement, because their own rhetoric would then suggest that it was permissible for them to act on it. So the people who really ought to know better might end up on the wrong side because they’ve been selling the wrong argument.

    So yeah, pernicious for both people with non-innate but morally acceptable desires, and those with innate but morally unacceptable desires.

    1. Oooh, thanks for that, made me think of an obvious follow up:

      Lots of people are born with cystic fibrosis, a crack addiction, schizophrenia or whatever and undergo prolonged treatment to cure them of it. Being born a certain way implies that it is biological in origin, and hence that biological treatments can either cure it or at least treat the symptoms.

      Hence Turing’s castration.

  4. This is a great post, Amanda!

    1. I completely agree with you that the fact that our sexual orientation is determined relatively early in our lives and hard if not impossible to change does nothing to show that homosexual sex or same-sex relationships are morally permissible. But I still think that there is an acceptable form of the “born this way” argument.

    2. Specifically, there have historically been forms of discrimination against LGBT people that were based purely on their sexual orientation (not on their behaviour or relationships). E.g. for a while, LGBT people — i.e. anyone whose sexual orientation was not principally heterosexual — were banned from serving in the military or as scout leaders, etc. This discrimination was, I think, even more unjust than simply discriminating against people on the basis of their sexual behaviour or relationships, and it seems to me part of why it was so unjust was that it was, like racial discrimination and gender discrimination, based on a characteristic that is unchosen and effectively immutable (as well as irrelevant to people’s rights and capacities).

    3. Thankfully, in most Western countries, this sort of discrimination purely on the basis of sexual orientation is mostly a thing of the past. But unfortunately, it still survives in some parts of the world, such as in Russia, and parts of Africa and Asia. And so I still think that — for the limited purpose of arguing against this particular form of discrimination — the “born this way” argument has some utility.

    4. I’m not really convinced by your objections to the argument.
    (a) Stated carefully, the argument doesn’t “imply that being gay is immoral”, no more than a “born this way” argument against racial or gender discrimination implies that being African-American or being a woman is immoral.
    (b) True, it’s not going to convince anyone who thinks that gay sex is immoral. But that is a good feature of the argument, not a drawback. Even those who believe that gay sex is immoral may still be convinced that discriminating against people purely on the basis of their sexual orientation is wrong — and in some parts of the world that would be genuine progress.
    (c) No reputable psychologist regards it as a serious possibility that sexual orientation could turn out to be a chosen characteristic or even that it can normally be at all easily changed. Ed Stein is being overly cautious on this point.
    (d) The “born this way” argument does not imply that it is OK to discriminate against people on the basis of characteristics — like religious practices — that are easily changed. Just because discriminating against people on the basis of irrelevant effectively immutable unchosen characteristics is particularly unjust, it does not follow that other kinds of discrimination cannot also be equally unjust!

  5. Here is a great interview in New Scientists with sex researcher Lisa Diamond which backs up a lot of this
    https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22730310-100-sexuality-is-fluid-its-time-to-get-past-born-this-way/

    “Many advocates of gay rights say people are “born this way” – which is at odds with the idea of fluidity. Where did this view originate?”
    Lisa Diamond
    “It really dates back to a campaign against the gay community back in the 1960s and 70s, led by American singer and activist Anita Bryant. Her whole argument was that gay people were a threat because they were going to recruit young people to be gay. She specifically said homosexuals are made, not born; they can’t reproduce, so they’re trying to recruit our children. Gay people said, that’s ridiculous, we’re not trying to recruit your children – that wouldn’t even work! This isn’t something you can be recruited into. It’s just the way we are.”

    “Does this mean that many people are born with an inclination for same-sex attraction?”
    Lisa Diamond
    “Yes. I think all the evidence suggests that we’re born with an underlying capacity, and then that capacity interacts with a whole bunch of other influences. Some of them are prenatal; some maybe in the first year of life. We still don’t know whether there’s a point at which things become more fixed. We’re clear that there is some environmental input, but there is absolutely no evidence that the family dynamic, in terms of closeness or distance with mom or dad, has anything to do with same-sex sexuality. I think it’s an important finding because a lot of parents think they are the cause – what did I do? I think we can pretty much say you did nothing. People hear the word “environment” and think family environment. When scientists talk about the environment, they’re talking about things like the amniotic fluid the fetus grew in. We’re talking about everything that is around you. Even a genome is not as fixed as we thought.”

    “What would you like to happen to that tag line?”
    Lisa Diamond
    “It is time to just take the whole idea of sexuality as immutable, the born this way notion, and just come to a consensus as scientists and as legal scholars that we need to put it to rest. It’s unscientific, it’s unnecessary and it’s unjust. It doesn’t matter how we got to be this way. As a scientist, I think it’s one of the most fascinating questions out there and one that I will continue to investigate. As a lesbian and a progressive, I think it’s totally irrelevant and just politics.”

  6. I think the “born this way” argument hinges on the same thing an argument for pedophilia would. I think that the “born this way” argument falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something is natural or innate, it doesn’t then follow that it must be moral. It is irrelevant whether homosexuality is a innate or a choice because that isn’t what is in question here. The behavior is in question. “Is homosexual behavior permissible?” It seems like the only ways to get a no is to appeal to divine command theory or natural law theory.

  7. I think you have misunderstood the meaning and purpose of the ‘born this way’ idea.

    I don’t think anyone who champions the ‘born this way’ idea is trying to say that gay people are not blameworthy, in the same way that you might say someone with a brain tumour is not blameworthy. The point of the ‘born this way’ idea is rather to show that there is no morally significant difference between being gay and being straight. The point of it is to show that being gay is every bit as natural as being straight. Once you recognise this, none of the arguments you put forward stand up.

    So, taking your first argument first: ‘it implies that being gay is immoral’. This only follows if you think the point of the ‘born this way’ idea is to mitigate the badness of a disposition/action in the same way that pointing out someone’s brain tumour mitigates the badness of their dispositions/actions. But that’s not what people are doing when they champion the ‘born this way’ idea. At the very least, that needn’t be what one is going when one champions the ‘born this way’ idea.

    One could use the ‘born this way’ idea to challenge the surprisingly common idea that while being straight is natural, being gay isn’t. This common idea is a very problematic one because people often assume (wrongly) that if being gay is unnatural then being gay is bad. The ‘born this way’ idea challenges this thinking by saying: even if being unnatural=bad, being gay still wouldn’t be bad, because it is natural. In this case, far from implying that we already assume being gay is bad, championing the ‘born this way’ idea is a means of showing how being gay is not bad at all.

    We might also use the ‘born this way’ idea as means of characterising what it feels like to be gay (i.e. it really feels like I have no choice about who I fancy). This is another use of the ‘born this way’ idea which does not imply we already think being gay is bad.

    To your second argument: ‘It’s not going to convince anyone who does think that being gay is immoral’.

    I’ve already suggested that, actually, you can use the ‘born this way’ idea to convince someone who thinks being gay is immoral that they are wrong. Because the point of the ‘born this way’ idea is to show that there is no morally significant difference between being gay and being straight, you could use the idea to convince someone who thought being gay is bad because it is significantly different from being straight (e.g. being gay is unnatural) that they are wrong.

    You are quite right that if the purpose of the ‘born this way’ idea is to mitigate the badness of a disposition by showing how it’s not under the agent’s control, then it’s not going to mitigate the badness of actions that are caused by those dispositions because we can often refrain from doing what we are disposed to do. But, as I’ve said, that just not the purpose of the ‘born this way’ idea.

    You’re next argument, that we’re grounding gay rights on something that might be false, is also weakend once you realised that the point of the ‘born this way’ idea is to emphasise how being straight and being gay are exactly on a par.

    The ‘born this way’ idea says that being gay is as natural or as difficult to change as being straight. It doesn’t really matter whether or not our sexualities are with us from birth. I know the slogan is ‘born this way’ – but the point of it is to say how being gay and being straight are on a par, not specifically to say that we are born gay or straight.

    It would be a problem if science found that being gay and being straight are really different – e.g. if it turned out that, actually, it is really easy to supress one’s homosexuality whereas it’s really hard to suppress one’s heterosexuality. But this is very unlikely, all the scientific and anecdotal evidence so far point the other way.

    Also is ‘born this way’ idea really a bad argument because it’s hostage to empirical findings? If I supported gay rights on the basis that homosexual acts between consenting adults are good because they make people happy, then I’d be in exactly the same pickle. I’d still be basing gay rights on an empirical claim: i.e. homosexual acts between consenting adults makes people happy.

    You’re last argument, ‘It’s offensive to many LGBT people and other minorities where choice is a factor’ suffers a similar failing. The basis for extending rights like the right to get married to gay people is that to deny a right to someone on the basis of their sexuality is unjust. One reason it is unjust is because, as the ‘born this way’ idea says, there is no morally relevant difference between being straight and being gay. The ‘born this way’ idea does not say that only people who don’t have a choice about who they fancy are deserving of a right like the right to get married – it just says that gay people are not undeserving (because there is no morally significant different between being straight and being gay).

    1. The argument that being straight and being gay are on a part as far as ‘naturalness’ goes is only going to help the gay rights movement if we also think that being natural is sufficient for being good. But that’s just not the case. As Adam mentions, pedophilia seems like a sexual disposition that is natural and probably something that people are born with, but not good. Less controversially, a violent disposition could be as natural as a disposition to be attracted to a certain gender, but that wouldn’t mean that these dispositions are on a par morally, or that it would be unjust to deny people a right to act on their violent dispositions. So even if being straight and being gay are both ‘natural’, it doesn’t follow that they’re on a par morally. I think they’re on a par morally for entirely different reasons: namely, that neither disposition is harmful to others (unlike pedophilia or a violent disposition).

      1. I agree that naturalness doesn’t have must to do with whether something is good or bad, despite what many people think. But many who argue against rights for gay people say: it is unnatural, therefore bad. You can challenge this in two ways: 1) the argument is invalid, unnatural doesn’t mean bad; 2) you can deny the premise, being gay is not unnatural. The first is better, but the second is a legitimate strategy, especially when you’re up against someone who’s solidly committed to the view that unnatural=bad.

        Saying that something isn’t bad because it isn’t unnatural doesn’t commit you to the view that everything natural is good. Even if everything unnatural was bad, it wouldn’t follow that everything natural was good. Compare: everything with arsenic in is bad, therefore everything without arsenic is good. This is invalid because there are other bad-making properties aside from ‘having arsenic in’. Similarly, there might be other bad-making properties aside from ‘being unnatural’.

        You’re right that neither strategy 1 nor strategy 2 makes a SUFFICIENT case for thinking that being gay and being straight are as good/bad as each other. If being gay made people really really unhappy, then who cares that it’s natural, it’s bad. This follows if being unnatural is not the only bad-making property. But, no-one is going to respond to someone who thinks being gay makes people really unhappy with a ‘born this way’ idea. The ‘born this way’ idea is not the answer to everything. My point was, the purpose of the ‘born this way’ idea is to show that being gay and being straight are as natural or unnatural as each other, that EVEN IF you think unnatural=bad, being gay does not have THAT bad-making property.

  8. I agree with much of what you say here. However, I worry that your blog post might be engaging in the same type of basic conflation as the one made by critics of homosexuality.

    The claim, “I was born this way”, is usually made in response to the general challenge: “How could you choose to be this way?” I think that critics of homosexuality, however, often mean two very different things by this question which they themselves fail to distinguish between, viz.:

    (1) How can you choose to be attracted to members of the same-sex?
    (2) How can you choose to act on your same-sex feelings of attraction (e.g., by engaging in same-sex sexual activity, pursuing same-sex relationships, etc.)?

    I entirely agree with you that the claim, “I was born this way,” is not only ineffective, but even harmful, as a reply to version (2) of the challenge. Trying to explain why such actions are not morally objectionable by responding, “Well, I was born this way,” has all of the unfortunate implications you outline. Not only does it seem to take for granted that the action is in some sense morally wrong, where this reply can at best serve only as a mitigating excuse for showing why the agent is not as blameworthy as previously thought (e.g., “I was born this way, so I shouldn’t be criticized so strongly for engaging in action A”). But it also fails to address the fundamental question at issue, namely: “Is action A morally right or wrong?” To respond, “Well, some people are naturally predisposed to engage in action A” has no bearing whatsoever on that specific action’s moral rightness or wrongness.

    However, I think that most charitably understood, the reply, “I was born this way”, was never really intended to address version (2) but instead version (1) of the challenge. That is, what the critic of homosexuality is sometimes really asking is: “How could you choose to be this way, i.e., to be physically attracted to members of your own sex?” Such critics might find having such attractions themselves as inherently morally objectionable, or perverse, or unnatural. For example, a parent might utter the following cliche to their child — “What did we do wrong in raising you? Why have you turned out to be gay?” — even in cases where the child in question has never once actually acted upon their same-sex feelings, as if just having such feelings by itself were a morally objectionable state of affairs.

    In response to this version of the challenge, the claim, “I was born this way,” does seem to have some genuine argumentative force. First, it highlights a basic mistaken assumption held by critics of homosexuality, viz., the belief that such attractions are a choice in the first place. As many people point out, most heterosexuals (as well as homosexuals) would most likely agree with the basic idea behind the “I was born this way” message, which is something like: “I never made a conscious decision to be attracted to members of the opposite sex (or same sex). This is just the way I am. That is, such opposite-sex (or same-sex) attractions are a part of my basic nature – who I am as a person and what I’ve experienced in my life for as long as I can remember. So your claim that I in some sense ‘chose to be this way’ is simply false.” (None of this, of course, is meant to exclude the possibility that an individual’s attractions might be more complex (e.g., being sexually attracted to both sexes) or more fluid over time, etc.)

    Second, it helps to focus our attention on the real moral crux of the debate. Even if we grant that such same-sex attractions are natural tendencies that a person never chose to have – something I think the critic of homosexuality would be hard pressed to deny if they honestly reckoned with underlying force of the “I was born this way” thesis – the fundamental issue becomes: Are these natural tendencies (a) morally objectionable like, e.g., a natural predisposition towards violence or (b) morally non-objectionable like the many morally neutral natural variations found among human beings such as, e.g., differences in eye color, skin color, or certain predispositions (e.g., being athletically inclined, being artistically inclined, etc.).

    Defenders of homosexuality presumably affirm that same-sex attractions are more like (b) than (a). I fully agree that this view still needs to be argued for. But the “I was born this way” reply does serve to eliminate at least one red herring in the debate – viz., the issue whether such attractions are a choice or not – and instead focuses our attention on what is truly at stake here, viz., whether such natural attractions are intrinsically morally objectionable or instead just one instance of the many naturally occurring variations among human beings that are not and should not be regarded as morally criticizable.

    So, contra your main thesis, I think that the real problem is not so much with the claim, “I was born this way”, but rather with the imprecise way that moral objections against homosexuality are usually formulated. From what I’ve seen, it seems that critics of homosexuality very often have both (1) [viz., “How can you choose to be this way, i.e., to be attracted to members of the same sex?”] and (2) [viz., “How can you choose to be this way, i.e., to act on your same-sex feelings of attraction?”] in mind, which they fail to properly disambiguate.

    To summarize, you seem to be assuming in your blog post that the “I was born this way” reply is mainly meant to address version (2) of the challenge. And I agree that if this is indeed the aim, such a reply fails miserably. However, I think that most charitably understood, the reply is instead mainly meant to address version (1) of the challenge. And here, it at least has some genuine force against at least *some* aspects of the critics’ objections to homosexuality.

    Homosexuals get criticized not only for their actions (e.g., for pursuing same-sex relationships, engaging in same-sex sexual activity, etc.), but also simply for who they are as persons (i.e., for their arguably natural/innate sexual tendencies). At the end of the day, “I was born this way” is a useful, arguably rhetorically persuasive, and perhaps even necessary (?) *starting point* – and in the end, I agree that this is all that it can be – for trying to address this latter type of criticism.

  9. A lot of people have been pointing to things like murderous tendencies and alcoholism to demonstrate how this isn’t a “correct mode of thinking”. I’m not a huge fan of the idea that we need to find the most PC mode that will best support our agenda and then adopt that is fact, but that does seem to be what the new wave angry millennial social bullies want to do….. Here is the thing, there is an opposite to this to. Your born with your race. Civilized non-hateful people all agree that being black, or Asian, or Latino, makes you evil. Those groups who do feel that way are labeled as evil themselves very quickly. And what if we prove that it ISN’T a choice? I’m not claiming to know which is the truth – my point is nor should you. We don’t know. Liberalism is getting way to accustomed to making assumptions and its killing real progress.

    From my perspective birth or choice need not really enter into it, only constitutionalism. Is it between consenting adults? Does it impede any one else’s rights? Than no laws can be made about it and any laws that do must be torn down. No that doesn’t protect you from individuals not liking you but that isn’t under the jurisdiction of the law. However if we adopt this attitude in a legal sense it will rub off on the culture and improve your standing sense any anti-gay argument ultimately ends up being based in the idea that homosexuality somehow hurts us.

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