Thursday, May 16, 2013

I don't care who's born what way

"When did you choose to be queer?"
"Sometime in the spring of 2012.  I don't remember the month.  It was definitely a weekday, though."

I don't actually think 'choice' is particularly relevant to morality.  By which I mean that while it's vitally important to protect the right to choice (autonomy, self-identification, consent--these are not optional) I don't generally think something becomes more moral or less moral because it's a matter of choice.  And one of the most common places we see this is in talking about whether it's okay for lesbians to get with other ladies, or whether it's okay for trans men to transition, or et cetera et cetera heterocisnormativity.

"These people are choosing to act in unnatural ways!"
"But it's perfectly natural; they're born that way.  You don't choose to be straight, do you?"

No, stop, back up.  This is a derail, and it's one that we've spent too long allowing, and it's one that plays against the kinds of choice that are important, and it doesn't win us much anyway.

It doesn't matter if being queer is a choice.

It doesn't matter.

It's not a choice; anyone can tell you this, but that's not the point to fight.  What matters is that ending discrimination is a good thing, and allowing people to consensually love and marry and boff is a good thing, and allowing people to be themselves is a good thing.  The law already tells us who can consent to what and who can't.  Job done, game over, high scores all around.  It doesn't need to be any more complicated than that.

If we keep hyping up how important it is that there is no Queer Choice, we lose ground in two important ways.  First, we leave open the notion that if there were a choice involved, it might somehow become okay to discriminate against gay men because, after all, they decided not to conform.  (This just in: racism would still be stupid even if every human in the world had the power to snap their fingers and turn white.)  And secondly, it helps people who keep bringing up even stupider arguments, like arguing that marriage equality some kind of 'gateway right' and soon we'll be legalising incestuous marriages and sex with ducks.  As if the only reasons we have problems with those things are because they're 'unnatural', rather than obviously harmful and consent-unfriendly.

We know that people can have inborn tendencies toward terrible things that are totally unrelated to sex, so we have reason to think there are inborn tendencies towards terrible sexual things.  'Born that way' is not relevant to the morality.  Kleptomania is real; that doesn't make stealing morally appropriate (although it does have significant impacts on how people need to teach themselves and choose to respond and et cetera my point is not that mental illnesses are morally suspect either just so's we're clear on that).  Rape culture narratives tell us that men can't help being aggressive and hostile when they want to make with the boning, because they're 'born that way'.  To hell with 'born that way' as having relevance to sexual morality.  What matters is: does this hurt anyone and does it help anyone?  And all else equal, sex and gender queerness gets a pass on that.

There are plenty of bigots who have already fully embraced the 'born that way' aspect and still don't care.  From this we get the Side B Christians who believe that gay people exist but that it would still be wrong for them to act on their nature (the only kind of romantic/sexual attraction they experience) because apparently sometimes their Creator just likes to screw with them.  So even buying into 'born that way' doesn't actually guarantee any kind of acceptance; sometimes it just means they treat the desire of girls to kiss girls the same way they treat a heroin addiction.  Awesome.

In case I don't already bring this up enough: I'm bi.  (I am not pansexual, but I'm pretty sure this applies to anyone who is, too.)  I like girls enough that I was able to get through about 27 years without even acknowledging that I like guys too.  If anyone does have a choice, I do: I could probably limit myself to relationships with women and end up just about as happy as I would be if I considered both women and men.  If I date a guy, it's not going to be because I have no other choice, it's going to be because I've said okay, this is a thing I could try: let's run with it.  That's not immoral either.

And I'm no expert on trans issues, but it seems to me that a huge emphasis on being 'born that way' is of less-than-zero help to people who already have to fight to define their identity in any way other than according to the assumptions made by other people at the time of their birth.

'Born that way' is deterministic, and that's a problem for anyone who doesn't fit into the popular categories.  The people who have any kind of fluidity in their identity (attraction to more than one gender, or transition through more than one gender identity) already get sidelined constantly when it comes to the supposed rainbow of diversity.  There's no such thing as a 'bisexual relationship'--it's a superposition (to get quantum mechanical again), it's being in a state of appearing either straight or gay until suddenly you aren't.  I have genderqueer friends who've done their best to help me understand the idea of feeling male one day and female another and genderless a third, and suddenly 'born that way' isn't a checkbox but a probability distribution or a Venn diagram and it's still all harmless and it's still okay.

'Born that way' play into the idea that people don't change, can't change, shouldn't change, and I don't believe that, and I'm very done with ceding that point to bigots in the hopes that it will somehow encourage them to change.


  1. BridgetanachronistMay 16, 2013 at 4:04 AM

    I wish I could write something clever but I admit your post left me picking my jaw from under my comp desk. Still I enjoyed reading it but most probably I happened to do so too early in the morning.

  2. I'll admit that I'm a little confused. It seems this is involving the nature vs. nurture debate, but you're shooting it down on both sides. It doesn't matter if it's choice, and it doesn't matter if it's inborn, so I'm not sure what conclusion you're presenting to us.
    For one, I do consider morality a choice, in the sense of "the cashier handed me too much change and in the long run it doesn't matter but I want to do the moral/ethical thing." (Come to think of it, I need to look up the difference between ethics and morality again.) But I get that you mean that the choice between spinach and green beans has nothing to do with morality. Which is probably an iffy analogy unless I add that the spinach and/or green beans were totally consenting and willing to be ingested for your nourishment. And that just made the analogy weird, but whatevs.
    I think this is still a matter of ethics/morality, just not really the legalistic traditional-Judeo-Christian morality.

  3. I am presenting the conclusion that the only thing that matters in terms of sexual morality is whether people are harmed or benefit, and not whether the person 'chose' their sexuality.

    There continues to be a debate over whether queerness is chosen or an inborn trait (it's inborn), and I am saying that, regardless of which side of that debate is right, it's a stupid debate that misses the point of what is moral.

    I'm afraid I don't understand your 'too much change' analogy as it relates to this question.

  4. What I meant to say is that people can decide whether or not to be moral, but on second thought, that's essentially undermined by that later idea of different types of morality. (Then again, everybody chooses what encompasses their idea of morality.) So the change analogy was, in fact, irrelevant.
    So what you're saying is that the morality of a situation is based on the harm/benefit to people derived from it. That's the pragmatical approach to morality, isn't it? I'm cool with that. I think I've gotten onto the same page.
    So the challenge would be to get "that type" of Christian to accept pragmatical morality. It probably won't be easy.

  5. Man, I really liked this. It was awesome. I have zero additions or insights to share, but I just wanted to say "Well done, you rule.:

  6. It's not hard for some of us.

  7. It's not just pragmatism or utilitarian calculus being discussed here. The consent factor is important in making something moral - there are plenty of immoral things someone could do to another person that would be beneficial to them by utilitarian standards. Or by religious standards. By prizing consent, we can sidestep the thornier issues of nature, nurture, categorization, exclusion, and what G-d (should they exist) wills and concentrate on the part that most people agree on - "Thou shall not be a dick."

    That won't be too difficult to sell, even to "those Christians", since they also have it written in their books. (Slightly more poetically, but the message is unmistakably there.)

  8. This is excellent, and I am very much in favor of shifting the debate to this point instead of getting mired in ultimately-irrelevant questions.

  9. I've heard pragmatism called ultimately futile because "there are plenty of immoral things someone could do to another person that would be beneficial to them by utilitarian standards." What they circle it back to is how the Bible is the ultimate moral code because it's the unchanging word of God and that's why we have to hate gayness, because Leviticus says so.
    But I am totally willing to be mistaken about "that type" of Christian.

  10. The Levitical injunctions and their selective enforcement have been argued greatly elsewhere, but that is also a derail from the important point, and if someone wants to get into that, it's best to steer them away from it after politely mentioning that the Levitical injunctions are selectively enforced in most forms of modern Christianity.

  11. Yup. Exactly this.

    I have this conversation from time to time with respect to my husband... I could have chosen to marry a woman, I instead chose to marry him because (among other reasons) we love each other. And?

  12. Awesome article!

  13. Your post has actually just made me realise something - I'd in a tiny small way prefer to have my SO be bisexual.

    Because then I'd be able to say: "Yeah, not only am I better than all the other dudes who've made passes but I beat out the ladies too" (and if we are honest, ladies are just better or at least more fun to do sweaty, squishy things with).

    And that would be pretty awesome. So 'grats to The Boy, glad to see he's upholding the standard that us chemical engineers aren't just "low hanging fruit"

  14. Okay, so.

    1) I wrote this, rather than my esteemed colleague Erika, and I am definitely not married to The Boy. That's just a factual error, not to worry, although I might have a nightmare or two.

    2) It's pretty creepy to make someone else's identity into a thing to feed your ego, even in a small way. If you must, you can think "I'm so awesome I got a bi girl to pick me" in the privacy of your own head, but maybe don't share with the class. Basically no one wants to be viewed as a trophy.

    3) "if we are honest, ladies are just better" is also not cool. I understand you like ladies better, but the claim and notion that "women are the sexiest gender" or similar is actually not helping out the feminist cause.

  15. I am really sorry if my comment was in anyway was or made anyone upset.

    It was not meant to be a serious comment on my feelings, I was a bit drunk at the time (Doing the 50 shades drinking game - I am still catching up, just finished Erika's comments on the first book).

    My comment was meant as a funny observation and not to meant to be taken seriously in the slightest. And having reread it, I do understand the point you make about allowing my own opinion to cloud a generalisation, which I never should have made in the first place. Generalisations are just generally a bad idea in my opinion (irony of that statement is not lost on me), also personal stuff which I won't go into.

    Once again I am sorry if the comment upset anyone.