Getting America to believe that people are born gay — that it’s not something that can be chosen or ever changed — has been central to the fight for gay rights. If someone can’t help being gay any more than they can help the color of their skin, the logic goes, denying them rights is wrong. But many members of the LGBTQ community reject this narrative, saying it only benefits people who feel their sexuality and gender are fixed rather than fluid, and questioning why the dignity of gay people should rest on the notion that they were gay from their very first breath.
“There are a lot of lesbians who subscribe to the ‘born this way’ narrative, in part because it’s become almost an obligatory story,” said Jane Ward, a professor of gender studies at the University of California-Riverside and author of Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men. “If you support gay rights then you have to believe that. But there’s now almost 50 years of scholarship on how people come to understand their queerness,” and Ward says for some people, queerness is something they claim ownership of more deliberately, over time.
The opposite of “I was born this way” is not “I chose this way.” In a 2016 article on sexual orientation published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, researchers wrote that “whether sexual orientation is a choice” is a poor phrase for advancing our understanding of sexuality. We choose our actions, they wrote, not our feelings. Words like “choice,” “preference” and “lifestyle” are loaded because they’ve been used to oppress sexual minorities.