Christin Milloy:

Rise up and seize equality

Is it Natural to be Queer?

This article first appeared in Slate Magazine’s “Outward” Blog.

When people debate equal rights for queer people, it often comes down to an argument over whether or not being queer is “natural.” Or if you prefer, whether it is changeable or unchangeable. Let’s answer this question once and for all.

Many argue fiercely over whether queerness (or lack thereof) is an immutable pre-determined fact of biology, or something that emerges as the product of environment and experience. Putting aside for now that those possibilities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, let’s take a look at the nature of the question itself.

babyThe argument goes “natural, therefore good,” versus “unnatural, therefore bad.” Both of these positions are fundamentally based upon the premise that natural is inherently preferable or superior. Proponents and detractors of queer equality initiatives engage in this debate, and it goes something like this: “The reason I think same-gender marriage/adoptions/human rights protection for gender identity and gender expression, or whatever, should (or should not) be enacted, is because being queer is (or is not) natural.” They will then proceed to defend their statement using arguments from one of these four categories…

1. The Unsupportable Example

These are shallow first- or second-hand anecdotes supporting one of the two positions (For example, “I know how I feel inside/I have been like this all my life” versus “my lesbian neighbours raised a boy and he turned out gay,” or “my husband was cured through prayer”).

In particular, there are stories of the Ex-Gay versus the Ex-Ex-Gay. These claims relate to alleged or documented cases of individuals successfully renouncing queer identities and behaviour, by spiritual or therapeutic means. These can be countered by cases where such “reparative therapy” subjects later relapsed or committed suicide, or by examples of persons who attempted reparative therapy but failed to subsequently de-queer.

These arguments fall flat because they’re a dime a dozen on both sides. Although personal anecdotes carry rhetorical value, they are useless as evidence in a debate because they prove nothing and can be easily dismissed: no single individual’s experience can accurately paint the bigger picture.

2. The Animal Kingdom Comparison

What could be more natural than the call of the wild? Both sides claim that queerness is (or is not) observed in (one, some, or all) species of animals. This argument is predicated on the idea that because non-human animals are allegedly non-sentient, they would by definition not possess the mind to conduct unnatural business. By this logic, considering examples of what animals do versus what animals don’t do would supposedly serve as a suitable model for assessing the “naturalness” of congruent behaviour in humans.

Frustratingly, proposing this argument (from either side) also implicitly equates and reduces queer identities to being synonymous with the basic physical act of same-sex humping.

3. An Appeal to Evolution

With this approach, the debater proposes conjectural theories on whether queer people would or would not confer a reproductive advantage to their tribe. This would determine whether the hypothetical “queer gene” would be naturally selected—or naturally pruned—by the process of evolution.

Those who deny the possibility of reproductive advantage to queerness argue that since it could not have been selected by evolution, it is therefore unnatural: “Gay cave people wouldn’t make any babies.”

Those who believe in a theoretical reproductive advantage argue it proves queerness is natural: “Tribes with non-reproductive queer members would have more providers and caretakers ensuring the survival of all the tribe’s offspring, with queer genes present recessively throughout the population.”

This argument is overly simplistic, because it assumes genetics are the only factor that determine birth traits (such as fabulousness and gender creativity). In fact there are many other factors beyond DNA, such as womb chemistry and pre-natal nutrition, known to affect physical or behavioural traits of offspring. In any case, because scientific research has yet to fully resolve the topic, this channel of argument is reduced to a meaningless intellectual exercise.

4. Because “He” Said So

Any appeals to religious texts fall into this category. This line of argument is as unresolvable as it is heated, because public opinion varies greatly on what precisely does or does not constitute abomination.

Persistence is Futile

What all these arguments have in common is pointlessness. You cannot prove queer is natural, because “natural” is a subjective concept. You can’t prove queer is unnatural for precisely the same reason.

The whole debate dances around the unspoken—but fundamental—value judgement that queer is inferior. By even dignifying the “natural” debate with your participation, you are implicitly agreeing with the notion that if queer people could change, then it would be reasonable to expect them to do so. Reasonable even as far as to justify using the law to block queer people from having equal privileges, as a motivator to get them to straighten up and stop expressing such freakish individuality.

The fact that this lingering question of naturalness is still so commonly debated demonstrates how oppressed we still are as a group.

Is it natural for me, personally, to be a woman with XY chromosomes? The truth is I don’t know, but I don’t care—and neither should you. It’s how I like to be, it feels right, it makes me happy, and it doesn’t hurt anybody. Could I have forced myself to live as a man? Sure I could. Would I have survived? Probably. However, I would have been miserable, depressed, and tormented by it every single day of my life, and without any hope of emotional relief. That’s an unreasonable sacrifice for anyone to expect us to make, just because due to their own preferences and sense of superiority, they feel slightly uncomfortable sitting near us on the subway or sharing a workplace, and would prefer that we not be so weird.

When individual queer people are ambushed and forced into making the “born this way” argument to defend themselves, the debate has already trapped them within an ideological framework that devalues their core identity. When well-meaning but misguided allies make the argument that queer people should be treated decently because it’s natural, or because we can’t change, they are essentially offering us their pity. It hurts to be defended by someone whose argument expresses that deep down inside they’re glad they didn’t turn out like I did. I’m happy with who I am, and I certainly don’t need pity from straight cis people—I just need them to quit standing on my civil liberties and human rights.

The Natural Conclusion

Should queer people only receive equal protection under the law if we can prove that we’re born this way and can’t help it? Or do we perhaps deserve equal dignity simply because there’s nothing wrong with being queer, and because how we live doesn’t violate anyone else’s rights? If you believe same-gender marriage would be harmful to your family, don’t have a same-gender marriage. If transgender ideas gross you out, then just keep living the identity you’re happy with. It is your right, your freedom, to live your life according to your own values, to the extent that you do not infringe on the rights of others. Similarly, it is unethical to use laws as a tool to limit the freedom of others to live their lives a particular way that harms nobody.

The problem is not that we can’t be cured. The problem is that there are arrogant people out there who think we need to be cured. Is it natural to be queer? Stop asking this. It doesn’t matter.

One Comment

  1. Cat Howard
    Monday, 2015.04.13 at 23:48

    “The problem is that there are arrogant people out there who think we need to be cured.”. This is the old “what you should do” argument. That someone else feels they can usurp my right to self-determination is abhorrent to me.

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Christin Milloy