The Overwhelming Heteronormativity Of ‘Born This Way’


You’ve heard the phrase ‘born this way’. We all have. Even before Gaga turned it into an earworm that has been rattling around my brain for every single sentence of this post, it’s been a way that people explain queerness. And, for many of us, it’s something that makes sense in our own lives. We point to telltale signs in our childhoods that there was always something different about us. When people call us perverts and abominations, we respond by assuring them that no, this is who we are, and that this is how we were born.

I despise it. And I’d like to explain why. This is going to take a little work, though- we’ll be talking about heteronormativity, gender, and even the dreaded patriarchy along the way. So make yourself a nice big mug of something, because we’re going to start right at the heart of it all- wondering why on earth homophobes are.

Why on earth would anyone hate queer people?

It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Here we all are, doing our thing in a world that has plenty real threats against us, and people pick who someone loves or what gender they are as reasons to despise them. On face value, it doesn’t make any sense. Queer people mainly go about our days like everyone else does, by-and-large minding our own business. Our existence doesn’t harm anyone. We don’t prevent anyone else from living their lives as they choose. Generally, we just want the same right to choose our own destinies and to have our families and identities respected the same way everyone else’s is.

On face value, it seems bizarre that that would be a big deal.

Why do people hate us so much, then? It’s easy to say “religion” or “ignorance”, but those answers don’t really tell us anything. While it’s true that some religions have taboos against entirely harmless things, it’s unusual to find something harmless that the majority will forbid. When you do, though? It’s often a sign that there is a threat lurking just below the surface. Something that is dangerous in ways that are not always obvious.

Reproductive rights aren’t dangerous unless you have a vested interest in controlling women. Diversity in gender and sexualities isn’t dangerous, either- unless, that is, you have a vested interest in maintaining a distinctly binary and patriarchal gender system. Which, if you’re given power by that system? You do.

We live in profoundly patriarchal (and kyriarchal) societies. It’s not just that men hold most positions of power and the vast majority of wealth in the world. It’s that the positions men tend to hold and the ways that men tend to do things are more valued themselves. And it is, of course, that we divide what people should do and how they should do it on binary gendered lines. Not necessarily on purpose, by the way. Patriarchy isn’t a shady cabal of men meeting in secret in darkened rooms to plot against equality. It doesn’t have to have leaders. It doesn’t even have to be something that people are obviously or consciously aware of. It’s just people doing what they do, groups working to their own advantage, and power entrenching itself in obvious and subtle ways over the decades.

Yes, by the way, I am going to get back to queer people. Trust me- it’s all connected, but for the moment we’ll have to talk a little more about gender.

Because the only way that this kind of large-scale social control and organisation can continue, of course, is if people buy into it. We need to feel like it’s a good thing. We need it to feel natural, like there’s an essential good to men doing one kind of work (largely paid and visible) and women doing other kinds of work, which are more likely to be unpaid and invisible. It has to satisfy us. We need to feel like we live in a world where this is not just inevitable, but preferable. Like it’s the only truly natural way to be. And if you’re a human, which I am almost certain that you are, then one of the ways you make sense of the world is through narrative. It’s through narrative that we create and pass on our ideas about what is good, what is bad, and what our happy ever after looks like.

When it comes to gender? We have narratives in spades. Think of family homes- warm, welcoming spaces filled with nurturing mothers, grannies and aunties. Think of good, decent men who work all day to provide for the families they love, before coming home to spend time with the kids they dote on. Think of the love they all have for each other and the ways they take care of each other.

I know you can, because we all can. We’ve all lived our lives in a world saturated with these stories. And stories.. stories get under your skin. Stories are how we make sense of the world.

Queerness as threat

These stories aren’t just about the family. They are situated in the family, but they’re about far bigger things. They’re about how we define ourselves as men and women, boys and girls. They’re tied both to aspects of our core identity, and to some of the largest-scale social divisions we have. Three and a half billion people on one side, three and a half billion on the other. And the thing that divides one 3.5 billion from the other? Is the same story that we tell them will keep them safe, loved and happy in their closest and most intimate relationships. It’s the story that we are all men or women, and that men and women are deeply, essentially distinct groups of people. It’s the story that, for all our differences, there is one thing that is an essential maleness, and another that is an essential femaleness, and that the complementarity between these differences is what brings us together.

In a world where the family- that space where we create our homes, our refuge from the world, where we love and nurture each other- is based on the idea that men and women are essentially different beings, queerness is scary. If two men, two women, or an entirely different configuration of people can come together and create a family? If little girls can grow up to be men, little boys to be women, and anyone to be neither men nor women? We are left without an anchor for some of our most treasured truths. We are left afraid in a world that makes even less sense than we thought it might.

People aren’t scared of queerness because there’s anything immediately wrong with one woman loving another, or with some people’s bodies being configured differently to others. They’re scared of queerness- and they lash out at us- because we challenge one of the biggest narratives our society has, one that stretches from large-scale division to the intimacy we share with people we love to our very sense of ourselves.

And for many of us? We are left without one of the few things that gives us some semblance (or a great deal) of power and authority.

By now, there’s likely no going back. Many of us queer people are no longer willing to hide. We have families and friends who love and support us. Our existence can’t be denied. The evidence that we are as capable as anyone of having meaningful lives and creating nurturing families continues to grow. To talk directly about how we challenge gendered narratives is to admit that those are stories that might themselves be challenged.

And so- without deliberate effort, but because it makes sense to us and helps us to feel safe- an overwhelming narrative arises. Instead of facing our stories head-on and challenging the truths they claim, we adapt them. Just a little bit, on the edges. We fit queerness into the cracks of our stories, moulding it to keep us feeling safe.

We say that we were born this way.

Born This Way as neutraliser

Before I go on, I want to make a point very clear. I am not stating for a second that everyone’s orientation or identity is chosen, malleable or fluid. From many LGBT people’s childhood stories to the overwhelming failure of ex-gay ‘therapy’ to do anything other than hurt the people it claims to help, it’s clear that sexuality is, for many people, something that revolves closely around a fixed point.

For others, though, it’s not. Sexual and gender expressions are gloriously diverse. Even if we’re born with particular inclinations, the choices that we make after those define us as much as that which we are born with. Additionally? Something that could be fixed for one person may be chosen for another.

I hope you’ll forgive me for mentioning myself for a moment- I live in my own mind, so I can’t speak for anyone else. I grew up with the potential to be attracted to people of a variety of genders. I chose to come out, to pursue non-hetero relationships with the people I felt drawn to. I learned about different ways of doing relationships. Currently, I choose to pursue nonmonogamous relationships, if I pursue romantic relationships at all, because they fit well with the values I’ve developed, the way I prefer to build family and community- and, if I’m honest, because I happened to meet some wonderful poly people along the way.

I’m willing to bet that, whatever your own orientation and preferred relationship configuration(s), you have similar stories. You were born or grew up with a certain innate potential. Then you met some people, learned some things, discovered different ways of doing relationships, and made some choices about what kind of things suit you. Some of these things are dealbreakers. Some are open to negotiation. And there is, over the decades of your life, change between which category a particular thing fits into.

In short? We have potential. We make choices. We change. We grow. Many of us have the potential to be different to what we are- and maybe someday we will. Or we won’t. Life is complicated, and it sends us in unexpected directions sometimes.

The idea of ‘born this way’ ignores all of that. ‘Born this way’ introduces the idea that we have no choice in who we are, who we love, and what we do.

On one hand, it encourages a horrible narrative in supporting equality- the idea that we simply can’t help who we are. Who, it asks, would ever choose such a terrible fate as to be queer? If we could be cishet we would, right? ‘Born this way’ doesn’t challenge heteronormative ideals of the superiority of particular relationship forms. It doesn’t celebrate anything about queerness- not the relationships we have, the cultures and families we create, and the things we have to teach cishet society. Instead, it asks for ‘normal’ people’s pity. Don’t be mean to us. We can’t help it. We were born this way.

That’s not the only way, though, in which the ‘born this way’ narrative- and it is a narrative, which emphasises certain aspects of queer experience while ignoring and erasing others- bolsters heteronormativity. You see, ‘born this way’ also reinforces the separation between straightness and queerness. If we are ‘born this way’, than, by extension, straight people are not. If we are born this way, then we are, and are destined to always remain, different from the norm. An exception, distinctly separate from the rule, made so by an accident of birth. If we are born this way, we pose no threat or challenge to gender norms or heteronormativity- we’re nothing more than abberations. A minority who will always stay that way, and always be slightly apart.

19 thoughts on “The Overwhelming Heteronormativity Of ‘Born This Way’

  1. I found this really interesting– I use the “born this way” narrative mostly to explain my gender and tend not to discuss/dissect my sexuality at all, unless absolutely forced– and then I use “just the way it is”… which is not much better, in the end, is it?

  2. I don’t fully agree. I think the truth lies somewhere between the free choice of the constructivist and the chill determinism of biological essentialism.

    “Born this way” is a step. It’s a useful tool as long as it’s not seen as a reductionistic be-all end-all argument.

    What I utterly reject, as do you, is the notion that “Born this way” is a fitting apologetic, that it’s somehow appropriately spun as a “who would want to be queer, it’s not my choice because I would choose to be straight if I could.” I despise that line of rhetoric.

    I was born this way. But I would not have chosen to be born any differently.

  3. Yeah, I’ve always questioned the validity of the “born this way” response. When I started to hear this approach trotted out twenty some years ago, I remember having discussions with queer friends about how backwards the approach seemed. The subtext of the message “I was born this way” has always included “Please don’t hurt me. I can’t help that I’m not like straight, cis people. No one would consciously choose to live so far outside of the norm.” This implies that the majority has an inherent right to define what is a proper way of being for everyone else and that this way of being is somehow superior to others. It concedes power to those who do not deserve such power over others.

    This has always pissed me off. Should other minorities be expected to apologize for not being white, middle/upper class, able bodied, female, Christian, or native born? F*k that. We’re not inferior. Our lives and our ways of being are as worthy and as good as the next person’s. Our modes of being, chosen or otherwise, do not justify the powerful majority relegating us to the bottom rungs of the social ladder. That’s the heart of the matter. Anything else is political window dressing.

    “Born this way” is a rhetoric too easily appropriated in manufacturing a social caste system with distinct lines of power. And make no mistake about it, in some cultures, “born this way” means that you simply accept your inferior station in life. You are born into a lower caste and you shall always remain under the boot heels of your betters, for they are born with superior qualities, and are thus accorded a superior station in life. To challenge this naturalized hierarchy is to deny the underlying structure of nature, society, and/or God.

    Besides that, my own experiences as a trans, bi, asexual person have never fit into the “born this way” narrative. I can point to key experiences in my life that significantly altered, shaped, and guided my gender/sex/sexuality. Had certain events transpired differently or had I been born into a different subculture, I might very well have developed in ways far closer to the norm. There’s a level of fluidity in my life that is generally ignored by the “born this way” narrative. While I understand that this narrative has served as an effective political tool in getting het people to accept the rest of us, I’ve always felt excluded from this narrative.

    • Oops. That should have read:

      Should other minorities be expected to apologize for not being white, middle/upper class, able bodied, male, Christian, or native born?

      I wish the WordPress comment system had an “edit” feature. Ah well.😦

  4. Excellent post. However, being autistic myself with two autistic children, there’s also the point that if a genetic cause of anything is accepted- whether it’s being queer or autistic or anything that falls out of the narrative of “normal”- there is a good chance that geneticists will try to find the cause and attempt to eradicate it.

    With that caveat, I agree with fliponymous’ comment. Social change begins with tiny steps, and as we have seen in the history of the LGB community (I purposely leave out the “T” because many LGBs still reject the genderqueer), once we begin to chip away slowly at the dam, eventually the dam breaks and there is a flood of truth.

    • Who care’s if they reject it? Many in straight society reject LGB, does that mean it should be allowed and accepted?

      • …I have no idea what you are getting at here?

        • Sorry, I was responding to this comment “I purposely leave out the “T” because many LGBs still reject the genderqueer.” Which, to me at least, implies that it’s ok to reject the transgendered because “many” people in the LGBT community still do. I am saying that just because they leave them out, doesn’t mean it’s ok to keep doing so. I think the LGBT community is supposed to be one of inclusion and it seems like saying “LGB” is creating another exclusive club that leaves people out, similar to the way straight society has done throughout history (and still does…)

          • I didn’t say it’s okay. It’s really really not okay. But you have to acknowledge an injustice before you can repair it

        • I guess after reading my comment, it’s not worded very well:/

        • Eh, the second part is horrible too… I must be tired… What I meant by “does that mean it should be allowed and accepted” is straight societies rejection… I should have said “because straight society rejects the LGBT community, does that mean they should be allowed to continue to do so with no objection?” Or something along those lines…

      • I have no clue either… If it’s decided that any form of “not in the normal narrative” is eradicated medically or genetically, I certainly do care. A lot.

        Or if you mean that I should ignore the fact that the LGB community still has a tendency to marginalise the genderqueer… I don’t personally marginalise the genderqueer, but it’s a perfectly fair point that even others who are marginalised are marginalising people they consider to be more different than they are.

        • “Or if you mean that I should ignore the fact that the LGB community still has a tendency to marginalise the genderqueer… I don’t personally marginalise the genderqueer” This is what I was addressing. I don’t think it should be ignored, but saying LGB because everyone else does seems to indicate that you’re joining in with that rejection of the transgendered.

          • From what I’ve seen, LGBT is the current politically correct “umbrella term”, and in general it’s what I use. For that one comment, for purposes of making a point, I left out the “T”.

            I’d personally wish to include the polyamorous and asexual (yes they do exist) into the “umbrella term” for people who are not straight and cis, but that may be a long time in coming.

  5. Can you turn off the snow? It makes it literally impossible for me to read your posts. I’m copying and pasting the whole thing into a text editor, because I want to see what you have to say.

  6. Pingback: Link Love (2014-01-18) | Becky's Kaleidoscope

  7. Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:

    I like different thoughts on Queerness and non-heteronormative culture and I really loved this article. Agree with it or not it actually allows a good perspective into different types of people.

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