Melissa Harris-perry: Welcome to The Takeaway, it's MHP, and we're taking it back to 1977 with this one, the disco hit, I Was Born This Way by the late Archbishop Carl Bean, a gay Black minister and AIDS activist. Archbishop Bean passed in September of 2021, but the legacy of his proud gay anthem lives on. It served as an inspiration for Lady Gaga's single, Born This Way, and it was the unofficial mantra of the movement for LGBTQ rights for decades, a counter to the notion that people choose to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, but the message raises as many questions as it answers.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are deeply ingrained in our identities, but does it really matter whether were born this way? I'm going to put those questions and more to Dr. Lisa Diamond, Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at the University of Utah. Professor Diamond, thanks for being here.
Dr. Lisa Diamond: That's My pleasure.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How did the idea of being born this way, this nature versus nurture argument appeal or find a useful framework for queer activists?
Dr. Lisa Diamond: It's interesting that argument didn't originally come from queer activists, it was actually a response to anti-gay activism in the late 1960s by Anita Bryant, who was advocating for laws that would prevent gay individuals from being school teachers. The premise was that if there were gay school teachers, they would recruit the children to be gay themselves. Gay activists responded to that argument by saying, "That's ridiculous. That's not possible because we're born that way. It's not something we can present to children and bring them in."
The Born That Way argument had a very specific context of being a response to an accusation that we were recruiting children. Then it took on a life of its own, and so I find it interesting that the terms of the debate were not set by queer activists, they were set by anti-gay activists, and we were trying to defend ourselves. Over the years, the argument has morphed to mean different things, but it was always an inherently anti-gay argument.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think there's also this question around intersectional movement building similarly, because I'm also thinking here about the movement for Black human rights, Black equity and civil rights happening again in the mid-20th century, and the ways that race also gets flattened into a single biological narrative.
Dr. Lisa Diamond: Absolutely. I think you can't understand the Born That Way argument, the context of queer rights, without understanding the way that categorical notions of both gender and race have also played roles in the Civil Rights Movement. It's no accident that the Born That Way argument came about in the late '60s when we were having similar debates about what it meant to be Black, to be an ethnic minority.
The civil rights language of equal protection was something that the queer movement borrowed from the Civil Rights Movement, that we have an immutable characteristic because, in the Equal Protection Clause, they talk about the immutable characteristics of race and sex, which is funny now because now that we have the Human Genome Project, we know that there is no genetic reality to race at all, and now we understand that biological aspects of sex and gender are also pretty complicated.
We have had these biological notions of inherent traits. We say, "Oh, it's an accident of birth so we can't discriminate against you for something that's an accident of birth," and that was a logic that was successful in the Civil Rights context. Those queer activists borrowed that logic.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Diamond, as you were talking about mapping the human genome and now what we know about the more complex realities of this so-called immutable set of characteristics that we've been thinking about, let's talk about the science a little bit, what do we currently know about how sexual orientation and gender identity develop?
Dr. Lisa Diamond: There has actually been a recent genetic study. They use the full genomes of tens of thousands of individuals through the United Kingdom Biobank, which is a big registry of people's full genomes, and also data from 23andMe. Those forms of data can also tell us something about whether we share certain genetic characteristics with other people who are similar to us in some way. This study looked at whether there appeared to be any genetic similarity between individuals who had engaged at some point in their life in same-gender sexual behavior.
Now, it's really important to remember that behavior is not the same thing as attraction or identity. One of the historical problems in this field is what are you going to count as being gay? Does being gay mean that you say you're gay, that you're acting gay, that you're thinking gay? Nobody really knows for sure, but in this study, they said, "Okay, we're just going to focus on same-gender behavior and whether people who have ever engaged in same-gender behavior are different from folks who have never engaged in same gender behavior."
What they found was that somewhere between 8% and 25% of the variation between individuals and whether or not they ever engaged in same-gender behavior was genetically related, so that there is a significant genetic influence on that trait of wanting to engage in same-gender behavior, but that is between 8% and 25%. That is definitely not genetic determinism. We know from studies of identical twins that only about 30% of the time does a gay twin have another gay twin.
We know that there's genetic influence, but that influence is probabilistic rather than deterministic. It's a likelihood, not a disease category like you have this or you have or you don't. It is both genetic and not genetic at the same time, which shouldn't surprise us because most complex human traits have the same features. Humans are complicated. You don't just turn a switch and make someone one category or the other. There's definitely genetic influence, but also a lot of environmental variation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's go all the way back then to the genesis of this, this notion of recruitment, which, again, has entered into our public policy discourse. If there was a moment when it was necessary to make a genetic biological argument in order to push back against this very notion, is there danger, is there fear, is there concern that by actually being more accurate about the ways that we are complex humans we reopen this possibility, this public policy attack?
Dr. Lisa Diamond: I think the problem is with the outdated facile, and frankly, first-grade understanding of biology that that view implies. The notion that if something isn't genetic, it can be forcibly changed or chosen or pushed around is a false understanding of genes, it's a false understanding of development. Genes are not the opposite of choice. Part of the problem is that the culture has created a binary system, either you're born that way or you're going to recruit and change everybody. Those two categories are made up. They don't exist.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Lisa Diamond, professor of Developmental Psychology, Health Psychology, and Gender Studies at the University of Utah. Thank you so much for joining us on The Takeaway.
Dr. Lisa Diamond: I loved it. Thanks.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Pausing for a moment, we'll be right back. We're on The Takeaway. Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. According to the ACLU, states have considered some 250 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation this year alone, much of it aimed at transgender Americans, and particularly young transgender people. We've been talking today about sexual orientation and gender identity and how these deeply ingrained aspects of our identity are formed. It's been a big part of the debate around LGBTQ identity and rights for decades, but in a way, the question remains, why? Why should it even make a difference when it comes to talking about civil rights? We choose our religion and yet our religious liberties are protected under the law. To help me think through this, I spoke with-
Chase Strangio: Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice at the ACLU's LGBTQ and HIV Project.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I started by asking him whether the Supreme Court has provided guidance on whether being "born this way" matters in the eyes of the law?
Chase Strangio: It's not clear whether it's a legal question or a factual question, as in is the court deciding as a legal matter if this is something that you shouldn't have to change or is it deciding as a factual matter that it's something you can't change? The law isn't really clear here. The Supreme Court has not decided or even really considered whether sexual orientation or transgender status receives these heightened protections under the constitution. The question of is being LGBTQ immutable in the sense of either innate or unchangeable has been a big part of the constitutional analysis that lower courts have engaged in when it comes to LGBTQ people seeking legal protections.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On the one hand, there is clearly this relevant legal strategy around if immutability is a necessary aspect of an identity being understood as a protected class, then making an argument towards immutability is presumably relevant. Just to make the most ridiculous example, hair color is perhaps genetic, but perhaps shows up at birth, but is not immutable. We think of hair color as both changing over time, without intervention, but also that we can intervene in our hair color, and that hair color has not had this historic basis for discrimination in the ways that these other protected classes have. Am I getting this right at all or am I totally making a mess of this?
Chase Strangio: No. I think that's absolutely right. That's the type of analysis a court would go through to say, is this something that is unchangeable, and is it something that people have been historically discriminated on the basis of? Such that courts should step in and protect people from majoritarian impulses of discrimination. Here we have this question of immutability being such an important or arguably important piece of constitutional law with respect to equal protection jurisprudence, but what are the implications of framing our identities around such a concept?
I think a lot of the advocacy over the years has pushed back and said, "Is the question really immutable in the sense that you can't change it, or it doesn't change, or in the sense of you shouldn't have to change or abandon it in order to receive legal protections," and analogizing to more like religion, which obviously is not immutable, but receives heightened protection under the constitution.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right. Obviously not immutable. Let's get into this question that is sometimes framed as nature versus nurture. When it comes to-- Let's just stick at this moment with trans identity. On the one hand, I totally get the legal argument here, but help me to also understand the aspects of this argument that may not be about the law per se, but more about the truth of lived experience.
Chase Strangio: I think this is such a complicated part of cultural discourse. It's hard to know, like in the chicken and the egg sense, did the question of, "Are we born this way? Did we choose to be who we are?" emerge because of the legal imperatives to understand ourselves this way or did the legal imperatives respond to something that we developed culturally? I think it's such a dynamic process.
It's almost impossible to know because law is so salient in the formation of our understanding of ourselves and our lives, but if you think about how we come to understand ourselves in the world, there is something that is happening for people, which is, "Why am I experiencing what I'm experiencing and what is the meaning of my desire and my identity?"
I think that for myself, I'll say as a queer and trans person, in both my understanding of myself as a queer person and my understanding of myself as a trans person, there were questions I was asking myself about, "Is this something that I chose or is this something that is inherent in me and that I couldn't possibly not choose?" so to speak.
I think these questions that we ask ourselves have deep personal and cultural relevance and resonance. I think if we live in a more nuanced time in society, we might be able to actually have more beautiful exchange that holds the complexity of what it means to be human, which I think is always a dynamic process between fundamentally and foundationally, like the biochemistry that makes us who we are and then all of the things layered on top of us that help us become the ever-changing beings that we are. I will say, when I became a parent, I also was like, "Wow, there are some things about my child that are just there."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. They just show up like that. I know. I was going to say you're a sociologist or an anthropologist until you become a parent, then you're like, "Oh, I'm a geneticist," but I didn't do that. That one just showed up like that.[laughs]
Chase Strangio: Yes, and it's deep. You think, yes, everything is going to be a product of what they're exposed to, and it is in part. There are some limits on that based on how they come to you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I also worry a little bit, the language of "Born This Way might lead some folks to go looking for the ways to cure it.
Chase Strangio: I think we have seen over and over through history that that has led to the desire to eradicate that, which is seen as undesirable and I think that impulse is strong. Unfortunately, so many communities feel the need and pressure to say, "Look, I can't help being this way. Please don't punish me for it." I understand that impulse, but it can lead to this idea that it is something to be ashamed of, which I think every marginalized identity structurally targeted by various supremacists would fight back and say, "No, I love this about myself." It has that shame-based narrative implied. Then, of course, there's the genocidal reality connected to it, which is this idea that if we can locate the source, we can get rid of it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Chase Strangio of the ACLU. Thank you so much for joining us on The Takeaway.
Chase Strangio: Thank you so much for having me.
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