Gay politics today tend to be premised on the ‘born this way’ argument, the idea that being gay is not a matter of choice or preference, but rather an innate, natural and biologically conditioned fact of life. If homosexuality is something we are born with and therefore not something we choose or can be expected to change, the argument goes, we have the right to demand protection under the law, equal rights and social acceptance more generally.
While incredibly pervasive (think Lady Gaga, Macklemore or Glee) and undeniably powerful, the ‘born this way’ argument has also been subjected to substantial criticism. Even though stories about the ‘gay gene’, for example, continue to circulate in popular media coverage, most scientists are very hesitant to assert that there is any straightforward link between potential genetic variation and sexual attraction. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences, especially history and anthropology, have also challenged the ‘born this way’ argument. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that different cultures in the past and present did not distinguish clearly between ‘homosexuals’ and ‘heterosexuals’. Instead, such cultures often developed entirely different ways of understanding sexual desire that resist the idea that there is a social minority group consisting of individuals who are simply ‘born gay’.
Less frequently discussed in the context of these political debates are the historical origins of the ‘born this way’ argument itself, which we can trace back at least 150 years or so. Following Foucault, it is commonly agued that sexual science or sexology emerged in the nineteenth century and invented the notion of the homosexual as a separate kind or ‘type’ of being whose physical and psychological make-up was different from that of others. Needless to say, early sexologists tended to view such difference as pathological and as indicative of deviance and degeneration – homosexuals, according to this view, might be ‘born this way’, but it was not seen as a cause of celebration or affirmation at this earlier historical moment.
While we might think that we have come a long way with the likes of Gaga instructing her audience to “rejoice and love yourself today / ’cause baby, you were born this way”, it is worth questioning to what extent such earlier pathologising views of homosexuality persist and, indeed, go unnoticed when we rehearse the ‘born this way’ argument today. Why, for instance, would it not be ok to be gay if homosexual desire were not simply biologically determined? Do we unintentionally perpetuate the notion that homosexuality is somehow less desirable if we argue for social acceptance and equal rights on the grounds that we simply cannot help the way we feel, because we are somehow different by nature? Thinking about the historical origins of the ‘born this way argument’ and tracing the often problematic legacies of early sexological understandings of homosexuality can be informative and helpful in allowing us to confront blind spots in our own political rhetoric.
Crucially, the potential benefits as well as the problems of using the ‘born this way’ argument were not lost on nineteenth century sexual scientists themselves. The collaboration between Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) and John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) in the 1880s and 1890s, in particular, offers important insights into the historical invention of a powerful political strategy, which is still at the heart of gay politics and culture today. Ellis is remembered as the most eminent English sexologist and he collaborated with Symonds, a well-known Renaissance scholar, classicist and poet, to co-author the first medical textbook on homosexuality in England, a book called Sexual Inversion (first published and promptly banned as obscene in England in 1897).
If you read Sexual Inversion or study the correspondence between Ellis and Symonds, which has recently been published for the first time, it is very clear that both collaborators were keen to write scientifically about homosexuality or ‘sexual inversion’ to use their own terminology, but they also wanted to present a forceful political argument. In particular, they were eager to challenge the criminalisation of male homosexuality in England under the 1885 Labouchère Amendment and change social attitudes more generally. To achieve this shared goal, Ellis and Symonds reappropriated the views of earlier sexologists who had presented homosexuality as pathological. Instead, Ellis and Symonds argued that homosexuality was often inborn or congenital, but this did not mean that homosexuals were necessarily unhealthy or degenerate. They offered a range of evidence to show that homosexuals could be healthy, respectable and even highly accomplished members of society who did not deserve to be prosecuted. In other words, Symonds and Ellis presented homosexuality as an inborn and therefore natural sexual variation and, in so doing, were among the first writers to introduce the historical predecessor of today’s ‘born this way’ argument.
Ellis and Symonds’ correspondence suggests, however, that they also struggled considerably to make this argument work and that they were all too aware of its flaws. This is particularly evident in their discussion of past cultures and the possible uses of historical evidence, in particular, relating to Ancient Greece, which I have discussed at length elsewhere. Ancient Greece was useful in that it could demonstrate forcefully that civilisations that were remembered and celebrated for their moral valour and intellectual brilliance had accepted and even encouraged same-sex desire (between males). But Symonds and Ellis also knew and discussed openly that there was no easy way to apply a modern understanding of homosexuality as inborn or congenital to the Greek past, which was, after all, a remarkably different culture. When thinking about Ancient Greece, it did not make sense to argue that all men who experienced same-sex desire were simply ‘born this way’, since they grew up in a cultural environment that accepted and even encouraged such desires and did not differentiate between ‘homosexuals’ and ‘heterosexuals’. In other words, Ellis and Symonds were already very familiar with the fact that any ‘born this way’ logic collapses once we look at other historical periods or cultures.
Although Sexual Inversion does anticipate today’s ‘born this way’ argument in interesting ways, it is also crucial to recognise that Ellis and Symonds were both very aware of how flawed this argument was. While the idea that homosexuality was necessarily inborn or congenital was a useful strategy to work towards political goals, it also had considerable limitations and certainly did not capture all individual experiences never mind different cultural and historical understandings of sexuality. Reconsidering the ways in which modern scientific understandings of homosexuality emerged in dialogue with political and reformist agendas at this early moment in the history of sexual science is useful in reminding us of these fundamental problems. Ideally, this will allow us to take a step back and think critically about the more difficult and problematic legacies and flaws of the ‘born this way’ argument and perhaps enable us to work towards alternative, richer and more multi-layered understandings of sexuality.
Jana Funke is an Advanced Research Fellow in Medical Humanities at the Department of English and the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter. She researches and has published on late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century literature and culture, the history of sexuality, sexual science and the medicalisation of sex. She tweets from @drjanafunke.
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