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Jeremy Helligar Headshot

Would it Matter If We Weren't Born Gay?

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I once had an interesting conversation with a friend who insisted that we're all blank slates when we enter the world. He wasn't the first person to run this theory by me. I objected then as I had before because it contradicted my own ideas about nature vs. nurture, that we are who we are due, in part, to both.

If you look around a nursery with a dozen or more (or less) babies inside, physical characteristics aside, are they all identical? I've never been a parent, but from what mothers and fathers have told me, babies already have personalities. Who we end up being through nurture is largely based on building blocks that came with our brains (nature). We are who we are, and we become who we are, too.

But that's just my own hypothesis. In the past, part of my objection to the idea that our entire non-physical identity is developed after birth was spawned by fear: Did it mean that I really did choose to be gay? Were so many gay-rights activists and Lady Gaga wrong?

I presented my concerns to my friend, who stood his ground:

"I think we're born as sexual beings. But preferences evolve. Sometimes early on, sometimes later. Being born gay would imply that it's written into the genes, which I hope it isn't. All efforts to find gay markers have failed so far.

"I just refuse to believe that I was born gay. Nor was I born straight. I was born with natural sexual desire. But maybe that's just me."

Many heterosexuals, particularly the ones who hate gay people, would probably agree with at least part of that, the part that assumes they were born with "natural" sexual desire. After all, straight people have never had to carry the burden of proof that they were born that way. It's generally accepted that they were because heterosexuality supposedly represents "natural" sexual desire.

So what does that make homosexuality? Naturally, "unnatural," the exact opposite? With that question casting shadows of doubt on my sexual identity, I can understand the need to discredit conventional thinking on the subject. Gay people are denigrated enough as it is. Do we really need to have our sex lives officially stamped "unnatural," too, by finger-wagging homophobes?

But will proving that we're born this way (wording, by the way, that I object to for its subtle implication that being gay is some kind of birth defect) make the staunchest bigots any more accepting? Although some cringe at gay-black connections, here's another one: Does the fact that black people are born black make racists any less so? Are sexists swayed by the knowledge that gender is determined before birth?

Let's say that those genetic markers were found, and homosexuality was proven to be a birthright. What would prevent homophobes from then officially labeling it an "affliction," something to be cured or prevented altogether through prenatal measures, like abortion, or through some kind of genetic cleansing? Homophobia is an insidious and deeply ingrained thing. We shouldn't assume for a moment that discrimination against gays would decrease dramatically -- or at all -- just because homosexuality ended up being something beyond our control.

It's not as if "natural" automatically equals "acceptable" while "unnatural" automatically equals "unacceptable" anyway. Consider a woman who pleasures herself with a vibrator. Is there anything "natural" about penetrating your private parts with a piece of electronic equipment? But she doesn't have to prove that it's "natural" behavior in order to get a pass for doing it. The private use of a vibrator might not be something to be discussed publicly, but outside of Alabama's Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act and Texas's Obscene Device Law, few would look down on it as being abominable behavior, punishable my ostracism, assault, imprisonment or death by hate crime.

The double standard works even harder against gays when you take into account non-sexual predilections. Is a preference for sweet snacks over savory ones something that we learn, or is it innate? Is liking one over the other "natural"? Does anyone really care? Of course not, because unlike sexual preference, neither is considered to be objectionable. People who can't eat just one (potato chip) don't attempt to justify it with scientific data, nor do those who'd rather have a chocolate bar. They just eat the snack. Neither might be considered particularly healthy, but refined sugar aside, only the most fanatical health nut would dismiss either as being "unnatural" or wrong.

When you apply the preference angle to other lifestyle options, the idea of acceptance based on being "natural" gets more complicated and messy. We've all heard the argument that human beings aren't monogamous by nature and the one that insists that the human body is not designed for meat eating. Those ideas are actually the crux of two widely embraced practices: open relationships and vegetarianism. If it were proven that homosexuality has no biological basis and is therefore undisputedly "unnatural," would it create a similar reaction within the gay community? That's one steep potential pitfall of seeking validation through the nature of homosexuality: What happens to our self-image if the nurture side wins?

It's one thing if the quest for this particular knowledge is driven by purely scientific curiosity, like wondering which came first, the chicken or the egg. But using the idea that our sexuality is due to nature over nurture in order to validate or justify it inherently suggests that there might be something wrong with it. Why does being gay need to be validated or justified?

Personally, I wouldn't want anyone to accept me as a gay man just because there's nothing I can do about being gay. How condescending and, well, unacceptable that would be. I want to be accepted because there's nothing wrong with being gay, regardless of whether the choice was mine or God's (or whoever you believe is responsible for character traits that are beyond our control).

I wish we lived in a world where we didn't have to spend so much time and energy justifying our lives and loves, proving that we're worthy of the same legal protection as straight people, that our hearts are perfectly normal, our desires perfectly natural. Acceptance is so much more meaningful when it's unconditional, when it comes not from science but from the soul.