Do you ever look for evidence of your adult traits in memories, photographs, or other records of your younger self? (Keep your answer in mind. There will be a quiz.)
Born This Way is a submission-based “photo/essay project for gay adults (of all genders) to submit childhood pictures and stories (roughly ages 2 to 12), reflecting memories & early beginnings of their innate LGBTQ selves.” The blog’s info page notes that “just like real life, the LGBTQ kids here come in all shades and layers of masculine and feminine” and that submitters are “simply representing — and owning — all those various shades.”
Lisa Wade of Sociological Images recently criticized the BTW blog in two posts. In the first, she wrote that most of the posts on BTW conflate gender nonconformity with sexual orientation, and that “the argument made in the vast majority of posts” is, “it’s obvious I was gay because I broke rules of masculinity/femininity.”
Lisa pointed out that people of all sexual orientations display varying degrees of compliance with rules of masculinity and femininity. I’m certainly with her there. She also argued that even if we ever prove conclusively that sexual orientation is biologically determined, bigots will find other justifications for their bigotry. Again, I see her point.
But then she concluded that BTW is
doing everyone a disservice by perpetuating the stereotype of sissy gay men and butchy lesbians.
In a second post, Lisa attempted to support her position that “a biological argument for acceptance” is “shortsighted” by showing a photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt as a young child, in long hair and a dress. She pointed out that it would be ridiculous to assume from the picture that FDR is gay, claiming to show that “the idea that wearing a dress or seeming girly is a sign that one is gay is also completely ahistorical.”
Seeking evidence of childhood gender nonconformity and/or same-sex attraction is so much a staple of the LGBTQ experience in the United States that it’s become a cliché. Thanks to “But I’m a Cheerleader,” my queer college friends and I enjoyed a community-wide inside joke of pretending to find the “root of our homosexuality” — whether it be our mothers’ wedding pantsuits or our undying love of softball — long before Lady Gaga swooped in to capitalize on our convictions that we were “Born This Way.”
The argument that same-sex attraction and gender nonconformity are choices, or pathologies resulting from poor parenting, trauma, or moral failure, has long been a weapon of those who would deny LGBTQ folks civil rights, legal protections, and basic respect. Homosexuality has been medicalized as a mental illness for much of recent history; “therapeutic” ex-gay programs still exist and do considerable psychological damage to this day. It only makes sense that we would fight back by attempting to prove that sexual orientation and/or gender nonconformity are biological traits we’re born with and can’t control. Indeed, studies have tentatively suggested that there may be biological, and even genetic, components to sexual orientation.
It is sociologically irresponsible to present the “born this way” meme without acknowledging this historical context. And the FDR argument is just silly. Presenting a picture of a boy in a dress as evidence that breaking gender norms doesn’t necessarily indicate homosexuality, even though male children wearing dresses didn’t constitute breaking gender norms at the time the photograph was taken, doesn’t even follow its own logic.
(And, by the way: Some gay men really are effeminate, some lesbians really are masculine, and some people really experience those traits as being connected. We do everyone a disservice to suggest that their experiences don’t deserve visibility.)
I found both posts to be short-sighted, condescending, and generally offensive, as a furious comment I left on the second one (in which I accused Lisa of “harping” — admittedly not my finest moment) can attest. But Lisa is hardly the first person to condemn LGBTQ people’s interest in biological determinism, nor is she the first to lecture LGBTQ folks on how to go about our own business.
Rather than spend any more time picking apart Lisa’s argument, however, I’m here to suggest that there may be something more going on when LGBTQ people explore our pasts — something that we miss if we limit ourselves to a simplistic, literal understanding of the “born this way” phenomenon.
Certainly, many LGBTQ people and allies are interested in proving the extent to which sexual orientation and/or gender identity are biological. I’m comfortable saying that most “out” LGBTQ folks feel there’s something innate about our identities. And certainly, many LGBTQ people and allies employ this conviction to support arguments for acceptance. But why assume that our self-reflection serves only, or even primarily, political purposes?
I have explored my own childhood, looking for evidence of my development as a person with same-sex attractions and a strong femme identity. I do this for myself, not for anyone else. And I believe this process of self-discovery and identity creation is important in its own right.
You see, I didn’t grow up queer. You could almost say I grew up straight, not because I was ever actually heterosexual, but because with very few exceptions (if any), the culture I live in raises all its children as though they are straight and cis. My belief in my own heterosexuality was so strong that at age 24 I have spent most of my life believing I am straight, though this is emphatically false. (Many LGBTQ folks don’t discover those identities until even later in life. But just imagine a straight person believing for most of their life that they are gay, and you will see why my 18 years of ignorance are outrageous.)
I explore the gender presentation and sexuality of my younger self in an attempt to reclaim a childhood that I feel was taken from me by heteronormativity. I grieve for what might have been, for the healthier development and stronger sense of self I might have enjoyed if I had known being gay was even possible for me. I can’t know whether I would have been any happier if I had discovered my sexuality sooner. But I do wonder about that, and I wonder whether certain experiences might have been different. I wonder what experiences I missed that I might have had, and what questions I might have asked myself if I’d had the vocabulary. I am amazed and appalled to realize just how poorly I knew myself — contrary to the notion that gender and sexual orientation are things we should know about ourselves from an early age.
Recently, while visiting my parents’ house, I found two artifacts of my life before I knew I was anything but heterosexual. One is a picture of my counselor from the science camp I was required to attend for school when I was 9 or 10; I now suspect that she may have been gay, and I’m pretty sure I had a subconscious, unacknowledged crush on her. The other artifact is an essay I wrote for school on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man when I was 17 or 18. Reading it again, I wonder if its analysis of racial otherness in the novel was somehow informed by my own unrecognized experience of queer otherness. Neither object is proof positive of my sexuality, and neither would be particularly meaningful with respect to queerness if I weren’t invested in constructing a queer identity.
But I am invested in constructing a queer identity. That changes everything. These bits and pieces are meaningful parts of my queer development because I say they are. Reclaiming my past as a queer past is itself a part of my queer experience. And if other LGBTQ folks share this desire to construct queer personal histories, then perhaps that practice would make a meaningful and productive subject of sociological analysis.
Now for the quiz.
I’d like to suggest that searching for and constructing pasts is an activity not unique to LGBTQ folks. We all look to the past to make sense of the present, to make meaning of our lives. Artists often claim they’ve always had “artistic temperaments.” Some people attribute their personality quirks to family members they’ve never even met. We want our selves to be congruent and be significant. And because memories and perceptions change by the minute, we’re always constructing the past to some extent.
So I ask you, LGBTQ and otherwise: How have you consciously constructed your own past? What childhood experiences do you understand differently because of your present identity or later experiences? What parts of yourself do you believe to be innate, even though we may never be able to scientifically prove you right?