Born This Way: the message of Lady Gaga's song may be empowering but it's actually quite conservative. Photo: Getty
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Being gay is not a choice but it’s simplistic and conservative to say “We’re born this way”

The idea that LGBT equality should be justified on the grounds that being gay is natural is tenuous at best and harmful at worst; it actually frames being gay as a second preference to heterosexuality. 

Anyone who respects personal freedom and equality will surely be impressed by the gay rights movement. Recent years have brought much to celebrate; the introduction of same-sex marriage legislation, improvements in public attitudes towards homosexuality within the UK, and gay pride events being held in countries where campaigning had previously been unthinkable. Although there is much work still to do, these are notable successes, achieved after a plethora of debates fought by brave and outspoken LGBT campaigners across the world.

Yet one of the arguments used in these debates is tenuous at best and harmful at worst; the idea that LGBT equality should be justified on the grounds that being gay is natural. The “born this way” argument suggests that those who previously opposed gay rights can be “won over” by the assertion that homosexuality is naturally determined from birth.

This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it very probably isn’t true that homosexuality is entirely naturally determined. Secondly it’s a sign of archaic, traditionalist ideology corrupting LGBT campaign efforts.

The science of sexual orientation is far from conclusive. While a study last year lead to sensationalist newspaper headlines declaring the discovery of a “gay gene”, later research revealed that genetics only accounts for around 40 per cent of variation in sexual orientation. Similarly, the common claim that over 400 species of animals exhibit homosexual behaviour is often exaggerated – very few of these species show a long-term preference for the same sex.

The findings of a 1991 study showing differences in the brain structure of homosexual and heterosexual men was similarly commandeered by those hoping to prove homosexuality resulted from natural genetic causes. Yet the researcher later confirmed that this was not the logical conclusion to be drawn from his evidence.

These cases aren’t uncommon. Scientific research on sexual orientation is consistently hijacked, exaggerated and then renounced; to such an extent that any claim that homosexuality is entirely “natural” and genetically determined seems dubious.

This isn’t to question whether homosexuality exists. The sexual or romantic attraction to members of the same sex is part of the human condition that exists as soon as somebody experiences it. Nor does this evidence suggest homosexuality is a choice – but that sexual orientation is determined by a complex, subconscious socialisation process rather than any inherent “natural” genetic cause. Perhaps surprisingly, there is persuasive evidence for such theories, found in non-Western societies that harbour different beliefs about sexual orientation to our own.The Papua New Guinean Sambia tribe, for instance, believe that all men transition through an age of homosexuality before becoming heterosexual later in life.

And it appears that individuals in these cultures aren’t just conforming to peer pressure – a study by the researcher Gilbert Herdt used the famous Kinsey Scale to analyse their sexual orientation on a seven point rating system. Astonishingly, the results showed that these individuals’ sexual orientation did consistently change with age. Although any socialisation process is unlikely to be as simplistic as this case suggests, such examples demonstrate the influence that society’s beliefs and customs can have on an individual’s personal sexual preferences.

It would be unreasonable to make any wide-reaching conclusions based on such divided evidence. Nonetheless, it’s clear that more research needs to be conducted if we’re to discover the more subtle and nuanced factors that determine sexual orientation.

Hence, while it’s undoubtedly true that many people have been convinced to support equality campaigns because of the “gay is natural” argument, justifying equality with such tenuous, superficial evidence is risky. If, as is very possible, it transpires that homosexuality is partially determined by socialisation, then a backlash could result for LGBT rights.

Only in 2005 were we reminded of the dangers of basing our social outlook on primitive scientific evidence. A study which had failed to find evidence for the existence of male bisexuality (later countered by other studies) led to newspaper headlines suggesting bisexuals were either “Straight, Gay or Lying”. It is remarkable at how quickly so-called scientific “breakthroughs” translate into discrimination and prejudice towards the LGBT community.

Considering this, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that LGBT campaigners might grow to regret justifying basic, ethical arguments using scientific evidence. After all, science is based on an apolitical pursuit of truth – it cannot be tailored to suit an argument, nor should it need to be.

But to argue for social change on the back of scientific evidence isn’t just irresponsible, it’s wholly irrational. Using the “gay is natural” argument suggests there is something inherently good about nature, and that the primitive world exemplifies a respectable code of ethics. This is a barbaric belief at best, and one that uniquely plagues sexual ethics.

You only need to imagine what a naturalistic society would look like to demonstrate how inconsistently these beliefs are applied. Embracing social Darwinism, and encouraging violence, aggression and alcoholism (genetic causes have been discovered for all of these characteristics), such a society would presumably reject some of our most humane (unnatural) achievements; modern medicine, the eradication of diseases such as smallpox, and international aid projects. The flaws of such a “naturalistic fallacy” are obvious – so why do gay rights campaigners attempt to achieve equality on the grounds of homosexuality being natural? Given the array of reasoned, rational arguments in support of gay rights, why resort to such naturalistic moralising?

Of course, the “born this way” argument is often used to protect the welfare of gay people. Indeed, the assertion that there is no choice involved in sexual orientation often triggers empathy and pity towards those in the LGBT community. But this belief is born from a fundamentally homophobic understanding; that people need to be excused for being gay, and more insidiously that they have to seek society’s approval for their sexual behaviour. It’s an argument entrenched in a fear of any kind of sexual experimentation or diversity.

This is the problem with arguing for gay rights on the grounds that homosexuality is natural. Such an apologist, naturalistic attitude isn’t about having pride in your sexual identity. It’s not even about equality. It frames homosexuality as a second preference, justifiable only in the eventuality that nature has prevented an individual from pursuing a heterosexual relationship. Yet most damaging is that the naturalistic argument doesn’t change anybody’s attitudes towards homosexuality, but instead merely excuses individual homosexuals from blame.

The “born this way” argument is part of a wider trend of socially conservative LGBT campaigning. Exemplified by David Cameron’s approach towards same-sex marriage (“I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative, I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative”), it aims to use modern social advances to promote the so-called “traditional moral values” that were once used to justify the introduction of Section 28. Having drained out any ambition of sexual liberation or personal freedoms, such beliefs aim to essentially “normalise” the gay community under an imitation of “traditional”, heteronormative society. In fact, the celebrated campaigns of gay rights have almost all fallen into the trend of mimicking "traditional" relationships; with discussion of marriage, commitment and family.

While this is a great achievement for those who aspire towards a traditional model of life, the gay rights movement must be careful not to neglect the wider LGBT community. Indeed, although polls show that public attitudes towards homosexuals have improved, this is not true for everyone; statistics reveal that bisexuals and trans people still receive a greater level of discrimination and abuse compared to lesbians and gay men. The consequences of this are severe, with bisexual people disproportionately suffering from higher rates of suicide and mental health problems. Likewise, it is routine and commonplace for the media to treat polyamory as a bizarre spectacle rather than a legitimate lifestyle choice. These effects are likely a result of society’s demonisation of those who don’t conform to supposedly “traditional” identities. Considering this, it seems that recent campaigning efforts haven’t necessarily increased society’s tolerance, but have been restricted to achieving the acceptance of a specific type of gay person.

We should be wary of this new wave of socially conservative LGBT campaigning, which feigns as liberation while entrapping a new community in its draconian attitudes and social dogma surrounding sex. The LGBT movement’s proud history of tolerance and diversity was born out of welcoming those who shared a common experience of being rejected by society’s “traditional” and moralising values. To become a force that conforms to, and even promotes, these values, would be enormously harmful to individuals outside of the monogamous, homosexual brand.

To argue for LGBT equality by resorting to naturalistic reasoning and traditionalist values might seem like a quick fix. But it’s a grossly irrational, irresponsible and exclusionary mistake to make. It endorses the notion that society has a right to judge, or accredit, private relationships between consenting adults. It backs a belief that we should be ashamed of difference and wary of tolerance. But most importantly, it rejects freedom in favour of acceptance. The LGBT movement should strive for more.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.

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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.