Using Images to Say “Born Gay”

11 Feb

Of all the ways the Internet is used for humor and commentary, an especially successful format is the photo blog populated with reader submissions around an interesting theme. For instance, Awkward Family Photos became a sensation in mid-2009 for its priceless arrays of dated clothes and questionable poses, while My Parents were Awesome celebrates contributors’ relatives in their attractive, fashionable younger years.

Isaac, age 7, Western Australia

A new site, Born This Way, is now using the same format to address the important mind science question of whether homosexuality is a choice. As the NPR.org article that alerted me to Born This Way puts it, the blog “pairs a snapshot of a gay person as a kid with a personal essay about what he or she sees when looking at the photo,” yielding results that are both “totally delightful… often thoughtful and funny” and “wading in contentious waters.” In multiple contexts now, from its own comments section to those of the NPR and Salon.com articles about it, the site has sparked debate over the influences of choice, nature, and nurture in the development of homosexual adults. 

Such a debate has significant implications for the law. In recent controversies over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage in many states, the opinions of lawmakers, advocates, and voters often correlate with whether they believe homosexuality is a choice. And rightly so, one might think, in a society that holds people responsible for their choices while working to avoid disparate treatment based on the types of differences people can’t change.

In the case of Born This Way, numerous gay adults have found an unusually simple and powerful method of conveying how unequivocally they feel their sexual orientation falls into the latter category. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the pictures of Shawn Keene striking a flamenco-like pose at age five or Tracy dressed as a cowboy on the prairie at age 7 do make it difficult to dispute that these children were “different” (as the associated essays so often put it) long before they were capable of “choosing” where to direct their sexual attractions.

Txus, age 1, Tarragona, Spain

The blog is careful, however, not to conflate sexuality with the gender characteristics most evident in the pictures. Its “About” section notes that “some of the pix here feature gay boys with feminine traits, and some gay girls with masculine traits. And even more gay kids with NONE of those traits… this project is not about furthering stereotypes.” That observation plays out in a post by a lesbian woman from Spain who appears typically feminine in a photo of herself at a year old. Rather than addressing her clothing or pose, the woman writes, “I love this poor, sweet, queer girl – because back then I didn’t know that life could be so hard for tender and different people.” For such contributors, the blog is more a space to express feelings about their life’s path than prove a point about orientation.

And even that point is not entirely simple. In the site’s comments section, there has been disagreement since the first post as to whether nature, nurture, or some combination is responsible for homosexuality. While most commenters seem confident that it is genetic, at least one gay man has expressed the view that his sexuality, while involuntary, is a product of his upbringing. Still others show discomfort with such close examinations of the origins of gay identity or assert that nurture and nature don’t matter so long as sexual orientation is recognized not to be a choice.

Others have used the blog as a springboard to discuss the “supreme value of an accepting family,” which many Born This Way contributors cite as a deciding factor in their ability to weather the challenges of life as a young gay person. The Salon article about Born This Way connects this with the recent appearance before the Iowa State House of Representatives of 19-year-old Zach Wahls, who spoke movingly that “family comes from the commitment we make to each other. To work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones. It comes from the love that binds us.”

These are important contributions to the debate on gay marriage (and adoption, military service, and other issues), especially to the extent that they bridge the gap between what individuals and the mind sciences have to say about such issues. Whether we should continue to seek answers to the question of homosexuality’s origins, and whether we will ever succeed, remain open questions. Yet forums for such positive and creative offerings on the subject are unmistakably a good thing.

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3 Responses to “Using Images to Say “Born Gay””

  1. Michael Lieberman February 6, 2011 at 4:28 am #

    I find it curious that people’s beliefs as to whether homosexuality is a choice correlate with their policy positions on gay rights. If being gay were a choice, why would that even matter? Here are a few stances I can think of that would lead to differing views on treatment of gays depending on the question of choice:

    – The act of choosing to be gay is a morally wrong act, and as such, we can deprive homosexuals of certain rights and privileges, as we do with others who violate our morals and/or laws. On the other hand, if being gay is not a choice, there is no act to punish.
    – Tacitly approving homosexuality by treating homosexuals equally may cause more people (read: MY kids) to choose to be gay and to think that it’s an acceptable choice, which is undesirable. If being gay is not a choice, this fear is no longer rational (although one could still worry that their child would “turn” gay via contact with a gay person).
    – We are not depriving gays of their rights, rather, they are choosing to deprive themselves of their rights. This argument obviously falls apart if being gay is not a choice.

    My instinct is that the second one may be the strongest of the three; I would be curious to see how, if at all, people’s positions on gay rights correlate with the age and marital status of their children – I would hypothesize that those with young children would be more opposed to, say, a gay schoolteacher, than those with adult, married children.

  2. riopierce February 7, 2011 at 5:02 am #

    Without in any way justifying the logic, I believe that people who possessed a causal link between their belief that homosexuality is a choice and their consequent policy position on various issues related to homosexuality would endorse the first position that you mentioned. The misguided logic may argue that the law treats certain category of persons, such as robbers, who make morally wrong choices in a different way than they treat those who do not make such choices. Therefore, if homosexuality is morally wrong, the law may discriminate against homosexuals in the same way that it may discriminate against criminals, by restricting the rights which they may exercise. To the extent that an emphasis on nature over nurture denudes this position of strength (to the extent that it’s acceptable to even humor such a position), I think it’s a positive development. A somewhat interesting hypothetical would be to consider what potential changes should be made in the law if it was proven that a certain class of previously morally wrong behavior was found to be entirely genetic. If all robbers were only acting b/c of their genetic nature would the law lose its moral suasion about the justification of punishment of robbery?

  3. Paul V. February 20, 2011 at 1:30 am #

    Hi Ivylea,
    I just want to say thank you for linking to my blog, and for the very thoughtful and intelligent commentary on the subjects, and the blog’s message.

    At the end of the day, what I hope the blog brings (or proves?) is that self-acceptance is what’s most important, without approval from anyone else. And perhaps, that all our sexualities are indeed innate (gay and straight). There simply is no “on/off switch” we suddenly flip to decide who we are attracted to, or love.

    Best,
    Paul V., Born This Way Blog

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