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.
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.
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.