Born what way? Why Lady Gaga’s hit is a bad anthem

I’m beautiful in my way

‘Cause God makes no mistakes

I’m on the right track, baby

I was born this way.

Catchy, isn’t it?

As a song and an expression of self-love, “Born This Way” is great, but I’d argue those four lines show the gay community’s worst faults today.

Their line of thought is liberal in religious and political terms: being homosexual is who we are, a part of our nature, and a god responsible for that surely wouldn’t mind, even though America’s Christian right often say he does. This all sounds rather harmless, and could be labelled inoffensive to a fault, but I think it raises problems.

For a start, I don’t believe in God. (Yes, I’m angry about it. No, I don’t eat babies.) That might sound glib, but there are lots of “natural” things for which a god would have to answer: Ugandan babies with HIV, for instance, or South Asian tsunamis claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. If we take on homophobia with the idea God never allows anything bad, we have to apply the same logic to catastrophes like those. If he isn’t making mistakes when they take place, I’m not sure we should listen to him at all.

It’s possible the God who’s namechecked in the song is just a figurative one, personifying natural forces as in Einstein’s “God does not play with dice” or Stephen Hawking’s “the mind of God”. Even so, I don’t think we should argue our case on any church’s terms. When I look around the current LGBT mainstream, I’m often puzzled by its need to cosy up with “tolerant” believers. At my university’s society, for example, I once witnessed officers discuss how members might be actively discouraged from leaving their religions, rather than left to their own decisions, when the fact is that however permissive your own church happens to be, wider faith communities are almost always hard places to be queer, and anyone uncomfortable there shouldn’t be pressured against leaving.

For much of history, religious groups held undue influence in schools, courts and parliament, wielding civil power against sexual minorities, and even today Christianity holds privileged status in our public life. I’m a secularist not because I doubt there’s a god, but because I don’t think anyone’s beliefs – however cuddly and reconstructed – should mean they hold automatic sway over the lives of others.

There’s another problem, though, with calling sexuality the way that nature (or indeed God) made us, joyously declaring we were “born this way”. In my view, it’s wrong.

I’m obviously not denying there’s strong evidence genetic and antenatal factors play a part, as they do in much of our lives – but I imagine that, as with most other things, how much someone’s sexual self was pre-determined at birth varies between individuals. A lot of people like to eat broccoli, including me, and I expect that for many, this has most to do with their nervous system’s predetermined makeup giving broccoli a pleasant taste; for many others, though, it will be down to economic factors, social context or positive memories associated with it.

There are likewise a hundred reasons someone might perform a queer sex act, and not all of them genetic. Show me the fabled “gay gene”, and I’ll show you a straight man who has it, before getting with a guy who doesn’t. There is no state of being a broccoli-eater; that’s something we understand as an action or a preference, and certainly not as “who you are”. In the same way, I don’t think gay is something people are, at least not in a single, invariable sense. “Baby, I was born this way”, pride marchers sing to Gaga’s tune. Frankly my dears, born what way?

Queer theorists joke that gay people were invented in 1886, the year Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis. Before this, reference had rarely been made to “the homosexual” as a kind of person, but to people who did things they weren’t meant to do. (For this reason, it’s problematic asking things like “Was Shakespeare gay?” – the idea of someone being gay is thoroughly modern.) It’s unfortunate that today, this essentialist view of sexuality is most audibly challenged by so-called therapists, who offer unethically to “cure” healthy desires, but I think it’s reductive to gloss queer identity as “just the way we are”.

I’m worried by how often I hear liberals and self-declared straight allies fight homophobia with “It’s not a choice!” I’ll admit I like making bigots uncomfortable, but I’m ultimately somewhat indifferent to the gender of any partner I choose, so I doubt that if I absolutely had to, I’d be incapable of living a straight life. A special ill will is sometimes kept for bisexuals, who could be exclusively heterosexual but choose not to be – where are they left by “Born This Way”, and the idea we should all stop bashing gays since they just can’t help it, rather than because no harm is done? I’ve read, too, in the transgender blogosphere, that well-meaning cissexists now leave comments like “You were born female, so why transition? Accept yourself!”

Ideas of sexuality as inborn erase those of us, like me, whose orientation isn’t simple, and it’s ultimately othering to see queer people as different by nature from their straight counterparts, so I’m struck that the philosophy of “I was born this way” is as counterproductive as the song’s ideas about God. In general, Gaga’s lyrics are well meaning, but they implicitly suggest the wrong alliances – and, worse than that, they strip us of agency.

(Disclaimer: the ideas expressed in this article are mine, but discussions on the subject with Simon Pratt have prompted some of them.)