Back when I was in college, California passed Proposition 8, which notoriously banned same-sex marriage, after it had been briefly legal. Many queer folks my age describe it as a formative experience, when they realized that progress was not as assured as they had hoped. So you could say that marriage equality was on our minds. And so it was the heyday for all sorts of slogans. “NO H8”, “Love is Love”, or “Born This Way”–Lady Gaga’s single of the same name was hot during the brief window when I was clubbing.
“Love is love” still seems to be fairly common, but I don’t hear “born this way” nearly as much anymore. I’m bracing myself to be proven wrong–within moments of hitting publish, I will see a dozen different people independently referring to “born this way”, and a dozen readers will tell me that they had just taken a break from scrolling through “born this way” memes so they could read this article. But if I trust my personal experience, “born this way” is kind of out of fashion now, isn’t it?
Is that what eventually happens to political slogans? They live on in our memories, but we stop thinking about them? If so, that may be for the best.
Now I hung out with queer radicals, and therefore I’d hear many more words spoken against marriage equality than for it. Of course nobody was really against equality, but they had quite a few things to say about the problems with marriage, the problems with movement priorities, and the problems with the slogans.
Some of this, I’m sure, comes down to the fact that very few queer students are in imminent danger of being married, and so they aren’t confronted by the significant material disadvantages of not having access to marriage. But there are also plenty of legitimate criticisms too. Like, why are these advantages being tied to marriage in the first place? And why are we acting like same-sex marriage is the ultimate goal, when trans issues are going to blow up in the public consciousness at any moment?
Slogans like “born this way” were also a magnet for criticism. The problem with “born this way” is that our legitimacy does not rely on biological determinacy. And it’s not even entirely true—being happily queer requires plenty of conscious choices. And then there are bi folks who decide to focus on one dating pool instead of another. And the queer-by-choice folks, that’s a whole thing.
But I think what really killed “born this way” is that trans issues did indeed blow up, and the slogan just doesn’t make sense in that context. Sure trans people may be born trans, but it raises the obvious question… don’t some trans people deliberately change the body they were born with? If our legitimacy really did rest on biological determinacy, that legitimacy does not obviously extend to trans people.
The fact that “born this way” all but disappeared from my perspective gives me a sense of peace. Yes, the slogan had problems, but if critics were worried that the slogan would eventually come back to bite us in the ass, that mostly just didn’t happen. Yeah, the slogan really doesn’t work in relation to trans issues. But it didn’t matter, because when people started talking about trans issues, they moved on to other slogans, and that was the end of it.
That’s not to say that our slogans could never bite us in the ass. After all, “Born this way” is just one example. And as previously established, it’s an example that will immediately be disproven the moment I hit publish. But sometimes, things go right, even with slogans that are wrong.
As a verbose social critic, I’m a natural enemy to slogans. Let me tell you about the problems with “rape is about power”, “Equality vs Equity”, “A is not for ally” and so on. Slogans never tell the whole story, because the whole story simply doesn’t fit in fewer words than this 5,000 word essay that you are now morally required to read.
But it’s helpful to understand that criticizing slogans is mainly a technique to encourage critical self-reflection among activists and allies. The point isn’t to crush our own side’s slogans into dust, it’s to shepherd them into a happy afterlife.
*stares directly at “love is love”, mouthing “you’re next”*