Slogans, and “Born this way”

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”*


  1. says

    yeah i can get pretty annoyed reflecting on the gays whose response to gay marriage being illegal was “nobody should be married,” faced with the reality that those legal advantages of marriage are sometimes life and death shit, especially for old folks.

  2. says

    I would say the trans version of “born this way” is “I always knew I was trans”- and yeah I’ve seen articles by trans people about how not everyone fits into that narrative, and you can still be trans even if you didn’t “always know.”

    I always felt like “born this way” doesn’t work for aces either, because everyone is born as a baby with no opinions about sex, and then sometime during the teenage years there’s a change and people start being interested in sex (apparently? I’ve heard), but that change *doesn’t* happen for aces, and society sees that as a problem.

    (Though I guess maybe I’m taking it too literally, and “born this way” is referring to unchangeable biology rather than babies’ opinions on attraction… but anyway, my thoughts on the question of whether being ace is due to biology or other reasons are “does it matter?”)

  3. says

    I got married for health insurance, and I strongly agree with the viewpoint that good health insurance should not be tied to having a job or being married to someone with a job. But, we don’t have that, and most likely will not for the majority of my lifetime, so I’m grateful for access to marriage. But also, there are plenty of marriage rights that don’t even make sense outside the context of two parties entering a mutual agreement, so I’m very ?? at the idea of abolishing marriage.

    #2, no I’ve not seen it.

  4. says

    @Perfect Number,
    “I always knew I was trans” comes across a bit different. It has that emphasis on “I”, making it seem more like a statement of personal experience than a general thing. “Always knowing” also seems like a more stringent requirement than being “born this way”–you could easily be born gay without knowing it.

    Agreed on “born this way” not working for aces. It feels like that’s playing into the tendency to infantilize aces, or to imagine them as late bloomers.

  5. belowdesire says

    I think “born this way” can be taken up by trans people too, without needing to rely on “I always knew.” I think the argument might be that there’s a biologically-based component that predisposes a person to becoming trans (whether that genetics or something to do with brain development or hormone levels–I don’t know enough about what people theorize “causes” people to be trans).

    But yeah, there might seem to be a contradiction in using (basically) the naturalness of the body/self to justify bodily modification. (Although not necessarily: the human ability to re/create ourselves physically, including in accordance with cultural norms of what an ‘appropriate’ body looks like for a given category of person, is also part of our ‘natural’/biological endowment.) On the other hand, no one is born with a post-pubescent body, so some (but not all) of the physical traits that a trans person might want to change are later developments that they aren’t literally born with, meaning that a trans identity or predisposition could be closer to existing from birth than the bodily characteristics they want to modify.

  6. says

    I can’t think of a wording for it (I’d like one), but my view is that all groups deserve protection and rights. Not just those known now, but also those not yet defined or described, that still haven’t been identified or described yet, also automatically deserve protection once they are named and defined.

    I hate this crap about “you have been included by decree, otherwise you’re excluded!” That’s like a government dictating “only religions we approve of have protection or freedom to practice!” (see: Indonesia, India). Inclusion in rights and protections for all should be the default, similar to a secular state where ALL views have protection by default.

    People should not have to fight for rights each time a new group is named or speaks up, all groups should advance at once. Because every time a group is “included” and get rights, the percent of people who don’t have protection gets smaller. Just look at how many cisgender gay men acted when they got inclusion, they sided with the majority (see: half of them voting for Cheetolini in 2016 and 2020). The smaller the excluded groups get, the harder it is for them to gain acceptance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *