COMMENTARY

It's time to rethink “born this way,” a phrase that's been key to LGBTQ acceptance

Anti-LGBTQ campaigners have worked hard to upend it with false claims of "queer contagion." New language could help

By Julia Serano

Published June 17, 2022 4:00PM (EDT)

Woman waving a "Born this Way" rainbow flag over the dancing crowd in front of the San Francisco Federal Building, at the Gay Pride Festival. (Getty Images/Tristan Savatier)
Woman waving a "Born this Way" rainbow flag over the dancing crowd in front of the San Francisco Federal Building, at the Gay Pride Festival. (Getty Images/Tristan Savatier)

The HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher" recently ran a segment called "Along for the Pride," which raised alarm about the gradual rise in people identifying as LGBTQ over the last century — from 1% of the Silent Generation to 20% of Generation Z. At one point, Maher quips, "If we follow this trajectory, we will all be gay in 2053." The segment is a hodgepodge of statistics, anecdotes, misinformation, and genital jokes, but the message it sent was clear: This apparent rise in LGBTQ prevalence cannot possibly be "natural."

The same premise — that LGBTQ identities are spreading "unnaturally" — was also the underlying rationale behind Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law and copycat bills introduced in other states, which restrict or prohibit discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The sponsor of Florida's legislation, Republican state Senator Dennis Baxley, has made numerous remarks espousing his belief that there are too many LGBTQ kids nowadays and that his bill would counter that trend. Another Republican state Senator who voted for the bill, Ileana Garcia, argued, "Gay is not a permanent thing. LGBT is not a permanent thing."

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Conservative New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat described this line of thinking held by many on the political right: "What we're seeing today isn't just a continuation of the gay rights revolution; it's a form of social contagion which our educational and medical institutions are encouraging and accelerating."

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, people would often treat the revelation that someone they knew was LGBTQ as though it were a potential contamination event.

While these might seem like new developments, the notion that LGBTQ identities are "contagious" is actually quite old. Late 19th-century sexologists, who coined the term "invert" to describe people that we would now call LGBTQ, believed that it was largely an acquired condition, often the result of being "seduced" by other inverts. This idea — that queerness can spread from person to person much like a disease—provided the rationale for criminalizing and institutionalizing LGBTQ people during this time period. In her 2000 article "Homosexuality as Contagion: From 'The Well of Loneliness' to the Boy Scouts," law professor Nancy J. Knauer chronicled how this idea continued to persist throughout much of the twentieth century.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, people would often treat the revelation that someone they knew was LGBTQ as though it were a potential contamination event: They might distance themselves from the individual thereafter, or worry that their past association (especially if there was any romantic interest or intimacy) might "taint" or "compromise" their own gender and sexuality. Part of the reason why I kept quiet about my trans-related feelings as a child was that I knew the disclosure would implicate everybody close to me — my family and friends would all be affected (or perhaps "infected") by my queerness. You could say that I was "closeted" back then, but to me, it felt more like self-imposed quarantine.

In subsequent decades, there has been growing acceptance of LGBTQ people, much of it hinging on the public understanding that we are "born this way." Within LGBTQ communities, that phrase evokes mixed reactions. Some feel that it accurately captures their experience of knowing from childhood that they were different, and finding that there was nothing they could do to make those feelings go away. But others have critiqued "born this way" for its failure to account for their later-in-life shifts in identity, their experiences with gender or sexual fluidity, and/or that the phrase gives the impression that LGBTQ people have suffered some kind of "birth defect."

After all, if LGBTQ people are "born this way," it means that straight people can't "catch" it from us.

While I agree that "born this way" oversimplifies gender and sexual diversity, these critiques seem to overlook the primary reason why this slogan has been so successful: its ability to placate fears about queerness supposedly being "contagious." After all, if LGBTQ people are "born this way," it means that straight people can't "catch" it from us.

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Because of its success, anti-LGBTQ campaigners have worked hard to upend the "born this way" narrative. This is why they have long flaunted "ex-gays," and more recently, people who detransition, as though the existence of such individuals disproves the authenticity and longevity of all of our identities. And now, they are citing the growing LGBTQ population as supposed evidence that our identities are merely "trendy" (in the words of Maher), or worse, the result of "social engineering" (in the words of Baxley).

In other words, they are trying to revive the idea that queerness is "contagious."

But there are less sinister explanations for these shifts. Gary J. Gates, a well-regarded expert on LGBTQ demographics, attributed the aforementioned increases to "reduced social stigma and accompanying advancements in legal equality."

Back in 2017, in response to then novel claims (originating from anti-trans parent websites, and since refuted by multiple prominent professional healthcare associations) that transgender identities are now spreading among children via "social contagion," I highlighted the parallels between this phenomenon and the gradual increase in left-handedness that occurred in Western countries during the twentieth century. Specifically, the prevalence of left-handedness rose from roughly two percent of the population to thirteen percent. And it is generally agreed that this shift was due to a reduction in stigma against left-handedness, and the cessation of forcing young children into being right-handed.

There is no "queer contagion" sweeping the nation. What we are witnessing is simply a new era of openness and possibilities.

There is no "queer contagion" sweeping the nation. What we are witnessing is simply a new era of openness and possibilities. Young people who in the past never had the words to describe their feelings, or who knew what they were but felt coerced into remaining closeted (or worse), are now more able to freely express themselves. People who have had same-sex experiences on occasion — who have always outnumbered people who exclusively identify as gay or lesbian — are now more comfortable explicitly calling themselves bisexual (or some similar label). People who in the past would have felt too afraid to experiment with their gender or sexuality for fear of the stigma that might entail may now be more willing to explore those potentialities.

Like the gradual increase in left-handedness, there is nothing threatening about any of these developments. Unless, of course, you believe that LGBTQ identities are inherently immoral, or feel uncomfortable living in a world where you can no longer presume that everyone you meet is straight by default. This lack of serious negative ramifications explains why so much of this "social contagion" discourse has been squarely directed at trans kids, where moral-panic-inducing memes about "experimenting on children" and "rushing children into hormones and surgery" (both of which are not true) can be used to scare people into believing that we must put the proverbial "LGBTQ genie" back into the bottle.

LGBTQ people simply are. And when there are two or more of us in the same space, that isn't a sign of "trendiness" or "social contagion"; sometimes it's just happenstance. Other times, we seek each other out due to our mutual interests and circumstances, especially given the anti-LGBTQ stigma we routinely face. We must recognize the "queer contagiousness" myth for what it really is: an attempt to separate us from one another, to silence our collective voices and perspectives. In a word, it is an attempt to quarantine us.

Too many people seem to view that phrase through a lens of strict biological determinism, or presume that it means the number of LGBTQ people must be permanently fixed and static.

In addition to debunking this myth, we should consider the possibility that "born this way" may no longer be the most effective way to counter it. Too many people seem to view that phrase through a lens of strict biological determinism, or presume that it means the number of LGBTQ people must be permanently fixed and static. Perhaps new language might circumvent these misconceptions moving forward.

In my own writings, I often describe gender and sexual diversity as being intrinsic and inexplicable. By inexplicable, I mean that none of us can precisely say for sure why we turned out to be gay, or trans, or otherwise. Nor can we say why some people come to this self-understanding as children, others during adolescence, and still others as adults. Like handedness, sexual orientation and gender identity have no singular easy-to-point-to cause; they are complex traits that naturally vary in the population.

By intrinsic, I mean that our sexual orientations and gender identities typically arise in an unconscious manner, are deeply felt, and are not readily repressed or ignored. While language and culture may influence how we make sense of, or act upon, those forces, they do not create them out of whole cloth, nor are they capable of entirely purging them from our persons (which is why conversion therapies are widely considered both ineffective and unethical). Just as you cannot readily change my orientation and identity, I do not have the power to change your sexual orientation and gender identity either.

LGBTQ identities and experiences are no more "ephemeral" or "contagious" than heterosexual and cisgender ones. Those who suggest otherwise are not merely incorrect, but they are often pushing an agenda to isolate and silence us.


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Julia Serano

Julia Serano is the author of four books, including the acclaimed modern classic "Whipping Girl." Her writing has been published in the New York Times, The Guardian, TIME, Salon, Ms., and B*tch Media. She holds a PhD in biochemistry from Columbia University, and lives in Oakland, California.

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