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Five Questions with Joanna Wuest author of “Born This Way: Science, Citizenship, and Inequality in the American LGBTQ+ Movement”

In celebration of Pride Month, we’d like to highlight one of our authors whose work thoughtfully examines key aspects of the history of the LGBTQA+ movement.

Starting in the 1950s, activists sought out mental health experts to combat the pathologizing of homosexuality. Over the subsequent decades, scientific expertise became a vital cornerstone of queer rights activism. Joanna Wuest’s
Born This Way tells the story of how a biologically based understanding of gender and sexuality became central to LGBTQA+ advocacy. The result is essential reading to fully understand queer activism today and how clashes over science remain crucial to equal rights struggles.

In this post, we chat with Joanna about her book and the milestone events that forged the relationship between science and LGBTQA+ activism.

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What do we actually know about the nature and origins of LGBTQ+ identities? Why are scientists and civil rights advocates so invested in this search?

It is important to say from the outset that there is still very little evidence for anything like a “gay gene” or a “transgender brain”—or any other neat biological source for gender identity or sexual orientation for that matter. Stripped of the media hype and political grandstanding, these studies tend to exhibit relatively humble explanations on the margins of an identity— a bit of genetic or hormonal influence may be present here or there, but nothing close to a definitive claim about etiology is generally offered. Furthermore, it is clear from public opinion data, psychological observation, and ethnographic field notes that many queer people do not adhere to the biological idea themselves.

This is not to say that gay and trans people choose their “lifestyle” or the direction of their desire. Human beings are, after all, complex biocultural beings whose traits are rarely reducible to the sound-bite level nuance of either-or contentions. Importantly, even if a queer sense of self cannot be traced back to a primordial factor, there is considerable evidence (psychological, sociological, and personal) that desire cannot be easily eradicated by coercion, at least not without trauma or death.

So, why all this talk about “born this way” if the scientific record is so murky? That so many Americans have come to believe something to the contrary—either that such identities are fixed at birth or are entirely within one’s ability to alter—is a central concern of the book.

Since the first modern gay and lesbian social movement organizations formed in the wake of World War II, reformers have used scientific evidence and authority to justify rights expansions and social acceptance. By the turn of the 1960s, these activists had begun to translate reform sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s and psychologist Evelyn Hooker’s research into challenges against laws premised on the idea that homosexuals were pathologically unwell, social contagions, or violent psychopaths.

Shortly after queer advocates and mental health reformers successfully jettisoned “homosexuality” from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders in 1973, researchers and advocates alike became entranced by a new narrative for gay identity’s nature and origins. Assisted by scientific and political-economic transformations in the natural sciences and the study of human behavior, they began to study and promote the idea that maybe queer people are biologically “born that way.”

How did “born this way” ideas help integrate transgender people into the gay and lesbian movement? What have been the consequences?

Not that long ago, critics believed that the “born this way” idea could never accommodate trans identity and rights. Maybe it was ok for gay men, and maybe it worked somewhat for lesbians, but it could never work for trans people. However, remarkably similar biological and medical arguments about trans identity feature prominently in conflicts today over anti-trans employment discrimination, prisoners’ access to medical treatment, bathroom bills, and trans youth healthcare access and sports participation. In the realm of culture, we have seen trans celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Jazz Jennings frame their own transitions in a “born this way” narrative style.

There is no denying that this has all had some incredibly positive effects on trans civil rights and social acceptance. Take, for example, the 2010s legal campaigns against discriminatory bathroom policies that aimed to force trans people out of the restrooms, locker rooms, and other sex-segregated facilities that best matched their gender identities. Trans rights attorneys argued that neuroanatomical suggests that gender identity is not only one factor in constituting biological sex—the others being chromosomes, gonads, and secondary sex characteristics like bone structure and skin texture—but instead the most important one. Convincing courts that gender identity is “sex itself” is a clever legal maneuver through which to achieve protections under sex-based statutory civil rights laws like Title VII and IX as well as the Constitution’s equal protection clause. This judicial route importantly bypasses a polarized and gridlocked Congress, which has stalled repeatedly on national civil rights legislation like the Equality Act.

The strategy is, however, not without some flaws. In one case before the Supreme Court in 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that trans youth are not protected by their “mere assertion” of trans identity, but instead because they can provide clinical papers and gender dysphoria diagnoses. This can create class disparities in who can make these claims effectively. Even more, it demonstrates how the “born this way” narrative is largely incapable of reckoning with the autonomy to self-define and any notion of uncertainty about a person’s identity.

How has the “born this way” idea helped to advance civil rights while also undermining broader campaigns for equality? How have corporations adopted “born this way” politics and for what ends?

It is hard to overstate “born this way’s” role in the past several decades’ civil rights victories. Scientific and medical evidence has featured prominently in campaigns and litigation to repeal military exclusion policies, to find a constitutional right to marriage equality, and to defend legislative bans on coercive sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts (more commonly known as “conversion therapy” practices).

At the same time, the idea has been used to sell a particular version of social justice that merits some scrutiny. LGBTQ+ rights organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, for instance, helped to develop the “born this way” idea in such a way that has erased the enormous class differences within the broader queer population. These national nonprofit groups—which are highly dependent on wealthy donors and corporate contributions—purport to speak on queer people’s behalf as if they are all united by both biology and a shared experience of oppression. They do so while bestowing workplace equality awards to billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who believe in antidiscrimination but not the right of workers to use the restroom.

To see how this directly serves a certain segment of capital class interests, we need to look no further than the Harvard Business Review. In a 2013 issue on diversity in the workforce, a trio of corporate consultants observed that boosting “inherent diversity” metrics involving “traits you are born with, such as gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation” is a surefire way to exploit “under-leveraged markets.” More recently, the corporate coffee giant Starbucks has unveiled a line of born this way-branded charity drinks while beating back its unionizing workforce (which is strikingly queer) at the National Labor Relations Board.

Thus, “born this way” politics does little to serve the vast majority of LGBTQ+ Americans who exhibit lower rates of health insurance coverage and higher rates of poverty in a country where being at the baseline already means living with high rates of debt, inadequate healthcare, and at-will employment. While vital, civil rights remedies and social tolerance are feeble means of confronting economic exploitation and widening gaps in the American social welfare state. Unless a rainbow-shaded economic elite paired with some important, yet inadequate civil rights wins are one’s idea of the best of all worlds imaginable, then it is dire to take stock of what “born this way” and its social movement advocates can and cannot do.

Going forward, how should the LGBTQ+ movement relate to its allies in science and mental health?

Despite my own critical perspective on the “born this way” idea’s scientific validity and its political shortcomings, I believe that scientific and medical experts and institutions do have a key role to play in future equal rights struggles. Those experts should, of course, avoid overly hubristic statements on “gay genes” or “trans brains,” which tend to overstate the scientific record. They should, however, make forceful arguments against coercive change efforts. As researchers, clinicians, and major mental health associations have demonstrated, there is much evidence that these practices can inflict trauma or even suicidality. Similarly, these experts and their associations should continue to support gender-affirming care since we know that withholding supportive therapeutic care for socially transitioning or questioning youth can have devastating effects.

As my coauthor and clinical psychologist Briana S. Last and I observed in a recently published paper in Social Science & Medicine, it is crucial that medical and mental health professionals continue to push back against erroneous arguments that gender-affirming care is dangerously uncertain or even “experimental,” and thus should be banned. Taking inspiration from tobacco and oil industry campaigns against cancer research and climate change, anti-trans conservative groups have argued that medical professionals are not as certain as they seem about the proper healthcare treatments for trans youth or whether coercive change efforts are really harmful. The message that these conjurors of doubt spread can be seen in journalist Abigail Schrier’s writings that promote fringe clinical theories on “rapid onset gender dysphoria.” These fringe researchers and writers render trans identity as a social contagion that corrupts the brains—and then the bodies—of susceptible teenagers.

Aside from these defensive fights, scientific and medical professionals could join working people—of all sexualities and genders—in campaigns for a trans-inclusive single-payer health insurance program like Medicare for All. As for what form that movement might take, I encourage folks to read about past queer-labor struggles when diverse groups of workers acted according to the adage, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?

My hope is that readers gain an appreciation for scientific authority’s powerful role in queer rights struggles and how the science of sexuality itself has a fundamentally political dimension. That we now conceive of LGBTQ+ identities as discrete, stable, and relatively innate extends from how tightly entwined the fight for equal rights and the science of sexuality and gender have become. The letters that make up the movement’s ever-expanding acronym parallel Darwin’s famous finches, each one resplendently unique, all the while belonging to a tidy taxonomy that accounts for the difference.

I also hope that readers walk away convinced that a straightforward seeming concept like “harm” can actually have an extraordinarily complex historical and social life. In fact, we might go as far as saying that today’s medical opposition to coercive change efforts and bans on gender-affirming care reveals that harm is itself socially determined. We know that an earlier generation of psychiatrists was concerned about the harm that a person might incur if they could not conform to mid-twentieth-century sexual and gender norms. Those harms were not entirely imaginary either; an outed individual could lose their job, their place in society, their welfare or veteran benefits, and even the custody over their own children.

What has changed in the past few decades then is not just the scientific record. Instead, the meaning of “harm” has shifted as social strictures on queer life have relaxed and civil rights have been won. Accordingly, our ideas about who is harmed and why has transformed as researchers and clinicians have been shaped by newer socio-political perspectives on queer personhood and what constitutes “harm” in the context of treating queer patients. In short, science and medicine are fundamentally human practices that can never be disentangled from our societal commitments and political conflicts.

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Joanna Wuest is assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College.

Born This Way is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.