Dr. Lisa Diamond
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True or false: (Laughter) Sexual orientation is something you are born with. Chances are that if you support LGBT rights, you said "true." Surveys have found that people who view sexual orientation as an innate trait, like eye color, tend to be more supportive of LGBT rights. Now, why is that? When asked, folks typically say, "Well, it's just wrong to discriminate against someone for how they are born. It's like ethnic discrimination." Makes sense. So, for years, the "Born That Way" argument has been used to promote LGBT equality. Lady Gaga's song "Born That Way" even became an unofficial anthem of the gay community. But there are three problems with the "Born That Way" argument. First: It's not scientifically accurate. Second: It's not legally necessary. But third, and most important: It's actually unjust, and it's time to retire that argument for LGBT equality. Now, my passion for this issue stems from my own research on sexual orientation. Over 20 years ago, I started a study, tracking over time 100 women with different sexual identities. And over the years, I was frankly surprised by some of the changes that they went through. Some of the lesbians ended up involved with men. Some of the heterosexual women ended up getting involved with women. And when these sorts of things would happen, women would say to me that they thought there must be something wrong with them, since their experiences didn't fit the conventional wisdom that sexual orientation is fixed at birth. So, that brings us to the first problem with the "Born That Way" argument: that it's not scientifically accurate. Now, sexual orientation does often express itself very early and very consistently. But, at times, it doesn't. And it breaks my heart when I hear people express distrust of LGBT individuals who came out late in life, for example, after a heterosexual marriage. People will say things like: "How could they not have known all this time?" "Are they sure that they're really gay?" (Laughter) Just imagine how it feels to hear that from someone that you just came out to. But the plain truth is that gender and sexual development show a lot more variability than most people realize. And that variability often leads to change over time in sexual attractions. National and international studies conducted by researchers at Cornell, the Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Virginia, and many others, have collectively tracked tens of thousands of individuals for five, ten, fifteen years. And guess what? Sexual attractions show a fair amount of fluidity. Some individuals start out exclusively attracted to one gender, and, over time, they find themselves attracted to both genders, or vice versa. Some bisexual individuals shift from being more drawn to one gender to being more drawn to the other. Now, what does this fluidity tell us about the innateness of sexual orientation? Nothing. (Laughter) Nothing at all. Because they are completely unrelated. There is, to be sure, strong evidence for genetic contributions to sexual orientation. But those contributions do not cement your entire sexual lifespan from birth. What they do is push its development in a certain direction. If sexuality were totally locked down by genes, well then, if you had two identical twins, and one twin was gay, the other twin would be gay a hundred percent of the time. Because they have the same genes. But in reality, twins' surveys have found that if you have two identical twins, and one twin is gay, the other twin is gay thirty to forty percent of the time. Now, that is way higher than you would expect by chance alone, so it is definite evidence that your genes influence your sexual orientation. But your genes do not provide the last word on every sexual feeling you're ever going to have. (Laughter) Now, before moving on, I want to make one thing crystal clear: The fact that sexuality can be fluid does not mean that therapists can cure individuals of same-sex attractions. That sometimes called "conversion therapy," and study after study has shown that it does not work, and it does immense psychological damage, increasing rates of depression, anxiety, suicide attempts. That's why conversion therapy has been discredited by all of these major medical and psychological associations. And it's why all of these former practitioners of conversion therapy have not only shut their own doors, but have publicly apologized to the LGBT community, and have joined legal efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy with children and adolescents. (Applause) So, let there be no misunderstanding: although sexual attractions may fluctuate on their own, trying to forcibly eliminate same-sex attractions is ineffective, harmful, and unethical ... period. (Applause) Now, let's move on to the second problem with the "Born That Way" argument, that it's not legally necessary. One of the reasons we keep using this argument is to invoke the equal protection clause of the constitution, which prohibits discriminating against individuals on the basis of their having certain traits. Now, how do courts decide which traits are protected? Well, one of the factors that courts can consider is the immutability, or fixedness, of the trait, whether it's an accident of birth, like race or sex. That's, basically, the "Born That Way" argument. But what many people don't realize is that immutability is not the only factor, or even the most important factor, that courts can consider when deciding whether a trait, whether it's sexual orientation or age or disability, merits protection from discrimination. And over the past several decades, courts have actually devoted less and less attention to the immutability of sexual orientation, and more and more attention to another key component of equal protection claims: whether discriminating against LGBT individuals has any rational basis, or whether it's just plain old, unconstitutional hatred and prejudice. And that is the basis on which we have been winning our most important battles for LGBT equality. From Romer v. Evans in 1996, Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, and the two historic Supreme Court victories for same sex marriage. So although we keep shouting, "We are born this way!" the courts have been saying, "We don't care!" (Laughter) Now, for the third and most important problem with the "Born That Way" argument: that it's unjust. Keep in mind that we first started using this argument in the 1960s and 70s in response to anti-gay activists who said that LGBT individuals were choosing an immoral, deviant, disgusting lifestyle, and so we basically deserved to suffer. Now, this was over 50 years ago, when the hatred of gay people was much more widespread, so it seemed impossible at the time for us to argue, "Hey, we're not disgusting; we're actually awesome!" (Laughter) So, instead, we said, "We didn't choose this, we were born this way. You can't punish us for something that is not our fault." Now, do you see how that argument just goes along with the notion that being LGBT is a fault, that it's inherently sad and tragic? It's like we have this terrible disease, and we need to be pitied instead of punished. Thankfully, times have changed, and if there is one thing that LGBT individuals want now, it is certainly not pity. What we want, what we deserve, is dignity, autonomy, self-determination. And that is our strongest argument for equality. The "Born That Way" argument is also unjust because it implies that LGBT individuals who fit a certain cultural stereotype, the ones who have been exclusively gay for as long as they can possibly remember, are somehow more deserving of acceptance and equality than someone who came out at age 60, or whose attractions have been more fluid, or who is bisexual rather than exclusively gay. There is actually a pretty long and shameful history of dismissing and denying the experiences of bisexual individuals. They are sometimes denigrated as not really belonging to the gay community because they sometimes engage in opposite-sex relationships. Now, are you kidding me? We're going to slam bisexuals for having the audacity to make their own relationship choices? Isn't that exactly what the LGBT community has been fighting for all this time? (Laughter) Talk about throwing someone under the bus. And you would actually need a pretty big bus because all of these large-scale population studies have found that there are actually more individuals out there with bisexual attractions than exclusive same-sex attractions. And the "Born That Way" argument can really backfire when it comes to bisexuals. There was a woman in my study who came out to her parents when she was 19, when she met her first girlfriend. They really struggled with it, but they joined the family support group, and the leader of that group emphasized, "Your daughter was just born this way." Well, a couple of years later, she ended up getting involved with a man, and she was actively hiding this relationship from her parents. (Laughter) Why? She said to me, "They only accepted me because they thought I couldn't help but to be with women. Now I'm afraid they're going to say, 'Wait a second. All this time, you could have also been with men? If you can choose heterosexuality, well then that is what you should do.'" Needless to say, that is not acceptance. And it's certainly not equality. In the end, how and why and when and for how long someone is LGBT may be fascinating to scientists like me, but it should have no bearing on whether their parents love and accept them. And it's certainly should have no bearing on public policy. We all deserve acceptance and equality. (Applause) We all deserve equality, whether you're gay or straight or bi or trans or all of the above, or none of the above, or whether you figured it out twenty years ago, or one year ago, or today, during this talk. (Laughter) Our genes are not the issue: it is our lives that are at stake. Either we are a society that protects and defends all individuals' sexual autonomy, or we are not. So, the next time you're talking to a friend or a neighbor or a teacher or a doctor or a politician or a mother, and they say, "I support LGBT equality because, you know, they are born that way," I hope that you'll say, "I support LGBT equality just because it's the right thing to do." (Applause) Thank you. (Applause)