I’m lucky to have begun teaching in an age when none of my students question the basic idea of LGBT equality. I’m sure there are students at Northwestern that still question LGBT equality, but for better or for worse none of them take my class. But it is striking how uniformly my students have learned to think of sexuality and gender identity as immutable traits. They have been well trained to understand these as things we are born with, things that don’t change, and to justify equality on the basis that these traits are beyond individual control. None of my students ever used the phrase “sexual preference.” To them, that could only suggest that lesbians and gays were choosing to be deviant.
So to break this down, I had my students read Chapter 10 of John D’Emilio’s The World Turned (chapter title “Born Gay?”) along with Kenji Yoshino’s “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure.” From different vantage points, both describe limits of our conceptions of immutability. Should we only protect sexuality because it is immutable? Or should we also protect it because it is the right thing to do? Because even if people could choose to change, the state should not ask them to change? And how does immutability lead us to think of things in neat dichotomies? Is bisexual erasure a necessary part of this argument?
In class, I had all my students stand up. I told them walk to one side of the room if you think sexual orientation is immutable and to the other if you think it is not. I did not let them stand in the middle. Not surprisingly, most students stood on the side of immutable, but a few brave students did stand on the other side. After some discussion, I told them to walk to one side of the room if they would argue sexual orientation was immutable if they were arguing in court. Now I think all the students walked to the immutability side. Even the few students that were quick to point out problems with the argument thought that as a practical matter they would use it in court.
I was hoping for a bit more dissent. I was hoping for more students to stand on the “not immutable” side. My guess is that students were too strongly trained to think of describing sexual orientation as not immutable as being equivalent to arguing that lesbians and gays are deviant. Thus, even the few students who were quick to point to limits of the born this way narrative were uncomfortable going over to the “not immutable” side.
But as we discussed why students were standing where they were, several volunteered that if I gave them the option they would be standing in the middle of the room. These students argued that a born this way narrative could be a way of saying “well, I would change if I could, but I can’t change.” Which is not as appealing as saying “it shouldn’t matter if I can change or not, the state should not be able to make me change.” These students also recognized that, even if there is a lot of biological basis to sexual orientation, there is some element of choice in how we choose to express our sexuality. And an immutability argument might not reach that. So even though the exercise did not work out quite how I hoped, it still served the purpose of getting students to think about the limits of the easy “born this way” narrative they had been taught. I’m guessing it was the first time students were ever asked to defend their choice to describe sexual orientation as immutable!
Throughout the quarter, this theme came up occasionally. Most students continued to cling to the immutability narrative. I did have one student who actually pointed out that immutability could also be a way of apologizing for deviance before we even did this exercise, and he continued to be the strongest voice of caution against the reflexive use of an immutability narrative. My students slowly recognized the limits of the narrative, but they still basically agreed with it. Some students really got the point of this exercise. Whenever immutability came up in discussion later in the quarter, these students were careful about how they talked about it. Other students reverted back to talking about immutability as if we all naturally agreed that we are born this way. At least because we did this exercise, I could quickly refresh their memory on the limits of a born this way narrative.
I don’t know if I really changed any student’s opinions on this. But that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to get them to think about why we describe sexual orientation and gender identity with a “born this way” narrative, to get them to think about the limits of this narrative and what the narrative does not include. And the exercise achieved that goal. By the end of the quarter almost all of my students could at least discuss pros and cons to describing sexual orientation and gender identity as immutable. So even if they might still reflexively slip into the born this way narrative, when they thought about it, they could identify limits to that narrative.