What’s the DNA of Desire?

How the “born this way” narrative of identity is holding the queer community back.

Photo illustration of a baby crib with a little pride flag poking out of it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I didn’t have a relationship with a woman until I was 23. Her name was Lauren. I had joined a feminist book group in the summer of 2016, and one night we all went out to see an indie rock band called Tops. Lauren had a long history with the girls in the book group, and she was visiting from a town nearby. She dressed like James Dean, had a bleached buzz cut, and cast a bright, intense energy. After the show, as we were walking to a bar, she said something like, “You look like my friend, but maybe it’s just because you’re both attractive.” I expelled a nervous laugh and skittered away. I had minorly explored dating women before, but I was very much Bambi to women hitting on me: uncertainty and perky curiosity all knotted together. The next night we all went out to a dance event for queer women, and Lauren wouldn’t look me in the eye—my nervous flight had embarrassed her. After a few hours of extreme internal agitation, I “made my move” on the dance floor and grabbed her hand. We danced and kissed and spun into the sparkly evening.

I quickly became more entwined with the group, falling into a community of women who were smart, and interesting, and who had different ideas than me. I was also developing an intimacy with Lauren—texting for hours every day, visiting her town. A little family formed: Soon I was eating dinner at their houses most nights and falling asleep in their beds under the soft pink glow of salt lamps. One night, bathing in a lamp’s lambent warmth, I remember reveling in my luck—I had finally arrived.

Exactly where I’d arrived, though, turned out to be different than anticipated. These “cool feminist” women, so welcoming at first, heavily policed each other’s style of dress and sexual behavior. The ringleader, who had given herself a fake French last name, shamed women who sported any kind of “femme” aesthetics or clothing for the unforgivable crime of catering to the patriarchy. She once made fun of a girl in the group for wearing black, high-heeled ankle boots (high heels of any kind being the most sinister tool of patriarchal oppression); a few months later, the girl had a buzz cut and exclusively wore the accepted uniform of paper-thin white T-shirts and jeans. Lauren, too, scoffed when I wore a fuzzy black turtleneck à la Cher from Clueless before we went out one night and tried to get me to wear one of her muted blue button-ups instead.

These enforced norms extended to sexual preferences. Any mention of men or being attracted to a man would result in a passive-aggressive remark communicating disdain. At a party a few months after I had parted ways with the group, as I eventually felt was the right decision for me, the girl who had been chastised about her boots and now had a shaved head told me a joke: “What’s the difference between a bisexual and a lesbian? Two years.” Clever, given that all these women shaming others for liking men had themselves all dated men long-term at some point within the last three years.

Regardless of my knowing that this was ridiculous and extreme behavior, the group mentality had an effect on me. In a reversal of the standard queer narrative, I wished and hoped and prayed that I was a lesbian. I wanted my sexuality to be done and figured out. I wanted the linear, unconfused coming-out-of-the closet narrative the culture advises is normal. I wanted to belong the way I felt I belonged in the glow of the salt lamp. According to the bisexual people I’ve talked to, this is a common experience. One of my bisexual friends jokes about this feeling as a wish that she could “pray the straight away.” For many months after Lauren and I broke up, I “waited” to see if I was attracted to men still, or if my attraction to men was gone forever.

This now strikes me as absurd.

There is an intense emphasis within queer communities—and outside of them—on the notion of fixed and innate selves. Most of the women in the book group were scrambling to assert that they were always this way, to the point where they were lopping off their own histories, crossing out all the parts of their experiences that didn’t fit into a fixed category. My own desire for immutable lesbianism, at the expense of my fluid bisexuality, came from my attempt to follow that same well-worn track.

Of course, many queer people’s queerness does comport with a “born this way” narrative, which in its most ideal iteration can represent a huge turning point of self-understanding. For those it fits, the model is meaningful and works well. But for others, it’s stifling, an obligatory one-size-fits-all narrative that, instead of an awakening, feels like an unsatisfying scramble for proof.

The political benefits of a stable queer identity model are numerous: It helps form groups for belonging and safety; simplifies messaging for the purpose of passing queer-friendly legislation; and also serves as an argument against religious prejudice and conversion clinics—if we can’t help it, how can you hate it? But some are starting to reject this trade-off, appealing as it does to genes for human decency and respect. Last year, an article published in USA Today reported that some members of the queer community are “questioning why the dignity of gay people should rest on the notion that they were gay from their very first breath.”

But if sexuality is not innate, then what is it? In a piece for the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen contrasts the clear utility of “born this way” with something riskier: “A choice may have to be defended—certainly, one has to be prepared to defend one’s right to make a choice—while arguing that you were born this way appeals to people’s sympathy or at least a sense of decency. It also serves to quell one’s own doubts and to foreclose future options. We are, mostly, comfortable with less choice.” Gessen recognizes that “choice,” when applied to queer identity, has the connotation of a slur: You have chosen this life of sin because of a weakness of character. Choice comes chained with scare quotes. Choice wears a black cape. Choice walks through the woods alone.

Cynthia Nixon, former New York gubernatorial candidate and Sex and the City actress, is one of the only public queer figures to assert that her queerness was a choice—and the act earned her few fans. In a 2012 Huffington Post article, she challenged the prevailing narrative around queer identity:

“Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.”

Nixon does away with the chronological burden of proof, and she moves the narrative away from “realizing” anything at all. She also makes us look closer at the implications of the word “choice” itself. Arguing in terms set by straight people (bigoted or otherwise) has limited the scope of how queer people see themselves. It has caused us to police our identities within the community based on a “born this way” argument crafted in response to heterosexual demands—demands to prove that you really promise your sexuality was fated, that you really promise it can’t be changed, in exchange for love and acceptance.

So which is it? Did I “choose” to become interested in women? In a sense, no. In a sense, yes. I chose to actively explore dating women a little bit before Lauren and a lot more after Lauren. I chose to buy the books Female Masculinity, Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, Chelsea Girls, and A Lesbian Love Advisor. I chose to attend queer events, dances, and sports leagues. But simultaneously, I could list for you all the events in my life that could serve as indicators I had this queerness stirring in my bones all along. I could also tell you about how my attraction to Lauren proceeded from a simple electric desire emanating from nothing other than human connection. The only story I have for my queerness defies genre; it doesn’t suit an “aha” moment or a coming out story, nor a clear indication of raw willful choice against biological nature.

Gathering as many fragments of truth about my queerness as I possibly can has yielded a constellation of memory and feelings. Very early on when I started dating Lauren, I point-blank asked myself: Could I fall in love with a woman? What followed can only be described as the cognitive act of removing the mental barrier that said I couldn’t date women. After that, I was free to explore these budding feelings for Lauren without any further rupture to my schematic reality. As bisexual writer Chloe Caldwell writes in her novel Women, “I hadn’t yet explored my ability to fall for a woman.” This statement is my only truth. Which is to say it felt less like discovering an innate biological reality of myself, and more like choosing an openness toward any feelings that might arise toward women.

When I first wanted to explore dating women a few years prior to dating Lauren, I was 20, and my boyfriend at the time graciously gave the go-ahead for me to attend a lesbian dance event called Hershe Bar. I was so nervous that I had four gin and tonics, which somehow made no discernible difference as my anxiety full-throttle steamrolled any attempt to temper it. I ended up talking to a girl in line for the bathroom, and we went home together. The sex was robotic and stilted; I felt disassociated from my actions. All of my movements were overly intentional and thought out like a manual: “Touch her here now, Step 1, 2, 3.” Afterward I felt relieved. Well, I’d tried out sex with women and I didn’t like it. I guess I didn’t like women after all.

By the time I met Lauren, a lot of those defenses had disappeared. I wasn’t hacking away at the same fears. Each move toward women became a precedent for the next, each time less of a shock. Still, my first encounter with Lauren was new territory for me, and while I was thinking about what the whole weekend meant, my friend told me that Lauren was coming next weekend to see a band of a mutual friend play. I lit up with excitement at the news, hugging my friend tightly and falling backward on the grassy hill we sat on. In that moment, I instantly recognized the feeling—a crush! So I can like women. Cool!

Not having a widely promoted model for sexual fluidity slowed down my progress toward bisexuality. If I didn’t have the stress to “choose” gay or straight, I probably wouldn’t have been as afraid to explore my feelings for other genders. And when it came to queerness, the more I saw in myself and my friends this urge to find artifacts in our memories of “where it all began,” the more uneasy I felt. I didn’t want to engineer a linear narrative if it felt forced. And I know that a lot of queer (or could-be-queer) people feel similarly, even if they’re not often represented or given room for expression in the mainstream. Not yet, anyway.

As of now, my bisexuality is still shrouded in a lot of shame and impostor syndrome. Because bisexuals have the privilege of sometimes being able to pass for heterosexual in the world and have hetero-coded pairings, some queer people think that bisexuals do not require the same need for belonging in the queer community. Over time, that has made me feel self-conscious or stupid for liking men as well as women while claiming a queer female identity. I want other people to have a different experience than I have had. With my friends that are interested in dating more than one gender, but haven’t explored that openness, I try to leave them as much space as possible to do so. Through their process, I try not to bring up identity labels at all. If they end up in a hetero pair somewhere along the way, nothing has been invalidated. It is more useful to strengthen our ability to expand our conception of who we can love, who we can feel attracted to, regardless of outcome.

Instead of running from fluidity in sexuality, let’s incorporate it into a more complex and nuanced understanding of sexuality as a whole. Besides, appealing to people’s sense of decency or sympathy with “born this way” doesn’t get us as far as we might imagine: As researchers found in a 2016 study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, when 645 college students from the University of Tennessee and the University of Missouri–Columbia were given a questionnaire on their opinions and beliefs surrounding homosexuality, many answers correlated with high levels of belief that being gay is not a choice. But the results also showed that those same people answered affirmatively for questions that indicated negative beliefs toward homosexuals, regardless of their “naturalness.”

The youngest queer generation is already leading the way, rapidly proliferating along an ever-expanding spectrum. (A 2016 study conducted by J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group found that, when given a scale of 0–6, only 48 percent of 13- to 20-year-olds identify as “exclusively heterosexual,” as compared to 65 percent of millennials aged 21 to 34.) The liminal spaces of sexuality are only going to continue attracting explorers. If the queer community is a place where we embrace the queering of society’s compulsory structures—heterosexuality, gender, nuclear biological families, etc.—then we also have to embrace a larger set of people’s lived experiences of queerness. Insisting on a structure that is equally as reductive and gatekeeping as heterosexuality is a step backward. Queerness doesn’t hinge on whether you wear high heels or not, or whether you swear a blood oath to commit to one gender only. There are multiple forking paths to belonging, and every day there are more people dedicated to charting them, whether they begin at birth or someplace completely new.