The pop singer says LGBT people were 'born this way'. Maciej Zurowski is not so sure
When Lady Gaga announced in early 2011 that her next single would be called ‘Born this way’, anyone familiar with the singer’s club-conscious pop and gay-friendly sound bites knew what she had in store. A few weeks and several press statements later, even the most backward tabloids understood: this was to be Gaga’s first explicit celebration of sexual diversity, an instant anthem for the gay community.
In contrast to her cautious “tribute to my gay friends”, ‘Alejandro’ (2009), this time Gaga has delivered a full-blown sexual identity anthem that stands absolutely no chance of receiving airplay in the bible belt. “No matter gay, straight or bi, lesbian, transgendered life”, Gaga bellows with pithy righteousness, and “Don’t be a drag - just be a queen”. Before the song was even released, the British crown’s favourite camp man, Elton John, breathlessly hailed it as a gay anthem that would obliterate Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’.
While Gaga’s debut album, The fame, was a near flawless dance-pop record that merged watered-down club beats with smart songwriting, the new single is somewhat of a disappointment. Gaga’s borrowing from Madonna was not necessarily detrimental to the effectiveness of her music so far, yet ‘Born this way’ is musically a little too close to ‘Express yourself’ for its own good and a little too shamefacedly so to pass for a tribute. What is more, in her attempt to obliterate all gay anthems known to man by making her message bigger, louder and blunter, Lady Gaga slips into the kind of didactic agitprop mode that may have worked for anarcho-punk in the early 80s, but thwarts the sense of dialogue that a good pop song needs.
Uninspired though the track may be, it shot to the number one position of the Billboard Hot 100 within only three days. After all, fans had been aching for new material since November 2009, while Gaga kept milking her expanded debut album, The fame monster, for single excerpts and remixes. “I’m overwhelmed by your support,” tweeted the millionaire pop star on February 14. And she may well be. Evidently, the Lady Gaga brand has developed a pulling power which, for the moment, bypasses the fans’ critical judgement.
But there is another side to the single’s success. As Gaga surely expected, the song’s central message instantly polarised the American public into two camps: the gay community and its urbane well-wishers on the one hand, and the Christian right on the other. ‘Born this way’ was a sure-fire way for Gaga to cater to the sentiments of her target audience, while stirring some welcome controversy among those who were hardly Lady Gaga fans to begin with. “The lyrics are ballsy enough, certainly within the US context, to run the risk of offending the many and vociferous religious groups”, rejoiced London’s punk historian and gay rights advocate Jon Savage in a Lady Gaga eulogy for The Guardian.
It is no big secret that mainstream pop acts rely on the spending power of two core target demographics: teenage girls and gay men. Likely X factor winners, boy bands and girl groups are wheeled off by music management companies to perform test gigs at club nights such as London’s G-A-Y before they are unleashed upon the masses and hit the big time. Then there are those who, like Madonna, have more authentic links to the gay community, having cut their teeth and gathered inspiration as dancers and singers at underground gay clubs for years. Once success strikes, they ‘give back’ to the community by citing from its culture and occasionally dropping a few favourable words.
As Savage noted, “Gaga knows that releasing a gay-friendly single will bind in her gay, lesbian, transgendered target audience ... and there’s the other side of the coin, which is that it’s just polite to recognise the concerns and lives of the people who are your fans - and to give them a bit of support.” What Savage does not mention is that in the pop industry there is a somewhat more cynical understanding that a bit of politeness can go a long way: express solidarity with the gay community and you will have their faithful support. Teenage girl audiences, in contrast, are considered to be profitable, but fickle.
We are who we are
Like Madonna before her, Lady Gaga can certainly not be accused of being impolite - or of possessing a bad business sense, for that matter. When promoting her disco album Confessions on a dance floor on British television in 2005, Madonna said she was a “gay man trapped in a woman’s body”. Incidentally, Ana Matronic, vocalist in alternative pop combo Scissor Sisters, had used very similar wording in an interview with The Guardian a few months earlier, describing herself as a “drag queen trapped in a women’s body”. And Lady Gaga? Not one to aspire to the heights of originality, she decided to recycle Madonna’s variation yet again in an April 2009 interview.
‘Born this way’ is not the first gay anthem of recent months. Last November, the New York Times even identified a trend of new “songs for gay survival”.  The author, Alex Hawgood, cites as examples ‘We R who we R’ by Ke$ha, ‘Raise your glass’ by P!nk and Katy Perry’s ‘Fireworks’, among others. On the surface, these are simply hedonistic, celebratory tunes that see the protagonists partying and accepting themselves for who they are. On another level, as Hagwood notes, they can be read as songs of defiance in the face of intolerance. Ke$ha, the ersatz Lady Gaga, went as far as to dedicate her song to “those that haven’t been accepted because of their sexuality” in the light of an increase in gay teen suicides in the United States. So far, so commendable - and why on earth should pop charts not contain messages of diversity and tolerance? Surely, to those whom such songs provide strength and reassurance in difficult times, the possibility that the artist is just being opportunistic is a secondary question.
But what does it mean to be a “gay man trapped in a woman’s body”? Intentional comic effect aside, the underlying notion is that being gay is not just a sexual preference: it means to possess a distinct gay personality, and quite possibly one that is more fun, more fabulous, more hip than most straight people could ever hope to be.
Lady Gaga celebrates difference, and the celebratory feel-good tone characteristic of much contemporary gay culture is something that all such recent gay anthems have in common. A militant but critical song such as Tom Robinson’s ‘Glad to be gay’ (1978) would be quickly dismissed as ‘self-hating’ today.
But Gaga’s love and knowledge of her target audience runs deeper than that. ‘Born this way’ addresses in a very conscious fashion a theme that is crucial to what Savage calls “gay identity formation”, and especially so in the United States: over the past decades, the idea that homosexuality is a genetic predisposition has become increasingly central to gay identity. Counterposed to this view stands that of the Christian right, which regards heterosexuality as the default sexual orientation, homosexuality being a mere lifestyle choice - and a sinful one at that. In 2007, a moustachioed bigot named Donnie Davies claimed his 15 minutes of fame by uploading the composition, ‘God hates a fag’, onto YouTube. The Christian hate rock tune - I’m using the term ‘rock’ generously - is something of a mirror image to Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this way’: “Being gay is nothing but a choice,” warbles the sorry singer.
Typically, the Baptist Press featured a pre-emptive headline in the run-up to Gaga’s new release: “Lady Gaga promotes a gay myth”. One can be offended by the way the author, Kelly Bloggs, frowns on what he considers to be “aberrant sexual behaviour”. But, despite being a rightwing misanthrope, Bloggs may well be right when he says that Gaga promotes a “myth”. To put it bluntly, there is no conclusive scientific evidence for a genetic basis of homosexuality - or, for that matter, of any other sexual preference.
Justify my love
Alleged findings of a ‘gay gene’ first surfaced in the liberal media in the early 90s. The preceding decade, of course, had been a time of political, social and cultural reaction. To rally mass support for Reaganomics, the conservative American right corralled the most backward elements of all classes behind its ideological smokescreen of a return to the good old values of the 1950s. Goodbye liberation movements and sexual permissiveness - hello god, family and country.
While any gains the women’s liberation movement had made were transformed into the elitist concept of a ‘new conservative femininity’- ie, middle class career women not entirely unlike Madonna - it was the gay community which drew the shortest straw. Encouraged by the Aids epidemic rearing its hideous head, the so-called ‘moral majority’ fired away: the HIV virus was god’s punishment, or at the very least evidence that the ‘homosexual lifestyle’ was a sordid choice in opposition to nature.
It was against this background that gay rights activists became eager to find some biological causality for sexual preference - as opposed to the ‘choice’ claim of the crazed Christian right or the more secular conservative view that homosexuality was a mental illness which might be cured. If nature made me this way, so went the argument, then I am not guilty of any wrongdoing. And furthermore, as Lady Gaga puts it in ‘Born this way’, “I’m beautiful in my way, ’cause god makes no mistakes”.
In 1991, the findings of Simon LeVay, a neuroscientist and later director of the Institute of Gay and Lesbian Education in southern California, seemed to offer just the results that the victimised gay community was desperate to see. Based on autopsies of 41 Aids victims, LeVay found similarities in a tiny region in the centre of the brain between 19 men of self-declared homosexual orientation (as opposed to the assumed heterosexual men and women).
Whether these similarities were the cause or the consequence of sexual preference - or perhaps just coincidence – LeVay could not say with certainty, as he later admitted. Further studies, in which LeVay and his colleague, Dean Hamer, examined the frequency of homosexual preference among blood relatives stood on similarly shaky ground and produced similarly inconclusive results. Ditto all successive attempts to link homosexuality to biological determination.
But that mattered little to gay rights activists, who at that point were prepared to clutch at any straws they were offered - and given the context, who could blame them? The liberal media broke a popularised account of LeVay’s and Hamer’s studies as the ‘gay gene’ story, which the gay community embraced with great relief. To many, it now virtually constitutes a religious dogma - question it and you’ll get burned.
The sentiment that eventually motivated the hunt for the ‘gay gene’ predated the actual research by over a century. In 1864, German civil servant Karl-Heinz Ulrichs published a proto-‘Born this way’ pamphlet which pleaded for the acceptance of men who, according to him, were born with a ‘female mind’ and therefore attracted to other men. What was given at birth, argued Ulrichs, warranted no punishment. The ‘born gay’ idea proved to be a real survivor in the homosexual subculture.
Pop music first documented it in 1975, when disco artist Valentino released a gay anthem that incidentally was called ‘I was born this way’. In the late 1980s, the resurrected Dusty Springfield followed suit with a tune called (you guessed) ‘Born this way’, which she recorded in collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys, a pop act that was immensely popular with the Eurocommunist-cum-liberal Marxism Today crowd. An intelligent person that possesses a good knowledge of gay identity politics, Lady Gaga is well aware of these artefacts and the title of her new single is surely an intentional nod at those in the know.
Though many orthodox Marxists may not wish to touch the works of Michel Foucault - on a bad day the man could be an unbearable postmodernist - The history of sexuality is not without interest. Foucault’s study advances the idea that the category of ‘homosexuals’ as a distinct group of people is a fairly recent one in western culture - only few cultures in human history, in fact, knew of such a notion. Before European scientists advanced the category of the ‘homosexual’ in the second half of the 19th century, we knew only of homosexual acts - which across different societies were banned, tolerated or confined to specific cultural practices.
While Focault’s account sometimes threatens to derail into what might be called a more sophisticated variation of labelling theory, Marxists should take into account the material forces driving the invention of the homosexual. During early industrialisation, traditional gender roles and family bonds appeared to break down, as factories were packed to the rafters with men and women alike. Tiny living spaces were shared by several families. To bourgeois eyes, there was something alarming about the sight of these communities: fantasies of untamed proletarian sexuality merged with the perceived threat of working class solidarity and power.
In order to increase social control and atomise the masses into individualistic units modelled on the bourgeois nuclear family, the ruling classes began to enforce a new moral code. ‘Family values’ were promoted among the proletariat, and any non-reproductive sexual activity - including pornography, prostitution and homosexuality - was harshly penalised.
It was around that time that the category of the ‘homosexual’ first appeared in Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal’s paper On contrary sexual feeling (1870) and similar medical and psychiatric textbooks, attributing homosexuality to psychological disorders. This narrative proved most useful in providing ideological backing for the measures being implemented. Richard Kraft-Ebbing expanded these accounts by listing further ‘deviations’ in his influential Psychopathia sexualis. An Austrian Roman-Catholic, Kraft-Ebbing believed that any non-reproductive sexual activity was a perversion. Most crucially, though, he attributed these activities to strictly defined categories of ‘perverts’, who stood in contrast to the healthy exclusive ‘heterosexual’: the homosexual, sadist, masochist, fetishist and so forth.
In response to all this, a subculture that understood itself in terms of exclusive homosexuality developed, acquiring its own cultural codes and practices, as well as its own sources of self-worth. The concept of homosexuality as a strictly separate, innate orientation became its founding myth.
All successive efforts at explaining sexual orientation in biological terms - eg, those of Hirschfeld - took as their starting point the bourgeois narrative of heterosexuality and homosexuality as separate identities. The physician and homosexual rights activist, Magnus Hirschfeld, picked up on Ulrichs’ pamphlet and undertook painstaking research to prove the existence of a human ‘homosexual species’, drawing up a rather laughable typology that included features such as curly hair.
Hirschfeld’s ‘Scientific-Humanitarian Committee’, meanwhile, was at the forefront of the homosexual rights struggle, counting among its supporters prominent German socialists such as Karl Kautsky and August Bebel. But despite all these well-intentioned and laudable endeavours, a credible medical explanation of homosexuality was never produced. Like LeVay and Hamer a century later, Hirschfeld had clearly based his research on a false premise.
Here and there, officially sanctioned ignorance was temporarily interrupted with some more insightful research. To Sigmund Freud, there was no such thing as biological determination. In his Three essays on the theory of sexuality (1905), he described human sexuality from infancy up until the age of five as ‘polymorphously perverse’: ie, not directed at the opposite sex, but at any object or activity that might provide pleasure. Only with socialisation during the following ‘latency period’ would a child’s sexual preference be determined. If heteronormative socialisation was successful, the individual’s sexuality would become focused on procreation and what you would call ‘straight sex’ today.
What was interesting about Freud’s theory was not so much his penis-fits-vagina conclusion, which was not so different from earlier accounts that held homosexuality to be some sort of psychological defect. The crucial bit was the idea of polymorphous perversity in infancy: ie, the potential to enjoy a wide variety of turn-ons not limited to the opposite sex, procreation or the genitalia. According to Freud, there was no such thing as default heterosexuality or, for that matter, any other inborn sexual orientation.
The American sexologist, Alfred Kinsey, was not convinced that a straightforward gay-straight schism existed even among adults when he drew up the Kinsey scale in 1948. According to their sexual history, individuals were slotted somewhere between 0 and 6 - with 0 implying ‘exclusively heterosexual’ and 6 ‘exclusively homosexual’. Though Kinsey’s research was criticised on methodological grounds - as any study can and in fact should be - the relatively low occurrence of individuals who could plausibly be classified as one extreme or the other led him to conclude that “males do not represent two distinct populations”. Kinsey only recorded manifest sexual activities, while leaving sexual fantasies, repressed libido and the subconscious unexamined. Quite possibly aware of this grey zone, however, he concluded that “the living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects”.
This is not to say that we must accept any of these accounts as the last word. Rather than sexual preference being determined exclusively by socialisation, we can well imagine that it is shaped by a variety of factors - a dialectical interplay between nature and nurture, if you will, and one with wildly different results. Where various accounts of human sexuality compete - from psychoanalytical to anthropological, from biological to sociological - we should not be afraid to advocate the most thorough and ruthless interdisciplinary research. There is nothing to fear. As Engels wrote, “The more ruthlessly and disinterestedly science proceeds, the more it finds itself in harmony with the interests of the workers.” By extension, they will be consistent with the project of the liberation of humanity as a whole.
Alas, to pursue science ruthlessly can be a difficult thing in a world where scientific research, like any other professional activity, ultimately depends on the man with the moolah. Who conducted the research? Who financed the study? What results did they want to see and why? What are their sectional interests? As we have seen, these are questions worth asking before we bow to the authority of ‘scientific fact’. Engels himself was unknowingly misled by the ‘scientific’ discourse on homosexuality of his time. Despite his otherwise rigorous method, it just did not occur to him that the officially prescribed homophobia was intimately linked to the bourgeoisification of the working class family. Karl Heinz Ulrichs’ campaign for homosexual rights did not meet with Engels’ approval - to put it mildly.
It is no coincidence that the utopian socialist, Charles Fourier, hailing from the first half of the 19th century and not yet blinded by the novel idea of ‘homosexuals’, held positions that were much more consistent with the idea of sexual freedom, recognising the wide, unstable, often periodically changing range of sexual preferences held by individuals. As long as sexual acts are consensual, argued Fourier in Le nouveau monde amoureux (1818), they should be enjoyed and defended - regardless of whether they are ultimately the result of predisposition, socialisation or even ‘choice’. This simple, yet positive notion strikes me as the ethic that should be at the core of our every engagement with the topic of human sexuality.
Dancing on our own
So whom does the artificial gay-straight dichotomy benefit today? Firstly, there is the conservative right, for whom it is a useful device to stir divisions within the working class. Although outright homophobia, like outright racism, is no longer acceptable in the political mainstream, implicitly homophobic themes can always be tactically employed. On demand, the right can arbitrarily reserve its position in order to mobilise support in the gay community, as David Cameron did when attempting to project a gay-friendly image in a disastrous interview with the magazine Attitude before last year’s general election.
But this is normally the preserve of the second main benefactors, the liberal capitalist parties, traditionally able to drum up electoral support using socially progressive slogans much more skilfully. An interview with Attitude in January 2010, for instance, saw Nick Clegg pose as a rebel against David Cameron, who he said was “very difficult to trust” with regards to gay rights. In the United States, where Barack Obama teamed up with Lady Gaga to speak for ‘gay America’, this dynamic is much more pronounced.
It may be wrong to overestimate the importance of the identity politics peddled in the 1980s by Eurocommunists and various other reformists, which later became part and parcel of the top-down ‘political correctness’ programme of New Labour and the US Democratic Party. But at times one cannot help but wonder just how much the cross-class LGBT nationalism they helped to advance has to answer for. By the 2000s, the political mainstream could utilise gay rights themes to mobilise support for imperialist war against Muslim countries. In Britain, this tendency has found its most recent, admittedly marginal expression in the rainbow-flag-waving LGBT ‘division’ of the English Defence League.
And then, of course, there is the multi-million pink money industry, which will sell you anything from gay music to gay shower curtains. At the end of the day, neither liberals nor conservatives nor the gay industry is interested in real sexual freedom. Over time, the existence of clearly defined sexual identities has arguably taken on a dynamic somewhat different from its original purpose in the 19th century. But, in the final analysis, it still serves to facilitate a lot of smooth financial transactions.
Live to tell
When speaking about the gay community, I have avoided wrapping the term, community, in quotation marks. I appreciate there are plenty of non-straight individuals who find the idea of buying into a particular identity and lifestyle, along with a narrow set of assumptions and prejudices, to be abhorrent - provided they possess the spending power to buy into it in the first place. Then, of course, there are those comparatively marginal ‘queer’ radicals, whose ideas are closer to what I have advanced in this article than they are to the ideas that inform mainstream gay culture.
And yet, just like the much maligned cross-class ethnic communities, the gay community serves as a port of call, protection and source of self-worth in what continues to be a homophobic world - despite official political correctness. They are not just market demographics, but communities based on a shared experience. More often than not, this experience includes getting bullied at school, discrimination at work, threats and assault in the street, or, in the best case, being at the sharp end of what tends to be the same ‘harmless’ jokes over and over again. The scenario depicted in Bronski Beat’s 1980s song, ‘Smalltown boy’, is still a familiar one to many.
Yet paradoxically, by continuing to uphold the idea of a distinct identity the gay community helps to perpetuate the very same myths that are the source of its oppression - as well as a hurdle on the path to general sexual liberation. Artists like Lady Gaga, regardless of their intentions, have to be complicit with certain ideological orthodoxies in order to sell their product. As an active gay rights campaigner of the most liberal variety, Gaga arguably means well when recording a song such as ‘Born this way’. But the question is not whether she is genuine or calculated. The problem is that, in a society driven by the profit motive, messages that promote genuine sexual liberation do not stand a chance of receiving the same amount of spotlight as Lady Gaga’s song.
- The Guardian February 14.
- Lady Gaga’s transformation from 70s glam rock-influenced, trust fund-powered singer-songwriter into electro-pop star can be viewed here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2VQykoEeto
- To get an idea to what extent the ideas of the conservative right were common cultural currency in the 1980s, one only needs to remind oneself that America’s biggest rock band at the time, Guns N’ Roses, released a million-selling record on Warner Music that spoke of “faggots” who “spread some fucking disease”.
- Admittedly, Lady Gaga mentions “lesbian, gay, transgendered life” in her song, but the celebratory tone and the idea of the song clearly caters to mainstream gay culture, which I therefore address in my article at the expense of LGBT people more broadly.
- Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys was a reader of Marxism Today. Having provided many hours of excitement to the postmodern leftist intelligentsia with pop that “challenged notions of authenticity”, he joined the magazine’s core contributors when becoming a Blairite in the mid-90s.
- It is what separates her from air-headed ‘gay icons’ such as Paris Hilton, who was caught on tape making homophobic remarks.
- Foucault’s desire to ‘deconstruct’ everything, including reason and sanity, led him to adopt some very strange positions indeed, such as his support for political Islam in Iran, which he deemed “stronger” than Marxism. However, since he desired his work to be “a kind of tool-box others can rummage through to find a tool they can use, however they wish, in their own area”, I am happy to follow suit.
- It is worth noting that a bourgeoisification of the working class family along similar lines was advanced during Stalin’s rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union. This was also accompanied by a ban on homosexuality.
- Bebel’s Reichstag speech in opposition to Paragraph 175 can be read here: paganpressbooks.com/jpl/BEBEL.HTM
- F Engels Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch04.htm
- ‘David Cameron stumbles through interview on gay rights’ The Guardian March 24.
- ‘Clegg lays down to Cameron on gay rights’ The Independent January 13.
- The gay mainstream dislikes ambiguity no less than the straight mainstream does: bisexuals, ‘fence-sitters’ and ‘turncoats’ are traditionally viewed with suspicion.