Born This Way: Turning Up Tolerance or Interrupting Inclusion?

Jo Tilly
Topics LGBTIQ+
Jo Tilly, Research and Policy Manager, DCA

My kids are big fans of Macklemore, and his album The Heist is on high rotation on our family road trips. We’re all up for putting our hands in the air and car dancing.

For anyone not familiar with Macklemore, he’s a white American rapper (perhaps a discussion for another blog!) who, amongst other things, achieved some notoriety for his support of marriage equality in the song "Same Love", which condemns homophobia in the music industry and the community. It was a huge hit, performed at the 2014 Grammys where it was nominated for song of the year,  and featured an ear-worm chorus of co-writer Mary Lambert’s gorgeous vocals "I couldn’t change. Even if I tried; Even if I wanted to…”  

Now my kids are part of a very modern family. They march in Mardi Gras, they have friends, family and teachers who are from all parts of the LGBTI+ spectrum, like many kids, they have pretty strong views about things that are fair and unfair, and they have a very strong sense of injustice about issues like marriage equality and homophobia.

But in talking about the song it became clear that one of the reasons this song really resonated with them – and presumably a reasonable proportion of the global music buying public – is that it makes the point that homophobia is fundamentally unfair because LGBTI+ people can’t help it. We’re just born this way (thanks Lady Gaga) and we can’t change… even if we want to.

Now I don’t want to suggest that there are not lots of people for whom this is the case. I have plenty of friends who tell me that they knew they were different from other kids because they were attracted to kids of the same sex in pre-school.  Or that they felt they had been assigned to the incorrect gender from as early as they could remember. And intersex people are clearly born with sex characteristics that don’t fit medical norms for female or male bodies.

But for some of us, this isn’t necessarily the case. While newspapers can always be counted on to report on research about the possible factors behind sexual orientation and gender identity, it seems that the scientific jury is still out. In the absence of any hard science to prove otherwise, I maintain that some people can and do make choices about their sexual orientation and preferences, and these can also evolve over time.

Why does it matter? Well, at a time when LGBTI+ issues are up for public debate – in just the last few weeks marriage equality, trans visibility and the Safe Schools Anti-Bullying program have been in the headlines – it’s important to consider how advocates for equality should best go about changing hearts and minds.  And with the Turnbull Government still backing a plebiscite on marriage equality, the headlines may well get worse before they get better.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t just some kind of theoretical debate. Research shows that despite increasing legal protection from work discrimination, many LGBTI+ people still suffer from discrimination and harassment in the workplace. People continue to be denied employment, fired, passed over for promotion, or given less desirable assignments or compensations because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Investigations into Australian workplaces also show things are often still pretty grim for LGBTI+ people with DCA’s own research finding that 16% of gay men and lesbians report discrimination at work on the basis of their sexual orientation. Recent research from the World Bank found that gay and lesbian employees have lower job satisfaction, are more likely to be harassed by work colleagues and earn less than their heterosexual counterparts. The World Bank  found that Australian lesbians earned a whopping 28% less than their straight counterparts with comparable education, skills, and experience, while research by the Melbourne Institute reported that gay male Australians suffered an earnings penalty of around 20%.

Overt discrimination, harassment, bullying and victimisation, while not insignificant, is only part of the problem facing LGBTI+ people at work, with research also indicating there are significant consequences for individuals and organisations where people feel unable to be honest about their sexual orientation or gender identity at work.

One US survey of almost 3,000 LGBT employees found almost half (48%) of LGBT respondents reported being closeted at work, with substantial negative consequences - in short, those who were out flourished at work, while those who were in the closet languished or left.

Workplace discrimination, of course, reflects broader community attitudes. In Australia 20% of trans people, 19% of intersex people and more than 15% of LGB people report suicidal thoughts or attempts, with young people particularly vulnerable. One Australian study of more than 3,000 same-sex attracted young people found 61% reported homophobic verbal abuse and 18% reporting physical abuse.

So is making the case that we’re born this way going to change the kind of views that result in such discrimination? Recent research suggests perhaps not, with a study by researchers at the Universities of Tennessee and Missouri-Colombia suggesting that promoting a ‘born this way’ ideology is not likely to substantially reduce homophobia. One of the authors of the study, Professor Patrick Grzanka, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee told US alternative media site Fusion that people might believe that LBGTI people are ‘born that way,’ and that ‘sexual orientation is not changeable’ but it did little to influence whether or not they also held homophobic views.

Such seemingly contrary views are illustrated by organisations like the Australian Christian Lobby who publicly state that that they "support the protection of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity and condemn abuse of anyone based on such identity or orientation" while at the same time coming up with such gems as being gay is more hazardous than smoking, warning that same-sex couples having children will lead to another stolen generation and calling for anti-discrimination laws to be "set-aside" during a plebiscite campaign so opponents of same-sex marriage can argue their case. 

In her 2014 book The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions Are Sabotaging Gay Equality Suzanna Danuta Walters argues that "how we experience our sexual identity is produced in and through a multitude of factors, including our political commitments, our geographical locations, and our racial/ethnic identifications. And, to add to the complexity, desire itself shifts and changes over the course of a lifetime." This complexity she goes on to explain "is not captured by the weak language of acceptance or the tepid embrace of tolerance but rather by the richness of real inclusion and robust integration and investment."

Similarly, in a new book Equality Is Not Enough: Seeking Full Liberty for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People Andrew Park from the UCLA Law School’s William’s Institute writes that while the LGBTI+ movement must continue to work for full legal equality, we must also keep in mind that "good laws do not necessarily mean good lives." He suggests that our focus needs to shift to increasing the well-being of LGBTI+ people, in such areas as improved health, income, education, and democratic participation. In essence, he says, we must emphasise that LGBTI+ people are able to live the lives they want.

My take on Park’s book is that it is critical that we emphasise social and economic inclusion for LGBTI+ people, not simply tolerance of diversity. To do that maybe we need to move beyond simple explanations that biology is destiny.  

In many ways, workplace inclusion practitioners have developed a model that LGBTI+ community advocates could look to. We know that some of the best developments in D&I in recent times, like all roles flex initiatives, are those that are able to support all employees, regardless of the boxes we tick about our personal characteristics. Emphasising the benefits of inclusion over simple diversity, and workplaces that are inclusive of all, is an ideal that we should also work towards in the wider community.

In light of the official apology offered by the NSW parliament to the original 1978 protesters that led the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, this year's Mardi Gras season is a time for all of us to think about how we can ensure that our workplaces, schools and communities can be truly inclusive of people across all sexual orientations and gender identities. Merely tolerating us because we 'can't change the way we are' just isn't enough.

Jo Tilly, DCA's Research and Policy Manager


Join the conversation

* Required information