I played a bit with the Riddle Scale of Homophobia in a previous post, and now I’d like to look at the scale again.  As before, a significant contribution of the Riddle Scale is that it names attitudes more than the most clearly violent and prejudiced as homophobic.  The point I plan to make–that “born that way” arguments are homophobic–has been made before, but not, I think, with the Riddle Scale to lend its particular clarity.

Also I’ve been sitting on this post for over two years, and I’m a little tired, so it might not be that clear after all.  Also, critiques of “X-phobia” are valid, and generally I prefer the lens of “heterosexism” to “homophobia.”

The Riddle Scale was developed by psychologist Dorothy Riddle in 1974/5.  Have a look.


  • Repulsion: Homosexuality is seen as a crime against nature. Gays/lesbians are considered sick, crazy, immoral, sinful, wicked, etc. Anything is justified to change them: incarceration, hospitalization, behavior therapy, electroshock therapy, etc.
  • Pity: Represents heterosexual chauvinism. Heterosexuality is considered more mature and certainly to be preferred. It is believed that any possibility of becoming straight should be reinforced, and those who seem to be born that way should be pitied as less fortunate (“the poor dears”).
  • Tolerance: Homosexuality is viewed as a phase of adolescent development that many people go through and most people grow out of. Thus, lesbians/gays are less mature than straights and should be treated with the protectiveness and indulgence one uses with children who are still maturing. It is believed that lesbians/gays should not be given positions of authority because they are still working through their adolescent behavior.
  • Acceptance: Still implies that there is something to accept; the existing climate of discrimination is ignored. Characterized by such statements as “You’re not lesbian to me, you’re a person!” or “What you do in bed is your own business.” or “That’s fine with me as long as you don’t flaunt it!”


  • Support: People at this level may be uncomfortable themselves, but they are aware of the homophobic climate and the irrational unfairness, and work to safeguard the rights of lesbians and gays.
  • Admiration: It is acknowledged that being lesbian/gay in our society takes strength. People at this level are willing to truly examine their homophobic attitudes, values, and behaviors.
  • Appreciation: The diversity of people is considered valuable and lesbians/gays are seen as a valid part of that diversity. People on this level are willing to combat homophobia in themselves and others.
  • Nurturance: Assumes that gay/lesbian people are indispensable in our society. People on this level view lesbians/gays with genuine affection and delight, and are willing to be their allies and advocates.

I really appreciated the Riddle Scale when I first saw it in my Ally Training long ago.  It showed the nuances in between “Gay is good” and “Gay is bad.”  At the time, I found myself on the verge between Acceptance and Support, but I really didn’t understand the last three categories.  They all seemed the same to me–because they were beyond my grasp at the time.  (It took Michfest to show me all that was possible, and get me to Nurturance.  Thanks Michfest.  I needed you.  We all still do.)

“Born that way” is an explanation for homosexuality saying that sexual orientation is genetic, inborn, designed by God, and completely unchangeable.  It is used as a argument to grant basic legal rights to homosexuals.  No longer a “crime against nature” (or the state), homosexuality need not be punished via sodomy laws, DADT (in the military or other fields), or prohibition of legal marriage.  “We’d change if we could, but we can’t, and are you really going to punish us for things we can’t change?”  So we are a step up from rock bottom.  We have a basis for decriminalizing homosexuality.  Yay.

But look again at the Riddle Scale. The attitude that “We’d change if we could, but we can’t” falls under Pity or Tolerance, on the negative end of the scale.  We can’t help it.  Pity us.  Tolerate us.  Protect and indulge us.  If rights are based on not being able to help ourselves, that implies that were homosexuals able to help themselves, homosexuality would not be ok. The OK-ness of homosexuality is not a given, then.  Hmm.

And if you think homosexuality is not ok, isn’t that…homophobia?  Positions based on “we can’t help it,” even when advocating for protective laws, even when based on (pseudo)science, ARE homophobic. How can you consider yourself an ally for homosexuals, when you come from pity or indulgence, i.e. “the poor dears can’t help it,” instead of coming from “gay and lesbian relationships are AWESOME!”  On an eight-point scale, are we really settling for two-out-of-eight?  Are we really giving those folks cookies?

Don't stay where you are tolerated, go where you are celebrated

When we start to realize that born-this-way arguments see lesbians as “poor dears” instead of healthy and whole and happy women, we can recognize this argument as one of desperation.  If we grovel in self-effacing ways, if we swear to the moon that we don’t think much of ourselves, if we promise to toe the line, they will give us our limited reward for feminine obedience.  Really?  This is the tack we want to take?  Demeaning ourselves?  I know it is still a dangerous world, and the threat of violence is real, and born-this-way offers limited protection, but it will only get us so far.  Meanwhile, women who want to choose lesbianism for their liberation are called fakes.  All to protect the two-out-of-eight.

I know, we’re afraid that if the public gets wind of women choosing to be lesbians, they’ll start thinking that we can choose to be straight and the conversion therapy will kick back in.  Granted, some people who try to become straight suffer.  Immensely.  Unfulfilling relationships with people you don’t love, sex that repulses you, trying to conform to undesirable gender stereotypes—all bad. I haven’t experienced it and I hope never to.  Trying to change out of shame, guilt, or self-hate doesn’t work. When we say that sexual orientation can’t be changed, what we should be saying instead is that sexual orientation can’t be changed through self-hate or external pressure. But changing organically because that’s who you grow into intellectually and emotionally, as Radical Feminists who become Lesbian do, that is possible and good.  Fantastic, life-affirming, and joyous, in fact.

It’s not that you were born that way to begin with, discovering it later. It’s that you were born merely with the possibility for attractions, and your upbringing, your environment, your culture, your life experiences have the power to shape your sexuality over time. You are not static. You grow and change. That’s what life is. We change hobbies, friendships, politics, religion, opinions, tastes, goals…and sexuality* is not exempt. It too can grow and change with us.  We move through the stages, and come to understand Lesbianism as beautiful.  Delightful.  Indispensable.  Which, interestingly, is at the other end the of scale.   Nurturance.  Eight-out-of-eight.

Y’all, I know that there are fake lesbians in the world.  I know lesbian sexuality has been commodified.  I know there are men out there changing the definition of the word.  I’m not asking us to drop our boundaries.  I’m asking us to re-examine them, to make sure we’ve built the right ones.  “Born that way” is a sad, desperate argument, and it’s hurting all of us, not just us ex-hets.

Today is a good day to become a Lesbian

I love this one.

* But see my previous post, WTF is Sex, Anyway?


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