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The “Magic Pill” Question

“Would you take a magic pill to make yourself straight?” That question came from an audience member at a recent panel discussion at my university, organized by the GLBT Faculty Committee and the GLBT Student Partnership, which aimed to educate the campus about the lives of GLBT people and their generational struggles. The panel discussion was part of a suite of activities leading up to our campus’s observation of the National Day of Silence. I wasn’t able to attend the panel, but those who did told me everyone on it said that they would take the magic pill, with one person adding that he’d like to take a whole bottle of those pills.

I wish I could have been on that panel to say, “No, I wouldn’t take a magic pill,” and to unpack the question.

Discussions of GLBT people – even in the mainstream – often use what disability scholars have termed a “medical model” for understanding the struggles we face. The medical model, which presumes that being GLBT is something we “can’t help,” suggests our struggles result primarily from an embodiment rather than from social conditions. Further, the medical model emphasizes notions of choice versus innateness, with little room for frameworks that acknowledge both as possibilities.

With that in mind, here’s what I would have said to the panel:

1. The hypothetical discussion of the possibility of change and desire to change implied by the magic pill question distract from the real issues that GLBT identified people face. They position us as the problem that needs changing.

2) I’d prefer to talk about the social changes I’d like to see. I’d like federal marriage recognition. I’d like to have access to my partner in a medical emergency and make decisions about her medical care – and vice versa. I’d like to not have to explain to the local gym why she and I constitute a “family” and should pay for a family membership instead of two individual memberships. I’d like to know that if I ever decide to go to my university’s homecoming football game again that my partner and I won’t be called “dykes” as we’re trying to leave the stadium. In short, I’d like to focus on the issues that are really affecting my life.

3) Why would a person want to change his or her sexual desire? There’s nothing inherently better about a woman desiring a man or a penis (if we want to break things down into the most primary sexual bits) than a woman desiring another woman or a clitoris. The problems I face come from people’s attitudes about my sexual desire.

4) The magic pill question assumes that my life must be really miserable. And it’s not. When I tell people that I decided to have a female partner (the notion of “choice” of sexuality is actually a fairly common phenomenon in women), many act as if a dessert cart came by filled with luscious cakes and pies and I took the stewed prunes. But that’s not how I experience my life. Clearly, I face some discrimination, but aside from people’s stupid attitudes and the homophobic policies supported by those attitudes, I like my life. And besides, I like prunes.

5) GLBT people are not the first group to be asked the magic pill question. In her work on bisexuality and the troublesome assumption that what is culturally constituted as “normal” is always more desirable, Jessica Leigh Zaylia, a 2010 graduate of University of San Diego School of Law, points out that people of color have often been assumed to prefer whiteness. Further, disabled people have frequently been asked this same question (often by bioethicists), in large part because those asking assume the answer will be “yes.” Perhaps the asking is driven by an unspoken need for those in the privileged positions to hear that there is a reason that they are at the top, or just to hear that those of us who are marginalized long to be like them. For whatever reason, the magic-pill question is only posed to members of marginalized groups (and often when they’re seeking rights and access); that seems to be worth thinking about.

6. If you’re surprised that I would not take the “magic pill,” don’t dismiss me. I’m not in denial or trying to be brave. I’m telling you the truth. Hearing something that runs counter to your assumptions and beliefs can be difficult. As Sara Goering, a philosopher at the University of Washington, notes, “When our deeply held assumptions are called into question, our tendency is to respond with incredulity. What we ought to say is ‘tell me more.’”

I know, of course, that my experience and perspective isn’t that of every person in the GLBT community; we are as diverse as any other community. And I respect the people on the panel who said that they would take the pill. I suspect they may find that appealing for many different reasons: the struggles they’ve faced, a need to accept themselves and embrace their sexuality or gender identity, or just because it seems like the easier thing to say. Or maybe it’s because they’ve never really thought about the implications of the question.

When I rattled off these responses off to a colleague who was at the panel, she said she wished I’d been there. I hope this article will open a new conversation, one that does not start with the magic pill question.

April Michelle Herndon is an assistant professor of English who also teaches in the Women’s and Gender Studies department at Winona State University in Minnesota.

Published on: July 9, 2010
Published in: Science and Society

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