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LeVay Shares Thoughts On 'Gay Gene' Research

By Rebecca Zacks

People in Building 34 last week may have caught an unusual sight: a pair of female Bonobo chimpanzees having sex. The amorous primates were not escapees from the Franklin Park Zoo but the subject of the first slide in a seminar given by neuroscientist Simon LeVay, former Harvard University researcher and founder of the Institute of Gay and Lesbian Education.

LeVay spoke on May 22 as part of the Center for Biological and Computational Learning seminar series. His seminar, entitled "Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality," gave a historical overview of research into the causes of homosexuality. He also discussed the social and political implications of this type of work.

The author of three books on the history, culture, and science of sex, LeVay is no passive observer when it comes to research into sexuality. While at Harvard and through later work at the Salk Institute, he won acclaim for his research on the visual system. More recently, he has used his experience in neuroanatomy to study sexuality.

In 1991 LeVay published a controversial paper in the journal Science that described an anatomical difference between the brains of homosexual and heterosexual men.

Specifically, he found that a structure called the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH-3) was smaller in the brains of gay men than it was in men known or assumed to be heterosexual.

In his seminar, LeVay described his own work and that of other researchers who give nature their vote in the nature versus nurture debate. LeVay referred to studies of separately-raised twins that suggest that sexual orientation has a genetic component.

LeVay went on to describe a 1993 study by Dean H. Hamer of the National Cancer Institute. The two have collaborated on writing about their field for the general public. In his study of 40 pairs of gay brothers, Hamer's group found a specific region of the X chromosome seemed to be associated with homosexuality.

LeVay's work has drawn scrutiny

These types of experiments have sparked controversy in both lay and scientific communities. Interpreting LeVay's data can be difficult. Several researchers have pointed out that based on LeVay's work, it is impossible to tell if differences in human brain structure are the cause or effect of a homosexual lifestyle. And LeVay himself noted that his and Hamer's studies have yet to be corroborated.

Still, LeVay believes strongly that biology plays a role in the determination of sexual orientation. In a radio interview last week on the WBUR talk show program "The Connection," he gave a rough estimate that "half the reason why you're gay or straight is genetic" - what the other half is, he said, we don't know. He added that the influence of genes on sexual orientation is believed to be stronger in men than it is in women.

In his seminar, LeVay emphasized the political ramifications of his research. A proponent of gay rights and himself a gay man, LeVay believes that it is important for homosexuals to be seen as a discrete biological group or "natural kind" rather than as heterosexuals acting inappropriately. He cited a New York Times/CBS poll that found that people who thought that homosexuality was a choice were more likely to be homophobic than those who believed sexual orientation was biologically determined.

But LeVay was also fully aware of the danger in pinpointing a biological cause of homosexuality - in particular the potential for attempts at "curing" homosexuals of their homosexuality. He described studies in which homosexual behavior was caused in male rats through castration and hormonal manipulation, then returned to heterosexuality through brain surgery. LeVay showed frightening footage of similar surgeries being performed on gay men in Germany in the 60s.

Despite these and other abuses, LeVay remained convinced that improving scientific understanding of homosexuality will lead to greater social understanding. But "far more than science, it is the collective coming out of gay people" over the last few decades that has improved the social and political climate for gays, he said.