Betty Greene Salwak

Simon LeVay and the Biology of Sexual Orientation

Filed By Betty Greene Salwak | November 18, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: biology of sexual orientation, coming out of the closet, counseling LGBT clients, Simon LeVar

Last Friday I had the great pleasure of attending a seminar intended to help professionals in the mental health field understand and counsel clients who are lesbian, gay and bisexual. Open to interested parties as well, it was held at the University of Indianapolis. (It was announced that because transgender individuals are markedly different under the circumstances being discussed, time would not permit inclusion of that population.)

The keynote speaker was Dr. Simon LeVay, who made headlines in the 90s with his research that showed physical differences in brain structure between gay and straight men.Simon LeVay.jpg He showed a series of studies that supported his conclusion that "the findings suggest that gendered traits in humans, including sexual orientation, are influenced by a cascade of prenatal factors including genetic differences between individuals and differences in prenatal testosterone levels, that in turn influence the sexual differentiation of brain regions that meditate sexual feelings and behaviors. Environmental influences and random developmental variability may also play roles, though these have not been clearly identified."

When he stepped down to hear the other speakers, Dr. LeVay took his seat--next to me. Somehow I had been given the best seat in the house. I confess that I was completely unprepared to offer any coherent discussion on his field of study, so during breaks we chatted informally.

Salwak & LeVay.JPGSimon is a gracious and erudite man, soft-spoken and friendly. During lunch he waxed poetic over the joys of bicycling in the dead of winter when he lived in Boston. (I can't help but think that a study of our brain scans at that moment would have shown his brain having strong activity where mine had none. But we had a lovely chat.)

The remainder of the seminar was shared among three counselors: Dr. Julia Lash, Chris Falley, and Jean Capler. They spoke about the complexities and differences in working with clients who are lesbian, gay or bisexual. These women, all counselors (and all lesbian), discussed coming out issues, the dynamics of same-sex couples, and ethical issues which included a discussion of reparative therapy.

LeVay panelists.JPGLeVay, Falley, Lash, Capler

According to the dean of the School of Psychological Sciences, about a third of the audience (of around 100) was comprised of graduate students; the balance was mental health professionals--and me. The Q&A session at the end of the talks revealed some concern about young people who came to them. The event closed with many who still wanted to continue the discussion. It was a day well spent for this "interested party," adding to my resources for my church and my community.

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This is really outstanding, thank you, Betty!

i wonder if it's the same in penguins....and then what explains the relations with a praying mantis.

i enjoyed reading this post. thank you.

Do you think he's right? Did he make his case?

Had I not already been convinced—and anecdotal evidence led me to believe in biological origins years ago—LeVay's argument is quite compelling. He is careful to point out what research says and what it does not say.

In addition to his own research, he included studies of twins, frequency in family populations, in vitro exposure to testosterone, brain response to pheromones, and more. All of these studies in concert produce evidence that prenatal factors influence sexual differentiation.

My own feeling has always been "Why would anyone with the genuine ability to choose make such a potentially painful choice?" My brother told me he knew he was "different" since the age of six. No six-year-old has the wherewithal to make that kind of "choice."

Do you think if prenatal testosterone levels are tested and corrected in pregnant women that it would reduce the incidence of homosexuality?

Let me make it clear that I believe there is absolutely nothing to "correct." I love the diversity in our species just as it is.

Having said that, the exposure to testosterone is only one of many factors present. I don't know enough to predict if such and outcome is possible. I do know that I would not support the endeavor, which implies a "defect."

I quite agree. But the fact that we love diversity doesn't mean everyone does, and I am a little concerned about the uses to which this research will be put. Which does not mean, of course, that it should not be done. As an academic, I am in full favor of academic freedom.

But I also feel strongly that I need no justification for my gender identity and sexual orientation, and I am not sure I want it attributed to a physical cause. If that's the truth, I am all for it. But if it's not for certain, then I want that made clear.

Is it necessary to say that I had 'no choice' in order to demonstrate my right to human dignity and freedom? Don't I deserve human dignity and freedom even if there is some choice involved?

I think the answer is yes, and so, with great respect for your views, Betty, and while I, too, admire Mr. LeVay's work, I am not ready to say that it is 'compelling.' I would prefer to say 'intriguing.'

Regan DuCasse | November 18, 2009 3:28 PM

Although I appreciate the research, and essentially I might understand the curiosity and wish to convey certain biological factors regarding gay people and if there is a cause to be found for the differences.

But one can't help wondering if the information wouldn't be used for further sinister causes.

After all, genetic legitimacy didn't stop racial or gender bigotry and discrimination throughout mankind. I don't see much point in looking for a genetic connection to homosexuality. People with exceptional prowess tend to upset people who believe in leveling things for the mediocre. Geniuses have been jailed or put in remedial situations to do just that, even after they've made some of the greatest discoveries to benefit mankind. Punishing those who are different to maintain certain hierarchies is as old as mankind has been alive.
That's why I don't think it should matter whether or not homosexuality has a gene base. There is a biological component to our sexuality, period.

When people are committed to their prejudice, to the point of excluding anything else, even evidence, these are people who should have THEIR heads examined.

When talking to a reasonable person and pointing out that self reliance, commitment to productivity and the freedom to reach one's full potential, essentially as it won't infringe on another to do the same, should be enough for anyone to understand.
If they don't, and can't agree this is all gay people want and deserve, then nothing will convince them of anything.

And finding a biological component to homosexuality won't convince many that it's a component that still renders gay people less of what straight thing of themselves.
Much the way racists are convinced of how white skin renders superiority unto who has it.

Those of us who know better, don't care about genetic components. We care that a human being is allowed self reliance, freedom and presented with equal standards and protections.
And in our country's mission statement, it is assumed you have all these because you have the genetic make up of a human being.
If it's enough for the Constitution and Bill of Rights, it's enough.

I used to post about this a lot, and I remember Simon Levay's famous study of hypothalamus size. Something tells me that the media blew that one out of proportion.

Anyway, I remember one of the saddest quotes from a really terrible study being conducted on the biological origins of sexual orientation. A gay man who was participating said that he was very hopeful that the study would prove that sexuality is genetic so that his mother could better accept him.

I wonder how much of that is him thinking about what it would take to get her to accept him and how much he was thinking it would help him accept himself. A lot of the need on the part of some people to find a genetic cause for sexual orientation, IMHO, is internalized homophobia. They need to know it's not their fault and that they can't change it.

Anyway, did Levay talk about the causes of bisexuality as well? I think that would be an interesting topic to explore as well.

He did comment briefly on bisexuality as an outcome due to similar causes as homosexuality but less frequent. One interesting note was that a couple of studies indicated that women's sexual orientation is more fluid than men's and is more responsive to environmental influence.

I would like to acknowledge Jillian and Regan, that whether one's sexual orientation or gender identification is a choice should not matter to anyone who recognizes the humanity and full rights of every human being. But for some, eliminating the likelihood of "choice" might bring them closer to acceptance. There are many roads to understanding; I'm trying to arm myself with responses to as many questions as I can, no matter how foolish or ignorant.

Hey Alex,
I agree with you. I think the same about trying to find the causes of trans*. It shows great insecurity. I'm from an activist generation when asking for causes was seen as counterproductive- what has become of that? I believe it has a lot to do with the right wing backlash in the US during the last decade that "you" rely so heavily on that whole biology stuff. In the EU, it is not as important.

I also remember that there was a large study that disproved LeVays claims about the hypothalamus, but it wasn't printed in the usual scientific journals. The control over which studies get published and which don't lies in the hands of conservatives at the moment. An essay about these two studies and how they did or didn't get published can be found here:

I think it's the text by Bonnie Spader, Biological determinism and Homosexuality

I recognize your good faith, Betty, and acknowledge your desire to learn for the sake of combatting prejudice. I know that you are only trying to arm yourself with as much information as possible.

What makes me uncomfortable is the work of people such as J. Michael Bailey, who has claimed that biology makes gay people gender non-conforming, that homosexuality is biologically maladaptive, and that transsexuals are either extreme homosexuals or extreme fetishists called autogynephiliacs. I am similarly discomfited by transgender people who violently insist they are intersexed despite evidence to the contrary or have been forcibly feminized by a bee sting or well water.

It's a complicated world we live in. I would just say be careful what we wish for.

To add to this, note that LeVay is fairly strongly transphobic, and a close friend of Bailey's (the two have worked together off and on for years).

He's one hell of an incredible researcher, but still a human being, subject to the same weaknesses. Bailey is, as well, and his statements (and book) supporting the Blanchard theory are admittedly not valid as actual research (which is why he published it the way he did).

I've cited LeVay in defense of LGB folks for years -- his work is incredible. I've also cited Bailey -- when it comes to sexual orientation, they are outstanding researchers.

LeVay used to have an AOL page that tracked the studies of value and offered his personal insights into it -- it was a phenomenal resource. Too bad its gone.

rapid butterfly | November 19, 2009 8:04 AM

right on, Jillian. Although I recognize that the "they had no choice" line of thought can persuade some people, I personally have better results with people in my experience simply taking the bull by the horns, and asking: religion is clearly a choice, yet it is allowed to be freely expressed. So what if sexual orientation or gender identity are a choice at least for some?

like several of you I am also concerned about the potentially Pyrrhic quality of a victory for GLBT rights based on biology. What happens when the biology can be "fixed"? When THAT becomes a choice, then we are back to what I think is the crux of the issue, which is, simply, acceptance of diversity,

I'm learning so much just in this comment thread!

Would the seminar possibly have a website and maybe a transcript?

No mention was made at the time of that possibility. I'll look into it.

The link on "research" above gives the overview of his talk. For this audience, LeVay provided a description of the methodologies and results, and then discussed what might be concluded and what could not. He chose his words quite carefully, saying that the studies show evidence, not proof.

The department reports that no video or transcripts are available. Sorry.

Did you get his contact information, Betty? You could ask him to guest post on Bilerico!

Levay has some interesting things to say and some very disturbing things as well. I encourage anyone studying his research to also read this link to what Andrea James has written about him:

He basically feels that any transwomen who aren't attracted to men are basically paraphiliacs.

Here's another link about Lavey by Lynn Conway discussing some of the politics of Lavey's interest in "the gay gene."'s%20Gay%20Gene%20promotional%20tour.html

Please do not take this man's research at face value, there's a lot of disturbing aspects to it.

Regan DuCasse | November 19, 2009 10:35 PM

Does his research also include ASEXUALS? The media has been paying more attention to what could be classified as another aspect of sexual orientation.
Some biologists, if not careful, could make the public construe this also as an 'abnormality', however I doubt that it would require society to commit asexuals to second class citizenship, banishment from marriage for not procreating, nor indictments and fear mongering as threatening to society.

Asexual folks are 'coming out' so to speak and are being frank and their numbers counted. Would Dr. LeVay do some back checking on the size of glands or other utero endocrine influences towards asexuality?

Seriously, would the religious consider asexuals acting in rebellion against the Biblical directive of being fruitful and multiplying?

I think religious people in particular have very little to stand on. As we all know and obviously homosexuality has no exception in any human culture or our entire history.

Religious belief, especially in America is not only chosen, it's not enforced...therefore NO civil law should be subject to influence by said beliefs.
Not only that, we can point to some of the world bloodiest wars, destruction of indigenous peoples and systemic bigotry and discrimination based on religious belief.
Which is the biggest reason why the Founders utilized more caution in establishing specific laws that govern without it.

Apparently religion requires some of it's members not to believe in science, or it's intervention, even for the sake of human and civil rights and their expansion.

He didn't include asexuals because people did not include that information in the medical records of the deceased in the 1980s. In fact, for whatever reason it was not noted in women's records whether they were lesbians, so that population is not a part of the research either, in this particular study.

LeVay's study was not on the size of the hypothalamus; it was on a specific cluster of cells in a specific region of the hypothalamus. His work could only be done after removing the hypothalamus from a cadaver, finding that cluster of cells, and examining their properties. To add a new population to the study is to start a new study.

We can start a lengthy list of what was not included, or we can look at what we DO have and examine the data and try to come to reasonable conclusions.

Your comments on politics and religion are interesting but they are suitable to another topic.

Regan DuCasse | November 20, 2009 12:27 PM

Hi Betty,
Sometimes I have a hard time being succinct, but the concentration on homosexuality in Dr. LeVay's research is an extension of targeting gay people as a higher kind of lab rat.

As long as straight folks continue to argue that homosexuality is mutable as a condition of equal opportunity and protection, so much focus on homosexuality, even by endocrinologists and biologists gives it the kind of profile something abnormal or malfunctioning would have.

I suppose that's why the whole business creeps me out. Why does accepting homosexuality as a fact and part of human sexuality require so much scrutiny, even in this day and age?

Which is why I brought up asexuality. Perhaps if there was more invasive study, a lack of compassion or as I said, systemic legal bigotry against asexuals, there might be the same interest in studying their glands and hormone levels.
Yet, they are accepted and they themselves are giving awareness to society who might otherwise ignore them.
But at least doesn't go out of it's way to punish them.

People in this country have the most bizarre and persistent paranoia regarding gay people that's reached proportions that are truly strange and scary.
Dr. LeVay's research, I would think, gives them a kind of validation that there is something wrong with gay people to require study at all.

Regan, I have to admit I’ve always wondered what the fuss was about. Why do these people care so much? My personal efforts thus far on the religious front have shown evidence that religious faith has next to nothing to do with it. That was certainly an unexpected result. But when presented with all the scholarly evidence that our earlier biblical interpretations might be interpreted another way, people continue to ignore what they do not wish to hear. And that is the crux of the issue right there. It isn’t a biological matter and it isn’t a religious problem, much as many would like to make it so; it is a cultural issue.

I do see validity in exploring both of these aspects of sexuality and identity, because they are entry points for those whose grasp on cultural certainty is ironclad. To get them to let go of this prejudice, we must offer something else to grasp. Science and religion are two ways to change the cultural bias. I am seeing it happen—not fast enough, but it is happening.