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Queer science, is it in your genes?

By Jeff Walsh, Oasis editor

Many teens initially question why they are queer when first discovering their sexuality. Some question it even after accepting it.

In 1991, Simon LeVay took his curiosity about his sexuality and applied it to his work as a researcher for the Salk Institute. LeVay found, by studying the brains of gay and straight men, that gay men had a smaller area of cells in the hypothalamus portion of the brain.

"A particular groups of cells, or nucleus as it's called, I found was smaller in gay men than in straight men," LeVay said, in an interview with Oasis.

LeVay's research has not been replicated or refuted since it was published.

LeVay said additional brain work in a portion, called the anterior connissure, also found a difference between gay and straight men. That research was performed by Laura Allen at UCLA.

On the genetic side, the National Cancer Institute found a gene, xQ28, which seems to influence sexual orientation in men, LeVay said.

For LeVay, doing this research was a natural bridge with the brain research he had already been performing.

"My initial motivation for doing it was simply a curiosity about sexual orientation. I spent my life studying how the brain assembled itself and how differences in individual brains come about... the nature versus nurture kind of questions, not in the sexual orientation part of the brain, but in a different part," he said. "So, I think diversity is a central aspect of our identity as human beings, so trying to understand that is trying to understand what makes us human. And I think sexual orientation is a good example of diversity, because it's a very striking difference. "

Studies have shown consistently that people who believe sexuality to be fixed, and not chosen, are more accepting of gay people, said LeVay.

"Answering these questions does impact on attitudes toward gay people. There is no question that people who think sexuality is imborne are, in general, much better disposed towards gay people and gay rights than people who think it's some kind of lifestyle choice," he said. "So, it does impact that debate. Since I've published my work, I've run into many people whose minds have been changed due to the science."

For queer youth, the question they ask themselves is sometimes 'what went wrong?' LeVay says sexuality should be seen as obvious as gender differences.

"I think a lot of people are interested in the origin of gender differences and I don't think that's rooted in the concern of people being the wrong sex or the right sex. Gender, if you like, is another basic attribute of human diversity and what makes us masculine or feminine isn't based on what society imposed on us," he says.

When LeVay's initial findings were published, some people questioned the validity of his study, as all the gay men tested had died of complications from AIDS.

"All the gay men in my study did die of complications of AIDS, so a question would be as to whether the small size of this particular structure, called INAH3, in these men might be a consequence of the disease they died of rather then their sexual orientation. And there are plenty of reasons to make me confident that that is not a reason," he says.

One reason is that the study included straight men who had died of complications from AIDS. But, since his research was published, LeVay did prove his finding with a brain of a gay man who was not AIDS-infected.

"After the study was published, I obtained the brain of one gay man who died of lung cancer. I processed his brain blind. That's the way I, and everyone, does these studies... coding the specimen so you don't know which specimen belongs to which subject," he says. "So, I processed his hypothalamus blind along with three other hypothalamuses from three straight men about the same age, and even when I was processing the tissue, I could see that one of the INAH3's was much smaller than the others, and indeed, it turned out to be the gay guy. So, I'm confident AIDS has nothing to do with it. But it's a reasonable question people bring up."

Another question that comes up is what future implications today's science might have. In the Showtime movie "Twilight of the Golds," genetic research tells a married couple their child will likely be gay when it grows up. They then consider whether the fetus should be aborted. LeVay said that situation is a future possibility.

"It's not unrealistic that something like that might happen. There might be people who say it's imborne, but also show there's a way to change a trait we don't want. I would disagree with that and try to sway people otherwise. But that's a value judgment people have to make for themselves.

"I just published a novel myself called Albrick's Gold which deals with similar issues. The question in my novel is that the assumption is that the technology has been developed to change adult people's sexual orientation through implantation of different brain cells into the hypothalamus," he said. "So, these things are not realistic right now, but they might happen in the future. So, that's something to keep in mind and try and prevent."

LeVay says sexual orientation is, at best, 50 percent genetic, and says other factors come into play as to why someone is queer.

"The other 50 percent can also be biological stuff happening before birth. There are plenty of things that happen during fetal development that are nevertheless not genetic," he said. "Identical twins share all their genes, but can be different from the moment they're born in such as body weight or whatever. Plus, there's all the environmental, social and sexual things that happen after birth and they could play a role. No one can really prove that the Freudian theory of sexual orientation is wrong. There's a bunch of possibilities."

But restricting science because of how it might be used is not an issue, according to LeVay.

"Science is advancing knowledge and knowledge can be used in all different ways, good or bad. You can't do science specifically for good consequences. Knowledge doesn't have that quality to it, in my view," he said. "Does it worry me? It's of some concern to me. There's a whole biomedical revolution going on right now that should be of some concern to everyone. We're going to gain that kind of control over our whole destiny that we've never had before. It's going to evolve tremendous choices that we never had to make before. I think that we can do more to see that people make the choices we would like them to make. In terms of gay stuff, I see every possibility of that. I'm not at all pessimistic about the future of the gay community."

LeVay, 53, of West Hollywood, Calif., said teens asking themselves 'was I born this way?' shouldn't spend too much time worrying about this issue.

"Don't take that question too seriously. In the long run, it doesn't really matter that much. But I also think people become gay, straight or bisexual based on the genes they inherit and what happens before birth," he said. "By the time you become aware of strong sexual feelings around puberty, I think these things are probably set and I don't think any sexual experiences you had during that time or in childhood influence your underlying sexuality. People do have a choice what they do with their basic instinct. Deny them, sit on them, try and act differently or accept them and be proud. That's the level of choice people do have, and I respect that."

Growing up upper-middle class in England, LeVay says he never had a problem dealing with his sexuality. He first had gay sex at age 14.

"I was brought up in an atmosphere where homosexuality, if not exactly approved of, wasn't really disapproved of. It was a lot gay-friendlier than people have growing up in the United States today. None of the opposition you see today in America. I didn't have any dilemma. I think people I was close to at any time in my life knew."


Simon LeVay can be reached at SLeVay@aol.com
For more information, LeVay has authored four books: