Scientist Finds Solace, Therapy in Research on Gays
When Salk Institute scientist Simon LeVay walked into a Pacific Beach leather bar last weekend, all the men stared. LeVay figured it was because he wasn’t wearing leather.
But he quickly realized that they recognized him from recent television news broadcasts and having his picture in newspapers across the nation that touted his discovery made public 10 days ago: That the brains of gay men are structurally different from those of heterosexual men.
Literally overnight, LeVay, 48, had become a celebrity. The television networks fought over the chance to film him, reporters jockeyed for telephone time, and mail and calls poured into his office. And at the gay bars, everyone wanted to buy him a drink.
“I’m not totally naive, I realize this is not astrophysics, but an area close to people’s hearts,” said LeVay, an associate professor and director of the Robert Bosch Vision Research Center at the Salk Institute. “But I didn’t realize it would be of this intense interest.”
LeVay, a Cambridge University graduate, taught and researched for 12 years at Harvard University’s Medical School before joining the Salk Institute in 1984. He has labored for years, garnering respect and publishing numerous articles in his field of visual research. LeVay is a highly regarded scientist, said neurologist Richard K. Nakamura of the National Institute of Mental Health.
Yet his work--so specialized and technical--was never the stuff that captured the attention of the public. He had focused on how the brain uses electrical signals from the retina to provide vision and the formation of the visual system’s elaborate tapestry of nerve cells. Outside the scientific world, his findings produced yawns.
But neuroscientist LeVay abruptly changed his direction of research after his lover of 21 years died of AIDS a year ago. LeVay had taken a year off work to care for his partner, Richard, a Berkeley native whom he had met when they were both in college. And his lover’s death changed the course of his life.
“When you go through something like that, you think about your life and where you want to go,” LeVay said. “I realized there were some things that were important that I’d been ignoring that I’d long been curious about.”
For years, LeVay had grappled with a big question: the origins of homosexuality. It was an issue that he and Richard batted back and forth. Richard maintained that sexual orientation was a result of parenting and the environment. LeVay believed homosexuality had biological origins.
“I can’t remember a time I wasn’t curious about my sexuality,” said LeVay, who said he realized he was gay when he was 13. “I think most gay men, I would include myself in that, would have the feeling that being gay is something they became aware of--rather than choosing to be.”
LeVay, clad in cuffed jeans, a blue plaid shirt and white Reboks, candidly discussed his sexuality and his work recently while at his laboratory. An articulate man who has maintained his British accent despite almost 20 years in this country, LeVay is modest and quick to joke.
Though he has lived in Southern California for seven years, he is still amazed by some aspects of life here, like bumper stickers that read: “My Child Is an Honor Student” and then names the school. In response, LeVay made his own bumper sticker for his Toyota. It reads: “My Child Was Expelled From Rancho School.”
LeVay, chairman of Salk’s safety committee, speaks as he stains slides of brain tissue. With a mischievous gleam, he acknowledges that he is supposed to wear protective garb while handling the slides--though he does not. And, despite his humor, there’s a certain sadness in LeVay’s blue eyes, which occasionally water when he talks about Richard, an emergency-room physician who died at age 40.
After Richard’s death, LeVay’s visual field research no longer held his interest. Instead, he designed what turned into an 18-month study of the brains of 41 cadavers, research he hoped would offer some insight as to whether there were any structural differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals.
The brains were collected after routine autopsies from people who had died in New York and California hospitals. Nineteen were homosexual men who died of complications of AIDS. Sixteen were presumed heterosexual men, and six were believed to be heterosexual women. During the study, the brain tissue was coded so LeVay never knew which ones were gay or heterosexual.
The work of comparing and staining slides of brain tissue refreshed LeVay’s flagging interest in research. While other scientists of his stature might have directed others to do what some view as tedious work, LeVay preferred a hands-on approach.
“I wouldn’t say it had been a mid-life crisis, but I did have the sense of running into a brick wall, and this was something I could get excited about again,” LeVay said.
When LeVay began to compile his results last winter, he was stunned by the very definite pattern that had emerged: The segment of the brain that governs sexual behavior was half as large in homosexual men as it was in heterosexual men.
“It tells us that sexual orientation is an aspect of human nature that can be studied by biologists; it does not tell us how sexual orientation is determined or when,” LeVay said.
He checked the codes over and over--but the pattern was distinct. Trying to calm down, he went for a walk on the bluffs overlooking the ocean by San Diego’s hang-glider port.
“I was almost in a state of shock,” said LeVay.
He sat for half an hour, his mind reeling. Suddenly, Richard’s death hit him again--in a devastating way he hadn’t felt for months, he said.
“Here was something very major, and I was alone in the world--I couldn’t share it with Richard,” LeVay said. “You think of scientists making discoveries, but the number of times you make discoveries is very, very uncommon.”
The week before the study was published last month, LeVay had a taste of the tremendous interest his findings had generated as dozens of reporters called requesting interviews. His phone mail system, which can accommodate 40 calls, filled up every two hours. And the Salk Institute received hundreds of calls.
At Salk, LeVay’s colleagues and supervisors were supportive. LeVay’s work, they say, has thrown the prestigious research organization into the limelight--in fact, the recent spate of publicity is more than it has garnered in years.
“Simon (LeVay) is our hero now here,” said Dr. Inder Verma, chairman of the faculty and academic council at Salk. “We are very happy for Simon that the work he’s doing is receiving credit and recognition. Simon is a very good scientist. He’s very highly reputed in his field.”
On the day that LeVay’s study was published in the Aug. 30 issue of Science, Verma spotted him in the cafeteria wearing a tie--not a characteristic trademark. Unaware of the gathering storm of publicity that was about to envelope his colleague, Verma couldn’t fathom why he was dressed up and asked: “Are you getting a loan?”
Since then, much to his surprise, LeVay has been inundated by calls and letters from the media, gays, families of gays and conservatives. Complete strangers have inquired about what would ordinarily be a private matter: his own sexuality.
“I don’t mind about people knowing I am gay--it’s relevant; it has to be asked whether it influenced the research,” he said. And he goes a step farther.
LeVay believes that his research would only be initiated by gay scientists because heterosexuals simply don’t have the same interest in the question. “I think, if we waited for heterosexual scientists to do this research, we’d be waiting until doomsday.”
LeVay’s findings ignited a furor. Among the heterosexual community, the reactions ran the gamut. One woman called to say she had nine sons--all gay--eight of whom died from AIDS. She wondered whether her family could be included in his research.
Others wrote, saying that they had gay sons, and that his research alleviated a longtime sense of guilt--that somehow as parents they had done something that made their boys become gay. LeVay’s work was “a blessing to all mothers,” one woman wrote.
Still others were decidedly anti-gay, blasting LeVay’s work.
“Come off your rocker and set these gay people free from their malicious social behavior,” one writer urged.
Much to his surprise, LeVay’s work also seemed to split the gay community. Some congratulated him on ascertaining something they had always felt--that they were born gay. Others said his work raised a moot issue--biological or not, they were gay. Still others voiced concern about how the discovery might be used against the gay community, saying it could lead to “fixing defects.”
However, some in the lesbian community angrily criticized LeVay’s research, saying it was chauvinistic and that they had been excluded.
“How incredibly irresponsible of you to say you studied homosexual/gay hypothalamus (a segment of the brain). You studied male and straight females--not homosexuals,” angrily wrote one woman.
Even today, the outpouring amazes LeVay, who has applied to the National Institute of Health for funds that would enable him to continue this research. He shakes his head as he tries to remember the news shows and publications--from ABC’s “Nightline” and PBS’ “McNeil-Lehrer Report” to Newsweek and Time--that covered and debated his work.
“You see,” he says, pausing, “I labored in benign obscurity for 25 years. . . . I am stunned by these reactions.”
And when he went out last weekend, he expected to disappear into the anonymity of a dark bar and have a quiet drink. Instead, throngs of men he didn’t know gathered around, hugging him and buying him drinks.
Suddenly, LeVay realized that he had found the direction he’d lost.
“I think,” he said, “I should devote myself full time to this work.”