COVER STORY : Social Studies : Scientist Simon LeVay Heads New College That Explores Contributions of Gay Community--Now All He Needs Is a Building
It was 1991, and scientist Simon LeVay was riding a rocket.
His stunning discovery of differences between the brains of gay and straight men had propelled him from the obscurity of the laboratory to the news pages and talk shows--a potent new spokesman for the belief that some people simply are born gay.
Colleagues at the prestigious Salk Institute in La Jolla cheered him as a hero. At gay bars, strangers offered to buy him drinks. The federal government stood by with half a million dollars in research money. Friends awaited his next move.
Tom Albright, a neurobiologist and LeVay’s closest friend at Salk, said: “All of us were curious about where he was going to take this.”
LeVay surprised them all. He has ditched the laboratory and, from a makeshift office lent by the city of West Hollywood, is carrying out his boldest experiment so far. It is the upstart Institute of Gay and Lesbian Education, a one-of-a-kind night college where up to 200 gays and lesbians learn about a homosexual culture that has been as closeted as many of the students themselves once were.
What began in 1992 as a year’s leave of absence from Salk to found IGLE with former West Hollywood planner Chris Patrouch has turned into a vastly new life for the 50-year-old LeVay. He has swapped scientific dispassion for social activism--in the process, trading a reliable flow of research funding for an unpaid job and a trickle of $195 tuition checks. His office staff is an answering machine set up in the back room of the city building.
In LeVay’s new life, a major discovery would be finding a home for the school. Once preoccupied with unlocking secrets of the mind, he now concerns himself with whether the Tuesday night gay literature class can get into its borrowed room in City Hall.
LeVay is also adjusting to the public role thrust on him after the brain discovery turned the shy scientist into an instant gay celebrity. He is still not good with names or faces and sometimes worries that he may have cost the school support by not remembering people he should have.
“It’s been a lot more of an experiment, a lot more adventurous than stuff I’ve done in the past,” said LeVay, his soft British accent intact after two decades in the United States. “For most of my life I’ve been buried in back rooms. This job has been so interactive socially.”
You have to know some things about LeVay’s past to understand such a turnabout.
LeVay, who says he first knew he was gay at 13, was in his adult life anything but a gay rights advocate. He and his longtime lover, Richard, lived away from San Diego’s gay neighborhoods and attended gay pride parades once a year. “That was the measure of my involvement in the gay community,” LeVay said.
Then Richard became sick with AIDS and LeVay took a year off from Salk to care for him. Richard died in 1990. After that, said friend and UC San Diego researcher Don MacLeod, “a lot of things changed” for LeVay.
He returned to Salk, where he was known as a top-notch specialist on the brain’s role in vision. But instead of continuing his work, he turned his attention in the laboratory to an entirely new area for him--the question of sexual orientation. Friends said he opened up more about his own homosexuality. “I developed a sense of wanting to do something more with my life than I was doing before,” LeVay said.
But he was not ready for the reaction to his discovery that a tiny piece of the brain linked to sexual activity is smaller in gay men than in straight men. The finding--the first evidence of a biological cause for homosexuality--tossed gasoline on the raging debate on whether homosexuality is a matter of choice. LeVay was suddenly a nationally known champion of so many people who, like himself, had long believed they were born gay.
Patrouch, the West Hollywood planner, met LeVay at a meeting of a gay political group in 1991 and mentioned his idea for a gay university in West Hollywood, the center of gay social life in the Los Angeles area. LeVay loved the idea. Weary of growing administrative demands on him at Salk, LeVay threw his newfound celebrity behind the college, which he and Patrouch first planned to name Harvey Milk University, after the slain San Francisco supervisor revered by many gays.
“This was like a second coming out--at least a much more public thing than I was used to,” said LeVay. The two men got permission to use city rooms for IGLE classes and in 1992 opened the school that everyone now simply calls “Iggle.”
Nearing the end of its fourth semester, the institute remains ever the experiment, surviving on a shoestring and the sweat of a few volunteers. It has attracted a devoted core of students to classes in gay psychology and fiction writing, and has hosted popular workshops and field trips exploring everything from earthquake faults to lesbian sea gulls. The Whitman-Brooks Foundation helped IGLE raise $4,500 for scholarships.
Still, progress is measured in wobbly baby steps. The school is not accredited and does not yet offer degrees. Enrollment had been climbing before it dipped this spring to a low of 50--a drop LeVay attributes to disruptions caused by the Northridge earthquake.
Although LeVay had hoped for a 50-course curriculum, only five to 10 of the 12-week classes have typically been offered. The school has no building of its own; rooms for classes are borrowed from hotels, other groups and the city. LeVay and IGLE board member Amy Ryan are what passes for an administration, responsible for everything from dreaming up classes to licking stamps.
The school marks LeVay’s passage from scientist to gay activist. Though he still lectures and included his brain research in his 1993 book “The Sexual Brain,” he has effectively bowed out of the laboratory investigations into whether sexual orientation has biological causes. Instead, he is co-writing a book on gay culture with Elisabeth Nonas, a lesbian novelist who teaches writing at IGLE.
And more than anything else, he is consumed with getting IGLE off the ground. LeVay sees the humble school as nothing less than an engine for social change--a place “to make gays and lesbians into better ambassadors for the community.” If straight people do not think they know any gays, LeVay said between sips of Earl Grey tea, “it’s our fault.”
Supporters say IGLE has created a haven where the spotlight is on the contributions of homosexuals and students need not fear what they reveal to classmates.
“A lot of it has to do with validation and erasing the subtle message that mainstream education gives that homosexuality shouldn’t be talked about and that we’re different from ‘normal’ people,” said Tom Chatt, 32, a software engineer who has taken IGLE classes in ethics, European film, psychology and, now, gay literature. “It’s the same reason people want to see gay and lesbian characters on TV.”
Chatt said: “If you want to have a gay community, it’s important that it’s more than just bars and a yearly parade.”
The school’s unique slant shows up in a course called “Gay and Lesbian Self-Identity Through Literature.” Here, it is not controversial to assert that Shakespeare’s sonnets were written to a young man or Emily Dickinson’s love poems to her sister-in-law.
In one class recently, instructor Luke Johnson, who holds a Ph.D. in literature from UCLA, urged his students to mine for gay meanings in various works that make no mention of homosexuality. The six students were assigned an Oscar Wilde story in which two male friends--one of whom eventually kills himself--are obsessed with finding out the true identity of the person to whom Shakespeare wrote the sonnets. Johnson wants to know what Wilde, imprisoned for homosexuality in the 1890s, may have been saying about his own identity.
“What did he think it was to be what we call a gay man?” asks Johnson. “What are gay men like?”
“Prone to suicide,” answers one student.
“Artistic. Intellectual. Passionate,” offers another.
There is symbolism in exploring homoerotic themes in the sonnets, Johnson tells the class. “They’re a puzzle and a mystery and their meaning is hidden to us,” he said. “There’s something about being a gay man that makes you attracted to secrets, to unlocking secrets and sort of good at keeping secrets.”
One of society’s best-kept secrets, LeVay laments later, is just how many important literary figures were homosexuals. “Gay people don’t even know that stuff,” he said. “They just don’t ever learn it.”
Not all the classes deal with gay topics. The school has offered math and French--producing smirks among observers who say gays do not need a special school for such subjects--and may soon provide computer training.
There was not a single mention of gay themes during a recent 90-minute writing session led by novelist Nonas. But IGLE backers say it is important to have a “gay-friendly” setting, even when the topic is not gay. “I don’t want to have to defend my choice of the way I live my life while I’m trying to write poetry,” said Ryan, a chemist who has taken two classes.
The next step for LeVay and his infant school may be the hardest. Having found a loyal but small following as an informal adult school, IGLE must decide what it will grow up to be.
LeVay and some other board members favor taking the plunge and creating a formal degree program, perhaps only for graduate students. There has been some talk of linking up with another local school. But organizers are also nervous about giving up an open-door approach that puts a premium on community participation over academic rigor. “We don’t want to abandon the students we have now,” said board of directors member Debbi Winter.
And the school has never fully settled an identity crisis it was born with: whether it should concentrate on teaching gay and lesbian studies or simply teaching conventional subjects to gay and lesbian students. Even those in the gay community who are aware of the school say they are not sure exactly what it does.
“We really don’t have a clear idea of what’s going to make us distinct and what’s going to make people come to us rather than Santa Monica College or UCLA,” said co-founder Patrouch, who now spends his time tending a new store in West Hollywood called Urban Inversion. “The question of where we’re going is still very much alive.”
Bigger plans mean bigger annual budgets. LeVay figures the school will have to raise at least $200,000--three times last year’s budget--to hire a full-time administrator and maybe land a permanent site for the school.
LeVay smiles at the thought of being finally able to put up a sign for the Institute of Gay and Lesbian Education, marking for its students and the outside world this curious little project for which he gave up a career.
“To have a little shingle out there,” he said, “even that would be a triumph.”