Gay scientist draws criticism over remarks on trans kids
A gay scientist who has long studied brain differences in gay and straight people has drawn criticism from LGBT family groups over comments he made to the Bay Area Reporter about trans kids.
Simon LeVay, Ph.D., first came to public prominence in 1991 when, as a neuroscientist working at the Salk Institute, he published a research paper in Science Journal confirming that the hypothalamus section of the brain was significantly smaller in gay men than in straight men.
He interpreted this finding that "biological processes of brain development may influence a man's sexual orientation," becoming one of the first scientific discoveries to support the concept that being gay may be innate.
In 2011 he published his book, Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation, which looked at the scientific evidence that sexual orientation is an aspect of gender that emerges from the prenatal sexual differentiation of the brain. So whether a person winds up gay, straight, or bisexual results primarily from an interaction between genes, sex hormones, and the cells of the developing body and brain.
LeVay, 73, released a second edition of his book earlier this year, adding a chapter on bisexuality, as well as considering whether there could be a biological basis for subtypes of gay people such as femme and butch. LeVay talked by phone to the B.A.R. about this new edition.
It was his comments on gender non-conforming children, however, that drew the most interest. LeVay claims that whether gender-nonconforming children experience any psychological problems is strongly affected by how they are treated.
"I think gay kids are being treated better today and hopefully will not have the traumatic backgrounds we had growing up," he said. "However, the pendulum may be shifting too much to the other side.
"We may be overly supportive of gender non-conforming kids, thinking they may be transgender so advocating giving them hormones or castrating them at an early age," LeVay added. "When puberty hits, the vast majority of these kids no longer want to change their sex and instead find they are gay or lesbian. By trying to strengthen our belief they may be transgender before puberty and railroading them into a particular fate, we may be piling on them unnecessary difficulties. We should always love our kids as they are, whatever, but don't tell them their sexuality is a done deal before puberty."
Renata Moreira, interim executive director at Our Family Coalition, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that works with LGBT families, was sent a copy of LeVay's remarks and asked to comment.
"At a time when fake news and false claims are having damaging national consequences to our children and families, speculation like this is beyond irresponsible," Moreira said in an email. "Reputable studies and hard facts don't substantiate Dr. LeVay's claims."
She added that some professional organizations have also changed their thinking on trans youth.
"The American Psychological Association recommends supportive and affirming care, period. It's about harm reduction," Moreira said. "Hormone blockers are prescribed only after lengthy and careful treatment. They're reversible, and they're also life-saving."
She also said that "there's no epidemic of premature sex reassignment surgery in youth."
"What does exist and is epidemic is bullying and aggression against trans and gender expansive youth," Moreira explained. "And misinformation about them contributes to this."
Early brain research
Regarding his early research, LeVay said that he was surprised by the media attention he received.
"There were trucks outside the Salk Institute with press people waiting to interview me," LeVay said. "My motivation wasn't to prove gay people are born that way, but to know and understand human nature better, asking the question, what makes us who we are? Since diversity is a huge part of human nature, I wanted to look at the role of sexual orientation as part of that, which hadn't been studied as much."
He said that his updated book strengthens the message of the first edition, "which is that differences in genes, sex hormones, and their interactions with the emerging brain leads to gender atypical development resulting in gay adults."
LeVay is convinced that in the five years since the first edition, there has been great progress in supporting a biological basis for sexual orientation, meaning biological processes undergirding being gay are already set up before birth.
When asked about whether being gay himself, he may be biased in his research, LeVay replied, "Every scientist is a human being with a point of view, so you could accuse any scientist of having a bias."
"For decades, researchers were biased against gay people, believing their condition was caused by a hormonal imbalance," he said. "There are actually only a small number of researchers who work in this field. Last year we had a national conference in our field, and most attended, maybe 100 people, and I would say about half are gay and half are straight, though all are gay-friendly."
He said that conservative Republicans resist funding such research so it is hard to get money.
"It is based on the irrational fear we are trying to change people's sexual orientation or encouraging people to have more sex," LeVay said.
Identifying gay genes is closer to being realized by molecular geneticists and brain scientists are starting to map out the neural wiring underlying sexual attraction in general. LeVay largely rejects nurture or environmental, social, or cultural factors impacting whether one is attracted to men or women, but "it has a huge influence on what people do with their sexual orientation and in terms of what particular person they may be attracted to," LeVay said.
"People have flexibility in terms of who they have sex with, so straight guys will have sex with men in prison, even if they are not attracted to men," he noted.
LeVay gives the example of Harris Wofford, the former senator of Pennsylvania, to illustrate this idea.
"He was happily married to a woman for 40 years. She dies and two years later he meets a guy and they fall in love. He doesn't say he thought about guys for years and just didn't act on it. There are some people who transcend the straight/gay boundary," LeVay said. "What is primary for them is not the sex of their partner, but who they are and their relationship to them. They go beyond these categorizations.
"This is more true for women than men, but as the case with Harris, it can also occur with men," LeVay added. "Lisa Diamond at the University of Utah has shown that for many women the boundary between heterosexual and homosexual is not as rigid for them as it tends to be for men. Relationships are more fluid during the course of their development and they may not even be aware of their sexual attraction until a significant life event occurs such as divorce. They fall in love with the person rather than the gender."
LeVay said there is a scientific basis for gaydar, the ability to recognize gay people without knowing in advance their sexual orientation. There are discernible physical characteristics of gay men that differ from straight men, such as proportions of the limbs and trunk, differences in facial structures, and subtle differences in unconscious behaviors such as walking style and voice quality, he said.
"Gaydar does work but it is not infallible," LeVay said. "If, in a lab, you ask people to listen to voices and then ask them which is gay or straight you get a high correct response usually because there are about the same number of gay and straight subjects. But it's not as effective in the real world because there is such a small population of gay people so there will be a good number of false positives if even a small number of straight guys appear gay. But in general gay people are gender-atypical both in their anatomy and behavior, which is picked up by gaydar."
Another reason gay fetuses may be produced is birth order, with a Canadian study showing that a boy who has older brothers is more likely to grow up gay than a boy who does not, he said. It's not the actual experience of growing up with an older brother that produces this effect but the mother generates some sort of antibodies against the first male fetus, which interacts with the developing brain of later male fetuses, making that fetus more likely to be gay, said LeVay.
"It's possible this older brother effect may account for maybe a quarter of gay boys. Some later studies, especially one conducted in Denmark where they are more accepting of homosexuality, did not replicate these results. But they did observe that if the later son was fathered by a different man, he was less likely to be gay. So I tend to believe that the maternal-immunity hypothesis could be a good biological reason for the older-brother effect."
LeVay asserted that genes exert a significant, but not all-dominating, influence on sexual orientation, though no gay gene has yet been discovered.
LeVay also repeated the same audacious claim in his book that "femiphobia, the dislike or fear of femininity in man, is rampant in our society and, when internalized by gay men, it might be more destructive even than homophobia."
"Because pre-gay men inherit and exhibit gender nonconformity characteristics, meaning they act more feminine, they feel non-masculine, so for example, as kids they don't like rough and tumble sports, which exposes them to teasing and bullying. Because some gay men are more feminine, even as adults they will suffer because it is more that they are violating gender norms that is seen as a crime rather than being gay," LeVay explained.
He said the phobia persists despite society being more LGBT-friendly.
"The problem is that you cannot hide this gender nonconformity, even through voice therapy, and if they do they pay a heavy psychological price," he said.
"It is possible that gay people who are gender non-conformists may be a different type of homosexuality," LeVay said. "Studies so far have only focused on one trait, such as increased verbal skills, usually a feminine trait, but no study has looked at the whole spectrum of all these traits so we could develop a gender nonconformity theory, which would help us decide if there are different kinds of gay people.
"Also it is far more likely that gay people are gay because of their gender nonconformity than the reverse. I realize feminine gay men (femme) or masculine lesbians (butch) sounds like a stereotype and it often is an overgeneralization, but there is a kernel of truth to it and there is no doubt our society favors masculinity more," he added.
The most persistent criticism of LeVay's work has been the possibility that if gayness is inherited and researchers find the mechanisms through which this happens, then society might try to develop a method to cure or prevent homosexuality in fetuses or just abort a gay fetus.
"I find this idea to be science fiction, especially because it is likely that there are probably several biological pathways leading to one being gay, whether it be genes, the birth order effect, or the role of sex hormones," he said. "The fact is this type of research has helped to lead to acceptance of LGBT people, not just tolerance. Of course social factors have had a positive influence because most people now actually know someone who is gay."