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LGBT Experiences in School
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So I thought it reasonable to speculate about dimorphism by sexual orientation as well as gender. Since the area can't be studied in the living, the work had to be done posthumously. Altogether LeVay autopsied the brains of 41 people homosexual men, 16 heterosexual men, and 6 women--painstakingly dissecting, staining, and measuring their INAH3 clusters.

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It was no mean feat: at its largest, the human INAH3 constitutes approximately. To avoid biasing the results, the study was done blind--that is, each brain sample was numerically coded to conceal whether its donor was straight or gay. After nine months of peering through his laboratory microscope, LeVay sat down one morning to break the first blind codes.

His hunch had apparently paid off. According to his lab notebooks, gay and straight men did differ in a key area controlling sexual behavior. The largest INAH3 clusters tended to belong to straight men, the smallest to gay men; in fact, on average, straight men had clusters twice the size of gay men's. I sat for half an hour just thinking what this might mean. When the study was published in August , it attracted immediate attention--no doubt partly because it was reported in a journal with Science's prestige by a neuroscientist with LeVay's credentials.

In he moved to Harvard, joining the team of David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, who won a Nobel Prize in for their work on the brain's visual system. It was a bit ivory-towerish, really. His study on sexual orientation was something of an anomaly. Not that he hadn't thought about it in the past. If I didn't, nobody else was in a hurry to do it. And as a scientist, I knew it was research I was qualified to do. I was already working on structure and function in one part of the brain, so working on the sexual part of the brain wasn't a big switch.

What ultimately changed the direction of his research, though, was a deeply personal crisis. You realize life is short, and you have to think about what is important to you and what isn't. I had an emotional need to do something more personal, something connected with my gay identity.

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With the publication of his paper, LeVay's 15 minutes of fame exploded with a vengeance. His work, career, and life were dissected on Nightline and in Newsweek. I found it very off-putting. LeVay was pelted with questions. LeVay thinks that "highly unlikely.

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Nevertheless, to assuage his curiosity, LeVay later examined the brain of an HIV-negative gay man who had died of lung cancer: "I was very, very nervous when I decoded that sample," he admits. Anne Fausto-Sterling, a developmental geneticist at Brown University and one of LeVay's chief academic critics, was among those who questioned the way he interpreted his data. What he actually found was a distributional difference, with a few larger-than-average nuclei at one end, a few smaller-than-average nuclei at the other, and the vast majority falling in between.

Even if we could say most people at one extreme were straight, and most at the other extreme were gay, that tells us little about the majority in the middle where the ranges overlap. If LeVay picked a nucleus size in the middle, he couldn't tell if it was heterosexual or homosexual. Fausto-Sterling also took issue with LeVay for reducing the many subtle shades of human sexuality to a gay-straight dichotomy. What do you call men who have sex with their wives while fantasizing about men? Or guys who are mostly straight who pick up male prostitutes, or transsexuals, or serial bisexuals who may switch between exclusively gay and exclusively straight relationships?

How do you count sexual behavior that changes over time in different circumstances? It maps very poorly onto reality and makes thinking about the biology very tricky. Sexual orientation is far less likely to be noted on the medical charts of women who are lesbians. The public's response to LeVay's study was equally spirited. Then there were the letters from religious zealots, flatly stating that being gay is a sinful choice, as it says in the Bible.


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I don't buy it. To say that, you'd have to consider it pathologizing to say that gay men have something femalelike, which I don't see as true.


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I don't think there's anything pathological about being a woman. But the more typical response was enthusiasm. Letters poured in from gay men and their families. And parents, in turn, wrote to say the study helped them understand their kids. It's a mistake I am sympathetic with, because I happen to think gay people quite likely are born gay.

Since I consider my work moving in that direction," he adds wryly, "I am not totally uncomfortable with that reaction. In fact, LeVay has long suspected that homosexuality runs in families and has an inherited component--a suspicion reinforced by recent twin studies by psychologist Michael Bailey of Northwestern University and psychiatrist Richard Pillard of Boston University.

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The studies show that identical twins--who share the same genes--are about twice as likely to both be gay or lesbian as are fraternal twins, who share only half their genes. They are also five times more likely to both be gay than are adopted brothers who share an upbringing but no genes. As anecdotal evidence, he shows off a family snapshot of himself and his four brothers: "Two and a half of us are gay," he says. One brother is bisexual. He doesn't approve. Since all the kids from his second marriage are straight, he insists it's all inherited from our mother's side of the family.

LeVay's disapproving father may yet be vindicated. Last July, LeVay points out, Dean Hamer's team at the National Institutes of Health located a region on the X chromosome of gay brothers that may turn out to carry a gay gene or genes; the X chromosome is, after all, always the mother's genetic contribution to her sons.

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Just how a gene in this area might make someone gay remains anyone's guess: maybe it influences how sex- related structures are formed in the hypothalamus. When it comes to sexual attraction and behavior, LeVay suspects, humans are largely shaped in utero. There may be genetic differences in how the fetus's brain cell receptors respond to sex hormones such as testosterone.

LeVay thinks that over the next five years the genetic influence on sexuality will become much clearer. And if Hamer turns out to be right, of course, the human libido would be pretty much set at the factory. Though upsetting to some, the notion jibes with accumulating evidence from biologists and ethologists that evolution has preserved diverse sexual orientations. Homosexuality has now been documented in dozens of species, from primates and elephants to sea gulls and fruit flies.

But that raises a profound question: Why?

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Being gay might somehow foster the survival of one's relatives, who in turn pass along part of one's genetic heritage. But then you would expect homosexual animals to spend their time taking care of infants or getting food, and there's no real evidence that they do. Alternatively, perhaps genes linked to homosexuality confer some other benefit that's selected for, and homosexuality just persists as a by-product.

If nature has some grand design for the homo in Homo sapiens, he admits, "it remains a mystery for now. These days LeVay lives in a modest West Hollywood apartment that reflects an artist's life more than it does a scientist's. On the facing wall hangs a gay rainbow flag LeVay painted in fluorescent acrylics. A jumble of dusty cycling trophies and medals adorns the tops of the bookcases in the living room.