Oct. 24 2012 12:00 AM

The gay brain


Simon LeVay is the seventh speaker in Michigan State University’s semester-long lecture series “Whom You Love: the biology of sexual orientation.” This series aims to demonstrate that homosexuality is a natural occurrence in humans. LeVay, a former associate professor for the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, is a writer and lecturer with a background in neuroscience, best known for his research on the brain and sexuality. His most recent book is last year’s "Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation." His lecture is called “My Brain Made Me Gay: Sexual Orientation, Science, and Society.” 

What will you talk about in your lecture? 

I will briefly summarize the state of research into the biology of sexual orientation, focusing specifically on a model that involves interactions between sex hormones and the developing brain. The basic idea is that testosterone, a hormone that is usually present at higher levels in males than females, drives the prenatal development of several brain systems in a male-typical direction. This in turn favors the development of a package of male-typical psychological traits, including sexual attraction to females. Low levels of testosterone, such as are usually seen in females, permit the brain to develop in a female-typical direction, favoring the development of female-typical psychological traits, including sexual attraction to males. Atypical levels of testosterone during development — or atypical responses of the brain to testosterone — predispose to atypical gendered traits in post-natal life, including homosexuality.

What inspired to follow this line of research? 

My interest in this field was influenced by my own identity as a gay man, as well as by earlier research in animals by Marc Breedlove, Roger Gorski and others. In 1991, I reported on a difference in brain structure between gay and straight men. Because this study provoked very diverse responses from different quarters, I have had the opportunity to consider how this field of research impacts society in general.

Have you ever encountered any negative blow-back?

Yes, plenty. From religious conservatives who see homosexuality as a lifestyle choice. And from some "queer theorists" who believe that "gay," "bisexual" and "straight" are attributions made by society, rather than being intrinsic characteristics of individuals. However, most gay people — especially gay men — see this research as validating the idea that they were "born this way." There is the risk that people will misinterpret this kind of research as showing that there´s something biologically wrong with gay people, or that it will facilitate the development of unnecessary and morally questionable technologies for "curing" or preventing homosexuality. 

What do you think the "Whom You Love" series could do for the social perception of homosexuality?

Most of the speakers share a "born that way" perspective. To the extent that attendees adopt the same perspective, the series may help to remove misconceptions that are commonly associated with anti-gay attitudes. However, the current improvement in attitudes toward gay people is probably more the result of increased personal familiarity with gay people than with any scientific findings. 

Also, we don´t hear the word "whom" much any more, so the series may revive interest in this once-popular pronoun. 

Simon LeVay: "My Brian Made Me Gay: Sexual Orientation, Society and Science"
4 p.m. Monday
Wells Hall, room 115B, MSU Campus, East Lansing

For more information on this series, go to whomyoulove.com.