Angier, Natalie. "The Biology of What It Means to be Gay," New York Times, 1 September
1991, pp. E1, E4.
A few days ago, Dr. Simon LeVay of the Salk Institute of Biological Studies published, in
Science magazine, an article reporting what appears to be a "biological basis for homosexuality."
LeVay hopes he has shown a "biological foundation for sexual preference..." (p. E1) The New
York Times that same day ran an announcement of this finding on page 1. Here, in Sunday's
edition, is a News of the Week in Review page 1 recapitulation of the article's findings and some
reactions to it. "...(T)he report has unleashed emotions as big, murky, contradictory and
impassioned as those in any discussion of human sexuality are likely to be."
The Times is reporting on this as if it were a major discovery, a startling new finding. The press
hoopla is about the confirmation of assumptions certainly made by Science's editors and
frequently found in writers for the Times, namely that of biological determinism. The search for
such determinants has been one of long duration. There is nothing new here save that much is
being made about findings which probably would not have been published were biologists not so
interested in seeing their assumptions confirmed. This "study" is so incredibly flawed as to be a
joke yet here it is getting all kinds of press coverage and eliciting all sorts of comments.
LeVay's work is described here: "Examining autopsied brain samples from 19 gay men, 16 men
presumed to have been heterosexual, and 6 heterosexual women, Dr. LeVay discovered the
hypothalamic nucleus in the gay men was, on average, as tiny in size as it was in the women. Dr.
LeVay would have liked to compare the dimensions of the region in lesbians as well, but he
couldn't get the samples." (p. E1)
One must ask about those "presumed" heterosexuals. What is the presumption? That they were
exclusively heterosexuals? That they never engaged in any homosexual behavior? And those
homosexual males? To what degree were they "gay"? They may have died of AIDS but does that
mean that they were "homosexual"? How does AIDS affect this area of the brain? What is a
homosexual? How is one categorized that way? To a labelling theorist, this is garbage.
Again, the matter is not one of biologizing an arbitrary social category, but pretending that the
important element in this equation is the gay individual. In the social situation, it is the labeler
who matters, it is the labeller who needs to be explained. And biologizing the whole thing does
nothing to simplify the issue. What this biologism does is redirect attention away from the heart
of the matter, it promotes confusion. As one respondent to this reporter's questions put it: "But it
doesn't really matter why people are gay or not gay. That's not the important question. What's
really important is how they're treated. I haven't spent that much time thinking about where my
sexuality comes from. I've spent a lot more time thinking about how I fit into this world I have to
live in." (p. E4)
Another respondent puts it: "‘The issue is not what causes sexual orientation, but the reaction to
it,' said Frances Kunreuther, the executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York,
a social service and education agency for lesbian and gay youths. ‘And that reaction leads to
suicides. It causes gay people to be beaten up, to be thrown out of their homes, to be in incredible
isolation.' She described one young man who came to the institute. ‘He told his mother when he
was 12 that he was gay, and she sent him to a psychiatric hospital. They couldn't do anything for
him, so she sent him to a foster home.
"‘If this work could be a magic bullet to make people accept lesbians and gays, I'd say terrific.
But I don't believe that mother is going to read about how it's all in the brain and therefore think
her son is O.K.'" (p. E4)
Here is another example of attempted medicalization and psychiatrization of a social
phenomenon. The unfortunate thing is that some gays believe that this sort of discovery (the real
biological determinants of their "malady") is a sort of a solution. It is not. It is a surrender of their
humanity to the medical profession. Better that they stand on their own feet and express their
choice of sexual preference.