Homosexuality: Born Or Bred?

Until the age of 28, Doug Barnett was a practicing heterosexual. He was vaguely attracted to men, but with nurturing parents, a lively interest in sports and appropriate relations with women, he had little reason to question his proclivities. Then an astonishing thing happened: his identical twin brother "came out" to him, revealing he was gay. Barnett, who believed sexual orientation is genetic, was bewildered. He recalls thinking, "If this is inherited and we're identical twins-what's going on here?" To find out, he thought he should try sex with men. When he did, he says, "The bells went off, for the first time. Those homosexual encounters were more fulfilling." A year later both twins told their parents they were gay.

Simon LeVay knew he was homosexual by the time he was 12. Growing up bookish, in England, he fit the "sissy boy" profile limned by psychologists: an aversion to rough sports, a strong attachment to his mother, a hostile relationship with his father. It was, LeVay acknowledges, the perfect Freudian recipe for homosexuality-only he was convinced Freud had cause and effect backward: hostile fathers didn't make sons gay; fathers turned hostile because the sons were "unmasculine" to begin with.

Last year, LeVay, now a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., got a chance to examine his hunch up close. What he found is still reverberating among scientists and may have a profound impact on how the rest of us think about homosexuality. Scanning the brains of 41 cadavers, including 19 homosexual males, LeVay determined that a tiny area believed to control sexual activity was less than half the size in the gay men than in the heterosexuals. It was perhaps the first direct evidence of what some gays have long contended-that whether or not they choose to be different, they are born different.

Doug Barnett, meanwhile, got an opportunity to make his own contribution to the case. Two years ago he was recruited for an ambitious study of homosexuality in twins, undertaken by psychologist Michael Bailey, of Northwestern University, and psychiatrist Richard Pillard, of the Boston University School of Medicine. Published last December, only months after LeVay's work, the results showed that if one identical twin is gay, the other is almost three times more likely to be gay than if the twins are fraternal-suggesting that something in the identical twins' shared genetic makeup affected their sexual orientation.

In both studies, the implications are potentially huge. For decades, scientists and the public at large have debated whether homosexuals are born or made-whether their sexual orientation is the result of a genetic roll of the dice or a combination of formative factors in their upbringing. If it turns out, indeed, that homosexuals are born that way, it could undercut the animosity gays have had to contend with for centuries. "It would reduce being gay to something like being left-handed, which is in fact all that it is," says gay San Francisco journalist and author Randy Shilts.

But instead of resolving the debate, the studies may well have intensified it. Some scientists profess not to be surprised at all by LeVay's finding of brain differences. "Of course it [sexual orientation] is in the brain," says Johns Hopkins University psychologist John Money, sometimes called the dean of American sexologists. "The real question is, when did it get there? Was it prenatal, neonatal, during childhood, puberty? That we do not know."

Others are sharply critical of the Bailey-Pillard study. Instead of proving the genetics argument, they think it only confirms the obvious: that twins are apt to have the same sort of shaping influences. "In order for such a study to be at all meaningful, you'd have to look at twins raised apart," says Anne Fausto Stirling, a developmental biologist at Brown University, in Providence, R.I. "It's such badly interpreted genetics."

In the gay community itself, many welcome the indication that gayness begins in the chromosomes. Theoretically, it could gain them the civil-rights protections accorded any "natural" minority, in which the legal linchpin is the question of an "immutable" characteristic. could lift the burden of self-blame from their parents. "A genetic component in sexual orientation says,' This is not a fault, and it's not your fault'," says Pillard.

Yet the intimation that an actual gene for gayness might be found causes some foreboding. If there is a single, identifiable cause, how long before some nerdy genius finds a "cure"? Many scientists say it's naive to think a single gene could account for so complex a behavior as homosexuality. Yet at least three research projects, one of them at the National Institutes of Health, are believed to be searching for a "gay gene" or group of genes. LeVay, for one, thinks a small number of sex genes may be isolated, perhaps within five years: "And that's going to blow society's mind."

For some people, it is not too great a leap from there to Nazi-style eugenics. In the nightmare scenario, once a gay fetus is detected in utero, it is aborted, or a genetic switch is "flipped" to ensure its heterosexuality. The gay population simply fades away. Would mothers permit such tampering? Even parents who've come to terms with their child's homosexuality might. "No parent would choose to have a child born with any factor that would make life difficult for him or her," says Laurie Coburn, program director of the Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (ParentsFLAG).

On this subject, feelings are seldom restrained. But cooler voices can be heard, mainly those of lesbians. Many of them say their choice of lesbianism was as much a feminist statement as a sexual one, so the fuss over origins doesn't interest them. "It's mostly fascinating to heteros," says one gay activist. On the whole, lesbians are warier of the research, and their conspicuous absence from most studies angers them. "It's part of the society's intrinsic sexism," says Penny Perkins, public-education coordinator for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which works to promote lesbian and gay men's rights. Frances Stevens, editor in chief of Deneuve, a lesbian news magazine, admits her personal history supports biological causes; although she came from a wholesome "Brady Bunch" family, she knew she was gay "from day one." But she is skeptical of the studies, she says. "My response was: if the gay guy's [hypothalamus] is smaller, what's it like for dykes? Is it the same size as a straight male's?" That's something researchers still have to find out.

Gay men have their own reasons to be irate: as they see it, looking for a "cause" of homosexuality implies it is deviant and heterosexuality is the norm. When John De Cecco, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and editor of the Journal of Homosexuality, began one of his classes recently by suggesting students discuss the causes of homosexuality, someone called out, "Who cares?" and the class burst into applause.

All the same, homosexuals must care deeply about how the straight world perceives them. History has taught them that the consequences of those perceptions can be deadly. Over the centuries they have been tolerated or reviled, enfranchised or oppressed. According to John Boswell's 1980 book, "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality," things didn't turn truly nasty until the 13th century, when the church, on the heels of a diatribe from Saint Thomas Aquinas, began to view gays as not only unnatural but dangerous.

In our own century of sex et lux, beginning with Sigmund Freud, psychiatrists ascribed male homosexuality to unconscious conflicts and fixations that have their roots in early childhood. (Freud was always foggier on female sexuality.) But that view was officially dropped in 1973, when more stringent diagnostic standards-and the lobbying of gay activists-persuaded the American Psychiatric Association to expunge homosexuality from the list of emotional disorders. The decision was bitterly disputed; 37 percent of APA members voted against it in a 1974 referendum. But younger psychiatrists now are taught that rather than trying to "cure" homosexuals, they should help them feel more comfortable about themselves.

LeVay resolved to look for sex differences in the brain after the slow, wrenching death from AIDS of his companion of 21 years (box). He'd been impressed by a study done by a UCLA graduate student, Laura Allen, working with biologist Robert Gorski, showing that a portion of the hypothalamus in the brains of males was more than twice as large as that of women. LeVay's report, published in the journal Science on Aug. 30,1991, was based on his own yearlong study of the hypothalamus in 41 cadavers, including 19 self-avowed homosexual men, 16 heterosexual men and 6 heterosexual women. All the homosexuals had died of AIDS, as had seven of the heterosexuals-including one of the women. What emerged with almost startling clarity was that, with some exceptions, the cluster of neurons known as INAH 3 (the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus, which LeVay calls "the business end as far as sex goes") was more than twice as large in the heterosexual males as in the homosexuals, whose INAH 3 was around the same size as in the women. In the sensation that greeted the report, its cautious wording was all but ignored. "What I reported was a difference in the brain structure of the hypothalamus," says LeVay. "We can't say on the basis of that what makes people gay or straight. But it opens the door to find the answer to that question."

One of the major criticisms of the study was that AIDS could have affected the brain structure of the homosexual subjects. LeVay has been able to field that one by pointing out that he found no pathology suggesting such damage either in gay or straight men who died of the disease. Later, in fact, he examined the brain of a homosexual who died of lung cancer, and again found INAH 3 much smaller.

The trickier question is whether things might work the other way around: could sexual orientation affect brain structure? Kenneth Klivington, an assistant to the president of the Salk Institute, points to a body of evidence showing that the brain's neural networks reconfigure themselves in response to certain experiences. One fascinating NIH study found that in people reading Braille after becoming blind, the area of the brain controlling the reading finger grew larger. There are also intriguing conundrums in animal brains. birds, for example, the brain area associated with mating is not only larger than in the female but varies according to the season.

Says Klivington: "From the study of animals, we know that circulating sex hormones in the mother can have a profound effect on the organization of the brain of the fetus. Once the individual is born, the story gets more complex because of the interplay between the brain and experience. It's a feedback loop: the brain influences behavior, behavior shapes experience, experience affects the organization of the brain, and so forth."

LeVay knows he is somewhat vulnerable on that score. Because his subjects were all dead, he knew "regrettably little" about their sexual histories, besides their declared or presumed orientation. "That's a distinct shortcoming of my study," he concedes. Did the gay men play the passive or aggressive roles in sex? Were some bisexual, another variable, and could that have affected their neuron clusters? To find answers, LeVay plans next to study living subjects with the new MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology. But he remains convinced that biology is destiny. "If there are environmental influences," he says, "they operate very early in life, at the fetal or early-infancy stage, when the brain is still putting itself together. I'm very much skeptical of the idea that sexual orientation is a cultural thing."

The Bailey-Pillard twin study had its own shortcomings. The numbers alone were impressive. The researchers found that of 56 identical twins, 52 percent were both gay, as against 22 percent of fraternal twins, who have somewhat weaker genetic bonds. (Of the adoptive, nongenetically related brothers in the study, only 11 percent were both gay.) The suggestion of a shared genetic destiny is strong, but many critics have wondered: what about the discordant twins-those where only one was homosexual? Many in the study were not only discordant, but dramatically different.

Most sexuality studies use the Kinsey scale, which rates orientation on a seven-point spectrum from strictly heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. The study found that most of the discordant identical twins were at opposite ends of the Kinsey spectrum. How could two individuals with identical genetic traits and upbringing wind up with totally different sexual orientation? Richard Green, a noted UCLA researcher of homosexuality, says he believes research should focus on that finding, which he deems "astounding." Although Pillard and Bailey are certain that biology plays the dominant role, Bailey acknowledges: "There must be something in the environment to yield the discordant twins."

What that might be is uncertain. None of the usual domineering-mother, distant-father theories has been conclusively shown to determine sexuality. Meanwhile the case for biology has grown stronger. "If you look at all societies," says Frederick Whitam, who has researched homosexuality in cultures as diverse as the United States, Central America and the Philippines, "homosexuality occurs at the same rates with the same kinds of behavior. That suggests something biological going on. The biological evidence has been growing for 20 or more years."

"Something in the environment," "something biological"-the truth is, the nature-nurture argument is no longer as polarized as it once was. Scientists are beginning to realize there is a complex interplay between the two, still to be explored. June Reinisch, director of the Kinsey Institute, prefers to think we are only "flavored, not programmed." Genetics, she says, only give us "a range of outcomes."

Should it really matter to gays what makes them gay.? Whitam says it does matter. In a 1989 study of attitudes toward gays in four different societies, those who believed homosexuals "were born that way" represented a minority but were also the least homophobic. Observes Whitam: "There is a tendency for people, when told that homosexuality is biological, to heave a sigh of relief. It relieves the families and homosexuals of guilt. It also means that society doesn't have to worry about things like gay teachers."

For the most part, gays remain doubtful that even the strongest evidence of biological origins will cut much ice with confirmed homophobes. Many find the assumption naive. "Our organization considers the studies useless," says Dr. Howard Grossman, a gay doctor who heads New York Physicians for Human Rights. "It's just like the military--you can show them a thousand studies that show soldiers aren't a security risk and they still don't care."

The doctor's pessimism is not unwarranted. Jacquelyn Holt Park, author of a moving novel about the sorrows of growing up lesbian in the sexually benighted 1940s and '50s, is just back from a 9,000-mile book tour where she was astonished to find how little has changed. "There are talk shows," says Park, "where fundamentalists and the like still say [homosexuality] is an abomination, it's vile. They said, 'You're not black, blacks can't change their color, but you can change.' I guess these new studies might address some of those feelings."

Even within the enlightened ranks of the American Psychoanalytic Association there is still some reluctance to let homosexual analysts practice. As arrested cases themselves, the argument goes, they are ill equipped to deal with developmental problems. The belief that homosexuality can and should be "cured" persists in some quarters of the profession.

Others are exasperated by that view. Richard Isay, chairperson of the APA's Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues, is convinced analysis can be more damaging than beneficial to gays. "I still see many gay men who come to me after they've been in analysis where the therapist has been trying to change their orientation," he says. "That's extremely harmful to the self-esteem of a gay man." Isay thinks the approach, instead, should be to try to clear away "roadblocks" that may interfere with a gay's ability to function.

Perhaps the most voluble spokesman for the "fix it" school is Charles Socarides, a New York City analyst who claims a flourishing practice in turning troubled homosexuals into "happy, fulfilled heterosexuals." To Socarides, the only biological evidence is "that we're anatomically made to go in male-female pairs." Thus he "reconstructs" patients' lives to learn why they can't mate with opposite-sex partners. There can be many reasons, he says: "abdicating fathers, difficult wives, marital disruptions." From there, he "opens up the path" to hetero happiness, for which, he says, one gratified customer cabled him recently: "The eagle has landed."

Some psychiatrists still see the removal of homosexuality from the official list of emotional disorders as a mistake. (Instead, it was innocuously identified as "sexual orientation disturbance.") "Psychology and psychiatry have essentially abandoned a whole population of people who feel dissatisfied with their feelings of homosexuality," says psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, author of "Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality" (Jason Aronson. 1991). In graduate school, says Nicolosi, he found the stance was that if a client came in complaining about his gayness, the therapist's job was to teach him to accept it. "It was like the old joke of the patient who tells the doctor his arm hurts when he bends it and the doctor advises him not to bend it."

Nicolosi tries to do more than that for his patients, most of them men in their 20s and 30s who are unhappy with their homosexuality. As director of the Thomas Aquinas Psychology Clinic in Encino, Calif., he tries to bolster his patients' sense of male identity, which he sees as crucial to their orientation. The biological evidence is inconclusive, Nicolosi says; there is much more proof for familial causes of homosexuality. "Research has shown repeatedly that a poor relationship with a distant, aloof father and an overpossessive, domineering mother could cause homosexuality in males," he says.

In fact, some of that research, dating back to the 1950s, has been discredited because of faulty techniques, among other problems. Nicolosi is at any rate modest in his own claims. No cures as such, but "a diminishment of homosexual feelings" to the point where some patients can marry and have families. How long is treatment? "Probably a lifetime process," he says.

With the debate over origins still going strong, comes one more exhibit in evidence. Recently, Bailey and Pillard divulged just a tidbit from their not-yet-published study of lesbian twins. Finding enough females for the study took twice as long as their earlier project, says Bailey, but apparently it was worth the effort. "If there are genes for homosexuality, they're not gender blind," he says. Lesbians in the study had more lesbian sisters than they did gay brothers.

Nature? Nurture? Perhaps the most appropriate answer comes from Evelyn Hooker, who showed in an important 1950s study that it is impossible to distinguish heterosexuals from homosexuals on psychological tests. Hooker takes the long view of the search for origins. "Why do we want to know the cause?" she asks. "It's a mistake to hope that we will be able to modify or change homosexuality ... If we understand its nature and accept it as a given, then we come much closer to the kind of attitudes which will make it possible for homosexuals to lead a decent life in society." The psychiatric profession heeded Hooker when it stopped calling homosexuality an illness. At 84, her voice has grown fainter, but the rest of us could do worse than listen to her now. ..L1.-

*Not his real name

In the long-running debate over whether homosexuality begins in the genes or the nursery, Simon LeVay was an unlikely champion for the genetic side. As a homosexual himself (with a homosexual brother), he seemed a textbook-perfect product of nurture. "When I look back," he says, "I definitely see things that went along with being gay: not liking rough sports, preferring reading, being very close with my mother." And the classic clincher-"I hated my father as long as I can remember." By Freudian lights, that should have made an open-and-shut case for nurture. But LeVay believed even then that nature comes first. "My point would be that gays are extremely different when they're young and as a result they can develop hostile relationships with their fathers. It's just a big mistake to think it's the other way around and the relationships are causative."

An Englishman with a Ph.D. in neuroanatomy, LeVay spent 12 years at Harvard before moving on to the Salk Institute pursue his field of research-which, ironically, included the influence of environment on development. But when his lover of 21 years, Richard Hersey, died of AIDS, LeVay went into a deep depression. Hospitalized for two weeks, he began re-evaluating his goals. "It makes you think what your life is about," he says. Around that time, a UCLA lab announced its finding that a portion of the male hypothalamus that regulates sex was more than twice as large as women's. Suddenly, it seemed to LeVay there was a thesis to pursue: was it also larger than that of gays? "I felt if I didn't find anything, I would give up a scientific career altogether."

After nine months' work, LeVay did find that in at least one group of gays, the sex-regulating ares was smaller than in straight men. The work brought him instant fame and a round of talk shows, where he's often obliged to contend with the unconvinced. But he thinks it's worth it, if it promotes the idea that homosexuality is a matter of destiny, not choice. "It's important to educate society," he says. "I think this issue does affect religious and legal attitudes." From here on he'll be spreading the word as codirector of the West Hollywood Institute for Gay and Lesbian Education, on leave from Salk. The new institute opens in September as one of the first free-standing schools for homosexual studies. LeVay may have to abandon research. But he's still on the compassionate course he set out on after the death of his lover.

Annette E. Brenner remembers joking when her oldest son was 4 that she'd approve his marrying outside the family's faith as long as he married a woman. When he "came out" to her and her husband at 17, one of her first reactions was to try to "negotiate" him out of his gayness. She offered him a car, a house, if only he would wait and try marriage. He was at boarding school in Connecticut at the time, and she was convinced it was "just a stage." She remembers thinking, "Sure, this week you're a homosexual. Enjoy the experiment, have fun. Next week you'll be a Hare Krishna." Then she become enraged. "What is this kid doing to me?" she'd ask herself. What was he doing to his grandparents, his brother and sister?

Years of gay activism haven't made coming out much easier on parents. At the Chicago-area office of ParentsFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), the national support organization Brenner joined, parents often call in tears. Some, she says, have had nervous breakdowns over the news of their child's homosexuality. Brenner had a terrible time accepting her son's revelation. For a while she wondered about the Freudian explanation. "We replayed his whole life" looking for some environmental reason, she says. She wondered whether she had been too domineering. They sent him to a therapist, only to be told he was comfortable with his gayness. Finally, they came to terms with it, too--her husband more easily than she did. She understands now why her son had such a poor self-image at school, why he endured failing grades and bouts of depression.

Her son is 28 now, and he brings his lover home for visits. "He's happy because his family accepts him," says Brenner. Still, she frets about AIDS, and she knows he hasn't been tested. He's been "bashed" a couple of times--and she worries about his physical safety. Even seeing how content her son is, Brenner says, "Had I known that I was to have a gay child, I would probably not want to have a gay child."

At FLAG, parents are firmly behind any research that implicates biology as the source of gayness. It assuages the raging guilt some of them feel that they might be responsible. "Especially if my child gets AIDS," says Brenner, "can you imagine what that would be like?" Probably, it would be shattering. Gays may come out and get on with their lives, often happily. But for parents, the doubts and the dread never seem to stop.

"Mike" is a 49-year-old widower who was married for 18 years and has a teenage son. Although he says he loved his wife, he was secretly cruising gay bars during his marriage and engaging in short-term homosexual encounters. After his wife died, he found his way to Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, whom he consulted for eight months.

"I went on binges, just like an alcoholic would do. [After my wife died] Saturday nights were terrible. I'd go to a heterosexual bar and end up jumping in my car and going to some bath or gay bar. I was at a point in my life where either I was a homosexual and I was going to be open and public about it, or I was not going to be a homosexual and be otherwise. I was in the pits. Whatever I was doing was not making me happy. I was not going to continue living the lie that I was living. ..FT."I kept searching for somebody to help me, but you always heard that nothing could be done about this and anybody who came to your attention was usually a gay therapist. I was more than in a closet, I was in a coffin. I had never revealed this to anybody before. I never trusted anybody. In the very first session [with Dr. Nicolosi] I realized we were on the same wavelength.

"I never had a man in my life who taught me how to be a man. I never had a role model. I realize how my dad's failure to be present for me screwed me up. I was very angry toward my dad. And I never knew why. I [also] felt I'd been castrated by women. When I into therapy, the resentment toward my mother was far greater than toward my dad. There was a lot of anger, a lot of deep feeling at not having your mother accept your maleness. When I started loving myself, when I started to know who I was, my maleness came with it." (Six months after completing therapy, Mike says he has not had any homosexual encounters. Does he feel "cured"?)

"I would have to answer, yes, I still do sometimes have homosexual feelings. But I don't got upset if I get them because I understand them now. Now Saturday night comes and goes and I don't even think about it.