Pre-Print - Simon LeVay

Simon LeVay worked on vision and collaborated with Hubel and Wiesel, who eventually won a Nobel prize. He probably should be more famous for that work....

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Simon LeVay—an Openly Gay Neuroscientist

Contributor: William Grisham


Biographical Notes:

Simon LeVay worked on vision and collaborated with Hubel and Wiesel, who eventually won a Nobel prize. He probably should be more famous for that work. Other aspects of his research led Crick (of DNA fame) and Koch (presently President of the Allen Institute for Brain Science) to decide that the claustrum is the seat of consciousness (Crick & Koch, 2005). He's not terribly famous for that either.


Rather, Simon is most famous for a two-page article that he published after his partner's death from AIDS. It was Simon's swan song to bench science, something that he never left in his scientific career. In that issue of Science, his study described the size of a nucleus in the hypothalamus in gay men, women, and straight men (LeVay, 1991). Not only did he replicate the sex difference previously reported from a UCLA lab (men > women--Allen, Hines, and Gorski, 1989), he showed that the size of this nucleus in gay men is on average about half the size it is in heterosexual men, and not statistically different from its size in women. 


In the current zeitgeist, it may seem odd—indeed queer—but LeVay's paper received criticisms from diverse sources, including feminist (Spanier, 1995) and religious (Reichebach, & Anderson, 1995) scholars. Most objections to the science were already refuted in LeVay's beautifully written discussion in which he notes the limitations of the possible interpretations. Other objections also seem fairly groundless (see Harrington et al., 2015). While it may be safe to say that his work helped shift the socio-political outlook on gay rights, LeVay's approach has been critiqued by some members of the LGBTQ+ community, mostly because he did not address sexual variability and fluidity but rather treated gay vs. straight as a binary variable (Ward, 2002). Also, a biological difference was seen by some as behavioral destiny (Spanier, 1995; Bailey et al., 2016). 


This brief biography hardly does justice to LeVay's personal life. Readers should access his website for his autobiography, which is littered with tongue-in-cheek British humor—think Monty Python but with a lot more class Despite his alleged retirement after the famous study, he became very active in the gay community; published several books, including a novel; and established a gay school, the Institute of Gay and Lesbian Education. He gave a great talk to UCLA undergraduates, arriving on his bicycle after riding over from West Hollywood—a tiny hop for this avid cyclist. If you can get him to visit, he gives one of the best talks that I have ever heard.




Teaching Resources: 

Bailey JM, Vasey PL, Diamond LM, Breedlove SM, Vilain E, Epprecht M. Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2016 Sep;17(2):45-101. doi: 10.1177/1529100616637616. Review. PubMed PMID: 27113562.


Ward, J. (2002) Not gay: Sex between straight white men. Accessed from › books O5-06-2020


Crick FC, Koch C. What is the function of the claustrum?. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2005 Jun 29;360(1458):1271-9. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2005.1661. Review. PubMed PMID: 16147522; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC1569501. 


Harrington IA, Grisham W, Brasier DJ, Gallagher SP, Gizerian SS, Gordon RG, Hagenauer MH, Linden ML, Lom B, Olivo R, Sandstrom NJ, Stough S, Vilinsky I, Wiest MC. An Instructor's Guide to (Some of) the Most Amazing Papers in Neuroscience. J Undergrad Neurosci Educ. 2015 Fall;14(1):R3-R14. eCollection 2015 Fall. Review. PubMed PMID: 26557803; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4640495. 


LeVay S. A difference in hypothalamic structure between heterosexual and homosexual men. Science. 1991 Aug 30;253(5023):1034-7. doi: 10.1126/science.1887219. PubMed PMID: 1887219. 


Reichebach, B. R., & Anderson, V. E. (1995) On behalf of God: A Christian ethic for biology. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI


Spanier, B. (1995) Biological Determinism and Homosexuality Source: National Women's Studies Asoociation Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, Sexual Orientation (Spring, 1995), pp. 54-71 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 06-05-2020 02:12 UTC