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Fame Comes as Researcher Fixes Eyes on AIDS : Brain study: Findings on differences between gays and heterosexuals sparks whirlwind of recognition.

September 08, 1991|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The week before the study was published last month, LeVay had a taste of the tremendous interest his findings had generated as dozens of reporters called requesting interviews. His phone mail system, which can accommodate 40 calls, filled up every two hours.

At Salk, LeVay's colleagues and supervisors were supportive. LeVay's work, they say, has thrust the noted research organization into the limelight; in fact, the recent spate of publicity is more than its garnered in years.

"Simon (LeVay) is our hero now here," said Dr. Inder Verma, chairman of the faculty and academic council at Salk. "We are very happy for Simon that the work he's doing is receiving credit and recognition."

On the day that LeVay's study was published in the Aug. 30 issue of Science, Verma spotted him in the cafeteria wearing a tie--not a characteristic trademark. Unaware of the gathering storm of publicity that was about to envelop his colleague, Verma couldn't fathom why he was dressed up and asked: "Are you getting a loan?"

Since then, much to his surprise, LeVay has been inundated by calls and letters. Complete strangers have inquired about what would ordinarily be a private matter: His own sexuality.

"I don't mind about people knowing I am gay--it's relevant, it has to be asked whether it influenced the research," he said. And he goes a step further.

LeVay believes that his research would only be initiated by gay scientists because heterosexuals simply don't have the same interest in the question. "I think if we waited for heterosexual scientists to do this research, we'd be waiting until doomsday."

LeVay's findings ignited a furor. Among the heterosexual community, the reactions ran the gamut. One woman called to say she had nine sons--all gay--eight of whom died from AIDS. She wondered whether her family could be included in his research, he said.

Others wrote saying they had gay sons and that his research alleviated a longtime sense of guilt--that somehow as parents they had done something that made their boys become gay.

Still others were decidedly anti-gay, blasting LeVay's work.

"Come off your rocker and set these gay people free from their malicious social behavior," one writer urged.

Much to his surprise, LeVay's work also seemed to split the gay community. Some congratulated him for giving credence to something they had always felt--that they were born gay. Others said his work raised a moot issue--biological or not, they were gay. Still others voiced concern about how the discovery might be used against the gay community, saying it could lead to "fixing defects."

However, some in the lesbian community angrily criticized LeVay's research, saying it was chauvinistic and that they had been excluded.

"How incredibly irresponsible of you to say you studied homosexual/gay hypothalamus (a segment of the brain). You studied male and straight females--not homosexuals," angrily wrote one woman.

Even today, the outpouring amazes LeVay, who has applied to the National Institute of Health for funds that would enable him to continue this research. He shakes his head as he tries to remember the various news shows and publications that covered and debated his work.

"You see," he said, pausing, "I labored in benign obscurity for 25 years. . . I am stunned by these reactions."

And when he went to the bar last weekend, he expected to disappear into the anonymity of a dark bar and have a quiet drink. Instead, throngs of men he didn't know gathered around him, hugging him and buying him drinks.

Suddenly, LeVay realized that he had found the direction he'd lost.

"I think," he said, "I should devote myself full time to this work."

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