Neuroscientist claims gay men have difficulty forming relationships, says partner differences related to the expression of gender polarity
Former neuroscientist Simon LeVay made a brief splash 15 years ago with research purporting to show that a part of gay men’s brains he claimed was associated with sexual attraction in animals was slightly more like the brains of women than were the brains of ostensibly heterosexual men.
The study had a number of problems:
The gay men all died of AIDS but the effect of the disease and antiviral drugs on the brain was left unexplored. The orientation of the supposedly non-gay men was actually unknown. The role of the studied brain segment in humans is uncertain. And some gay men’s brain segments were more “male” than some of the heterosexual men’s.
The study has not been replicated, and LeVay soon retired from neuroscience research.
Now LeVay is back with a long, meandering and confusing think piece once again arguing that there is something female about gay men. But then he seems to back off his claim as if aware that this outdated stereotype just won’t sell any more.
It is an odd performance.
Writing in the British magazine New Scientist, LeVay starts with the claim that gay men have difficulty falling in love and forming lasting relationships. Heterosexual partners, he says, are drawn to each other primarily because of their differences as male and female. But same-sex partners, “may sometimes be too similar to each other for their relationships to be stable.”
They lack the complementarity that can solidify a relationship, he says, so “it may be difficult for a person to see their partner as sufficiently “‘other’ or “‘exotic’ for romantic passion to persist.”
In other words, gays do not fit LeVay’s heterosexual, conformist model of sexual bonding.
One successful gay relationship, LeVay says, “was portrayed by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in the 1996 movie “‘The Birdcage.’ Although grossly stereotyped for humorous effect, it may have been more culturally authentic than the relationship between two similar, conventionally masculine men that was the focus of last year’s Brokeback Mountain.”
Well, hardly! In one sense LeVay is only stating the familiar point that differences can be attractive because they are mysterious. But he gets the rest all wrong.
There are certainly differences between same-sex partners. As psychologist C.A. Tripp pointed out in “The Homosexual Matrix,” the basis of erotic attraction is that each partner wishes to experience or take “symbolic possession” of some desirable quality present in the other partner.
But as Tripp makes clear, “Homosexuality in all its variations always means that same-sex attributes have taken on erotic significance.”
So it is the most simple-minded stereotype to think of partner differences as significantly related to the expression of gender polarity.
For one thing, as LeVay belatedly acknowledges in his final three paragraphs, there can be many differences between same-sex partners not related to gender polarity.
The best known are age-differentiated relationships as in ancient Greece where contrary to LeVay it was the masculinity and prowess not the femininity of the younger partner that was valued.
Other familiar differences between partners can and do include things such as ethnicity, social level, race, body type, temperament, experiential background or personality type.
It is also important to realize that there is a variety of different ways of expressing or embodying masculinity that have nothing to do with femininity although people who believe the stereotype usually try to represent them that way.
Men who embody different modes of masculinity can readily be attracted to each other because none of us can embody them all fully an emphasis on some involves a de-emphasis of others.
Tripp points out that the differences between partners are often small, almost invisible to outsiders, but exist nevertheless. LeVay, for instance misses the differences between the two “conventionally masculine” men in “Brokeback Mountain” because his conform-at-any-cost gender dichotomy model of sexual attraction prevents him from seeing them.
As Virginia blogger Tim Hulsey writes, “The film’s central point in depicting the relationship of Jack and Ennis is that their various masculine traits are different and complementary.
To oversimplify, Jack Twist has the social skills, self-assertiveness and personal ambition that Ennis Del Mar lacks. Ennis has the internal moral fiber, survival instinct, and sense of personal responsibility to others that Jack lacks. Jack knows how to act like a man; Ennis knows how to be a man. Each needs the other to complete his masculinity.”
Finally, even men who seem similarly masculine can be attracted to each other because, however masculine each partner may be, since he has eroticized same-sex attributes the definition of being a gay man each may be seeking yet more of an attribute he already has in abundance. We have all seen well-built men and bodybuilders attracted to each other as partners.
LeVay should read more about the psychology of sexual attraction before he writes about it again.
Paul Varnell’s previous columns are posted online at the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org).
E-mail Pvarnell@ aol.com
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, May 12, 2006.