Simon LeVay on transsexualism

"However lightly textbook authors attempt to tread, it is inevitable that their writings will transmit some part of their own values."

-- Simon LeVay [1]

Simon LeVay is a researcher who is strongly supportive of labeling sexual minorities as biologically distinct or even diseased. This overview is part of the Bailey-Blanchard-Lawrence (BBL) clearinghouse and focuses on LeVay's treatment of transgender women who are not exclusively attracted to males. LeVay's thinking on this topic is heavily influenced by a small group of sexologists who assert that interest in feminization often stems from psychosexual pathology, hereafter called the "BBL model" of gender expression.

Bias and sexual separatism in LeVay's textbook

LeVay co-authored an undergraduate textbook called Human Sexuality with Sharon Valente. This textbook is heavily tinged with essentialist and masculist dogma, with only the most cursory descriptions of opposing views and scientific evidence. LeVay describes biological differences based on sex as "society's deepest divide."

As I discuss in my essay on disease models of gender variance, LeVay's sexological worldview can be directly traced to the 19th-century eugenics movement, particularly in Germany. One of LeVay's major influences, Magnus Hirschfeld, also believed in "justice through science" (which was the motto of Hirschfeld's Scientific Humanitarian Committee). We all know where this school of thought led by mid-century in Germany.

Like the race scientists who influenced Nazism by emphasizing biological differences of ethnic minorities, these sex scientists seek to shore up what they feel are important distinctions between anatomical and sexual minorities by extrapolating behavioral determinism from minor biological differences.

This was called "sociobiology" after the term "eugenics" fell into disrepute, though the preferred terms as of this update are "behavioral genetics," "evolutionary psychology" or more generally, "human biodiversity."

The bias in LeVay's 2003 textbook is especially evident in the three most cited authors:

J. Michael Bailey (8 citations)
Kurt Freund (7 citations)
Ray Blanchard (6 citations)

These three researchers are best known for dividing males into two unequivocal sexual orientations: homosexual and “nonhomosexual.” Blanchard even merits a photograph on page 471, in addition to several pages of uncritical praise about Blanchard’s often questionable methodology and conclusions (see Blanchard section below).

LeVay's connections to these three researchers illuminate his (and their) biased conclusions about gender identity and expression.

LeVay and J. Michael Bailey

Ideologically and academically, LeVay has aligned himself most closely with psychology professor J. Michael Bailey of Northwestern University. Both received considerable attention from the mainstream media in the early 1990s for published claims regarding biological markers of homosexuality.

Bailey's conclusions were based on studies of twins. [2] In 1991, LeVay published "A difference in hypothalamic structure between homosexual and heterosexual men" in Science Magazine, claiming he had found a difference between gay and straight brains, located in the interior nuclei of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH 3). [3] Based on brain tissue taken from 41 autopsies, LeVay asserted that the area was twice as large in heterosexual men. This led to a flurry of publicity in the mainstream press.

This area of the brain had been of interest to eugenics researchers in the past. Advocates of psychosurgery to "cure" gays as "a matter of public health policy" proposed a "treatment" in which they would destroy that part of gay prisoners' brains in exchange for release from prison. British medical journal Lancet applauded this experiment, noting that "castration is open to criticism on ethical grounds while psychosurgery is not."[4]

Though the mainstream press was largely uncritical of LeVay's claims, his peers were less enthusiastic. Among the many criticisms of LeVay's methodology:

  • Measurement (volume vs. cell count)
  • Small sample size
  • Inadequate sexual histories: Most of LeVay's 41 cadavers were available because of AIDS research being done where he worked, the Salk Institute. The sexual histories of the cadavers were not self-reports, but were pieced together after their deaths. Several of the "presumed heterosexual" brains came from people who died of AIDS-related illnesses.
  • Size of INAH 3 could have been affected by disease.
  • Evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden is especially critical of these studies in her book Evolution's Rainbow (see the Roughgarden section below). She has characterized these tiny structures as rice grains of brain from which little can be inferred since there is no consensus on size.

For the most thorough critical review of LeVay's work and his place in the history of the American eugenics movement, please see Nancy Ordover's American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism, pages 57-124. Ordover notes, "Nothing in the long medicalization of homosexuality has ever displaced what came before. What we have seen instead is additive causation theories." [5]

This is especially evident in how these researchers shill for each other. Since their moment in the spotlight, Bailey and LeVay have a long history of academic logrolling. In 1999, Bailey called LeVay "appropriately opinionated" when praising LeVay's Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality, proclaiming it "The best book yet on the origins of sexual orientation" [6] Bailey also uses LeVay's Human Sexuality textbook in his undergraduate sexuality course.

Bailey, who has suggested homosexuality is an "evolutionary mistake" [7] and a "developmental error," [8] published The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism in 2003. [9] LeVay writes: "I read the manuscript before publication at the request of the publisher and, as I recall, made a few suggestions for improvements. I think that the quote from me that appeared on the front cover was in that review--the publisher asked for my permission to use it." When asked about others who might have reviewed the manuscript, LeVay stated, "I don't know who read it besides myself." [10] LeVay appears at the top of the front cover of Bailey's book, proclaiming the book is "absolutely splendid."

Bailey exhibits all the hallmarks of what John Money called "malignant bisexuality." [11] As of this update, Bailey is under investigation at Northwestern University for a wide range of ethical charges, including sex with a research subject from one of his federally-funded sex research studies. [12] This situation is being monitored closely and will be discussed on this clearinghouse as information becomes available.

LeVay and Kurt Freund

Kurt Freund was the head of the gender program at Toronto's notorious Clarke Institute until shortly before his suicide. Freund's most influential achievement was the development of phallometric testing, especially the penile plethysmograph, a controversial device that measures blood flow in the genitals while the subject is exposed to images or audio recordings of materials some people find erotic. Proponents claim the devices are an accurate gauge of sexual arousal, although results are highly variable and open to interpretation and manipulation by both the test subject and the observer. The device is not admissible as evidence in most US courts for that reason.

Freund developed the device in the 1950's to catch recruits in Czechoslovakia trying to get out of the military by falsely claiming to be gay. Freund later immigrated to Canada, and the device replaced the earlier "fruit machine" developed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as part of "the identification and dismissal of every gay person in the employ of the public service." [13]

LeVay's textbook cites Freund's work claiming he never encountered a male bisexual, [14] and Freund's and Blanchard's belief that transwomen attracted to other women suffer from a "courtship disorder." [15]

Freund was also mentor to Ray Blanchard, who took over at The Clarke after Freund's suicide. See the discussion of plethysmography on this site for more on Freund's legacy and its damaging effects on gender-variant people.

LeVay and Ray Blanchard

LeVay's thinking on gender variance and transsexualism is also heavily influenced by Ray Blanchard at Toronto's notorious Clarke Institute. LeVay completely buys into a sex-fueled mental illness Blanchard created to describe transsexual women not exclusively attracted to males. Blanchard calls this disease "autogynephilia," a type of "paraphilia" in which Blanchard collapses any non-heteronormative transsexual sexuality, even no sexuality.

LeVay claims that a "paraphilia" like Blanchard's "autogynephilia" is a problem, and in any medical model, problem = diagnosis. From LeVay's discussion of paraphilia:

"Paraphilia" is the psychiatric term for problematic sexual desire or behavior

…There is a point at which unusual sexual interests become problematic and call for treatment or for preventive measures. Most obviously, sexual interests whose expression engages other people without their consent, or that actually harms them, require some kind of intervention. Even when no other person is involved, however, treatment may be called for.

Thus, even in this age of sexual permissiveness, there is a need for psychiatrists and other therapists to deal with unusual sexual feelings and behaviors as illnesses that need treatment.

The term paraphilia is used by psychiatrists to cover any unusual and problematic form of sexual expression, most of which are seen predominantly or almost entirely in men. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), paraphilias are "recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving

(1) nonhuman objects
(2) the suffering or humiliation of oneself or one's partner, or
(3) children or other non-consenting persons….

The behavior, sexual urges or fantasies cause clinically significant distress in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (American Psychiatric Association,1994)

In a 2000 revision to DSM-IV, however, the APA made clear that many paraphilias can be diagnosed even if the person who has them does not experience any subjective distress or impaired functioning (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). This is quite a significant shift; it emphasizes that psychiatrists may go beyond responding to clients' complaints and may use their expertise for other purposes, such as protecting society from sex crimes.

The prevalence of paraphilias is unclear because people are generally unwilling to admit to them. (Paraphilic behaviors are often illegal, especially if they involve other persons without their consent.) The paraphilias that come to medical or legal attention most often are those that involve victims. [16]

LeVay then locates "transvestic fetishism" between obscene phone calls and rape in terms of prevalence. [17] LeVay follows Blanchard in claiming there are "two types" of transsexuals: homosexual (which is OK by him) and "autogynephilic" (which by his textbook definition describes "problematic sexual desire or behavior"). When I asked why he feels that transsexuals attracted to other women have "illnesses that need treatment," he replied:

Well, those quotes are from the introduction to Chapter 14; they do not apply necessarily to "transwomen who are not exclusively androphilic." What I was saying was that "atypical sexual desires become problematic when they cause distress to the people who experience them or when they are acted out in behaviors that harm others or run afoul of the law." I don't think that "transwomen who are not exclusively androphilic" necessarily experience distress or harm others. I would think that often they don't do either, so I wouldn't call their sexuality "problematic" in such cases. [18]

Unfortunately, this claim does not appear in the textbook. LeVay prefers to link transsexualism with pedophilia, as he tried to do with Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden at a sexuality lecture (see below).

LeVay and Anne Lawrence

The most vocal "victim" who claims to be suffering from "autogynephilia" is sexologist Anne Lawrence. Because people can only imagine and explain feelings in the language they have available, it makes sense that a physician like Lawrence would conceptualize any behaviors or the thoughts that cause them as problem = disease.

“Autogynephilia” describes a sex-fueled mental illness that lumps gender variance in with sex crimes. BBL believe that "paraphilias" cluster, meaning that they believe that “autogynephiles” are more likely to be aroused by children, corpses, excrement and other illegal and socially unacceptable things. This diagnosis was widely ignored after Blanchard first suggested it in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in 1989. [19] By the end of his series of papers, Blanchard was shoehorning other behaviors into his model with crackpot variants like “partial autogynephilia.” [20] However, Blanchard and his colleagues had enough influence in this rarely-studied subspecialty to get “autogynephilia” mentioned in the DSM. [21] The work would have remained an obscure intradisciplinary skirmish until Lawrence found Blanchard’s articles in 1997, during a time of great need.

Lawrence has claimed to be a "real transsexual," which raises the question of why Lawrence feels a need to make an assertion of authenticity. As Lawrence notes, “There are many human behaviors that look like the same thing, but really aren't.” [22] Previous medical attempts to catalogue behavior like Lawrence’s were not only pathologizing, but insulting: People like Lawrence were “transvestitic applicants for sex reassignment” [23] who are “aging” [24] and “distressed,” [25] suffering from “pseudotranssexualism,” [26] a “non-transsexual” variant of “gender identity disorder” (GIDAANT), [27] and “iatrogenic artifact.” [28] Lawrence found in Blanchard a definition that allowed Lawrence to be a "real transsexual."

Many would argue that Lawrence is in fact part of a long line of crossdressing physicians with access to medical technology not usually available to people with their erotic interests. In fact, it seems likely that Lawrence entered medicine in part because of an erotic interest in medicalized feminization. In Lawrence's case, this seems to have manifested itself as an erotic interest in ritualized genital modification, an interest Lawrence indulged in 1996. [29] Unfortunately for Lawrence, this did not "cure" whatever "problem" Lawrence had. As I discuss in The Anne Who Would Be Queen, Lawrence left anesthesiology after increasingly "bizarre behavior" at work culminated in a 1997 incident where Lawrence checked a sedated patient for ritualized genital modification.

Like Bailey, Lawrence has all the hallmarks of a self-hating crossdresser with an erotic interest in transsexuals, or more precisely, transsexualism (the process and procedures). As I discuss in my essay "Wannabes," Lawrence appears to have transitioned as a strategy to have wider access to a dating pool with the object of desire. Lawrence's reputation as the "gender convention lothario" has been reported by many witnesses.

Robbed of prestige and power after the forced resignation, Lawrence turned to medicine once again for a disease that would explain Lawrence's self-hatred and "bizarre behavior." Discovering Blanchard was clearly revelatory for Lawrence, who now had a diagnosis to explain what happened. Suddenly, this forgotten diagnosis had a vocal and influential champion. I dismantle the pseudoscience behind “autogynephilia” in a longer essay elsewhere. [30] Lawrence not only found a "respected authority," but someone who could elevate Lawrence back to the status of "respected authority" as well. Another symbiotic academic relationship was born. Blanchard and Lawrence remain joined at the hip to this day, frequently referring to each other in papers and lecturing at the same conventions.

Several readers with autism wrote to me after I began exploring disease models of gender identity to express their suspicions that Lawrence may have Asperger's Syndrome or some other form of autism. My own encounters with Lawrence leave me inclined to believe Lawrence's poor socialization may be a sign of some neurological issue. It is also my suspicion that Lawrence and Bailey may be taking different strategies to deal with the same issue: one underwent feminization as part of an erotic interest, and the other didn't. Transsexual women transition to live as women; Lawrence appears to have transitioned to live and identify as a "real transsexual."

When I asked LeVay why he believed transsexual women attracted to other women had a pathological paraphilia, he replied, "In the second edition of the book, which will be out in about a year from now, we emphasize more clearly our view that the majority of sexual variations are not pathological and don't call for medical treatment."

Unfortunately, BBL do consider this pathological, even though Lawrence insists the few who embrace this diagnosis “do not declare ourselves sick.”[31] Not morally sick, anyway, but physically sick. Lawrence’s self-descriptions have remarkable parallels with descriptions of binge-and-purge cycles among crossdressers who hate their behavior, or those “afflicted” with “unwanted homosexuality”:

“The loneliness and disconnection from others that typically accompany autogynephilia [sic] are a large part of what makes this condition feel like genuine paraphilia (i.e., a “disorder”) to many of us who experience it (and I'm including myself here) and not merely a “benign variant” form of human sexuality.” [32]

Swap “autogynephilia” with the word “homosexuality,” and Lawrence’s comment would feel right at home in a NARTH publication. Lawrence’s “problem” is not self-love, but self-hate.

LeVay and Joan Roughgarden

LeVay's belief that transsexual women who aren't exclusively attracted to men are all "paraphilics" is evident in his interactions in 2003 with Stanford evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden. Roughgarden is a highly respected theorist whose book Evolution's Rainbow has received considerable critical praise from peers and in the mainstream press since its 2004 publication. At the time Bailey's book came out, LeVay was lecturing at Stanford University. He invited Roughgarden to share a stage in his sexuality class along with a pedophilia advocacy group called the North American Man-Boy Love Association. Roughgarden declined LeVay's attempt to suggest a link between gender identity and pedophilia, but later joined him in a lecture to correct many of his misstatements about the biology of sex and sexuality.

For more on this dispute, please see LeVay's review of Roughgarden [33] and Roughgarden's account of her dealings with LeVay. [34]

Conclusion

LeVay is a dilettante, having tried his hand at all sorts of things over the years, from fiction to astrobiology. This jack-of-all-trades dabbling and personal belief in binaries of sex, sexuality, and gender identity may help explain the lack of sophistication in his thinking about transwomen.

LeVay's connections to Bailey, Blanchard and their theories are clearly part of a mutually beneficial arrangement to promote each others' work and books about sexuality. "Nonhomosexual" transsexual women conflict with their definitions and ideologies, so these women get marginalized in order to shore up BBL's and LeVay's theories about sexuality and "maleness."

In the meantime, expect these names to continue popping up in the mainstream press whenever they need some "expert" to reassure everyone that sexual minorities are fundamentally different than the general public. Transactivist Kate Bornstein notes, "A dominant culture tends to combine its subcultures into manageable units,"[35] and the dominant culture in this country has found the perfect stooges for managing sexuality in LeVay and his like-minded colleagues.

See also Lynn Conway's article:

Simon LeVay's gay-gene promotional tour: Uses scare tactics to bias thinking about Northwestern's gay-gene study

References

1. LeVay S, Valente S (2003). Human Sexuality. Sinauer, p. 123.
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0878934545/qid=1094416806/sr=ka-2/ref=pd_ka_2/002-8778638-7938457 123

2. Bailey JM, Pillard RC (1991). A genetic study of male sexual orientation. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1991 Dec;48(12):1089-96.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=1845227

3. LeVay S (1991). A difference in hypothalamic structure between heterosexual and homosexual men. Science. 1991 Aug 30;253(5023):1034-7.

4. Ordover N (2003). American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism. University of Minnesota Press, 2003. p 65.
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0816635595/qid=1094415622/sr=8-4/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i4_xgl14/002-8778638-7938457?v=glance&s=books&n=507846

5. Ordover N (2003). American Eugenics p. 68.

6. Bailey JM (1999). Review of Queer Science, 1 January 1999. via Amazon.com.

7. Bailey JM (2003). KOOP radio interview.
http://www.donnarose.com/JMBInterview.html (transcription)

8. Bailey JM (1999). Homosexuality and mental illness. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1999 Oct;56(10):883-4.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=10530627

9. Bailey JM (2003). The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. Joseph Henry Press.
http://www.nap.edu/books/0309084180/html/

10. LeVay S (2004). personal correspondence with the author, 13 November.

11. Money J (1990). Gay, Straight, and In-Between: The Sexology of Exotic Orientation. Oxford University Press. p. 108-110.

12 Conway L (2004). Timeline of unfolding events in “the Bailey case.”
http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TS/Bailey/Timeline/Description%20of%20Bailey-investigation%20timeline-spreadsheet.htm

13. Sawatsky J. Men in the Shadows: The R.C.M.P. Security Service. 1980, Doubleday. ISBN: 0-385-14682-5 / 0385146825 See also the chapter "The homosexual witchhunt" reprinted in Body Politic No. 63 May 1980 pp. 21-23

14 LeVay S, Human Sexuality p. 201.

15 LeVay S, Human Sexuality p. 471, citing Freund and Blanchard.

16. LeVay S, Human Sexuality p. 454.

17 LeVay S, Human Sexuality p. 455.

18. LeVay S (2004). personal correspondence with the author, 13 November.

19. Blanchard (1989). The concept of autogynephilia [sic] and the typology of male gender dysphoria. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 1989 Oct;177(10):616-23.
http://www.genderpsychology.org/autogynephilia/male_gender_dysphoria/ (full text)

20. Blanchard R (1993). Partial versus complete autogynephilia [sic] and gender dysphoria. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. 1993 Winter;19(4):301-7.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=8308916

21. Bradley SJ, Blanchard R, Coates S, Green R, Levine SB, Meyer-Bahlburg HFL, Pauly IB, Zucker KJ. Interim report of the DSM-IV subcommittee on gender identity. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 20, 1991, No. 4, pp. 333-343.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=1953325

22. Lawrence AA (1999). Autogynephilia [sic]: Frequently-Asked Questions
http://www.annelawrence. com/agfaqs.html

23. Wise TN, Meyer JK (1980). The border area between transvestism and gender dysphoria: transvestic applicants for sex reassignment. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 1980 Aug;9(4):327-42.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=7416946

24. Lothstein LM (1979). Psychological treatment of transsexualism and sexual identity disorders: some recent attempts. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 1979 Sep;8(5):431-44
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=496624

25. Wise TN, Dupkin C, Meyer JK (1981). Partners of distressed transvestites. American Journal of Psychiatry. 1981 Sep;138(9):1221-4.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=7270729

26. Wise TN, Lucas J (1981). Pseudotranssexualism: iatrogenic gender dysphoria. Journal of Homosexuality. 1981 Spring;6(3):61-6.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=7341667

27. American Psychiatric Association (1987). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM III-R).
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0871400499/qid=1094416834/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/002-8778638-7938457?v=glance&s=books

28. Moser C, Kleinplatz PJ (2002). Transvestic fetishism: psychopathology or iatrogenic artifact? New Jersey Psychologist, 52 (2) 16-17.
http://home.netcom.com/~docx2/tf.html

29. Lawrence AA (1996). Taking Portlandia’s hand: sex reassignment surgery in Portland.
http://www.annelawrence. com/portlandia.html

30. James AJ (2004). “Autogynephilia”: a disputed diagnosis.
http://www.tsroadmap.com/info/autogynephilia.html

31. Lawrence AA (2000). Sexuality and transsexuality: A new introduction to autogynephilia [sic].
http://www.annelawrence. com/autogynephilia.html

32. Lawrence AA (2004). Posted as “autogynephile1,” 25 August 2004.
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/autogynephiliasupport/message/3682

33. LeVay S (2003). “Evolution’s Rainbow” by Joan Roughgarden (review).
http://members.aol.com/slevay/page21.html

34. Conway L (2003). Making connections regarding psychologist Simon LeVay
http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TS/Bailey/Joan-re-LeVay.html

35. Bornstein K (1995). Gender Outlaw. Vintage. p. 3.
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0679757015/qid=1100467007/sr=8-1/ref=pd_csp_1/102-1391147-0172133?v=glance&s=books&n=507846

Contact information

LeVay lists himself as co-founder of the Institute of Gay and Lesbian Education (IGLE), which had a web presence here:

http://langevin.usc.edu/~la-motss/igle.html
http://www.frontiersweb.com/laguide/igle.html

The phone number for IGLE is now listed for the Coalition Of Pets & Public Safety. The address is listed as the June Mazer Gallery.

On 13 November 2004, LeVay requested that I remove his contact information from this page. As of this update, researchers interested in contacting him can reach him through his personal website or at: SLeVay@aol.com. You may also be able to reach him through contact information via Google.