Autumn Books

Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research Into Homosexuality

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 19 October 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1017
  1. Charles Weijer

    Simon Levay MIT Press, £16.95, pp 364 ISBN 0 262 12199 9

    What makes people gay or lesbian? And why should we care? Neuroanatomist and queer researcher Simon Levay provides an accessible overview of answers to these questions in his latest book. Levay, himself the subject of controversy after his report in Science in 1991 of the sex-atypical size of a nucleus in the brains of gay men, is well situated to detail scientific research into the aetiology of homosexuality and its all important social and political ramifications.

    In the first two thirds of Queer Science Levay critically reviews the positive findings (and shortcomings) of differing approaches—psychoanalysis, learning theory, hormonal mechanisms, brain mechanisms, fetal development, and genetics—undertaken by scientists. In the remainder of the book he argues that research plays an important role in the gay and lesbian rights movement: evidence that homosexuality is heritable, for example, played a pivotal role in quashing Colorado's Amendment 2—legislation, passed by Colorado voters in 1992, that rescinded laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals.

    The embrace of medical science by gay and lesbian activists is to say the least ironic: historically, doctors have caused untold numbers of homosexuals to suffer. Each new theory of homosexuality was rapidly translated into new “treatments” for the “disease”: psychoanalytic theories led to talking cures, learning theories generated behavioural therapies; hormonal causes produced castration and testicular transplantation; and brain mechanisms occasioned brain surgery. Unhindered by the obvious failure of treatments to cure homosexuals (that is, make them heterosexual), doctors turned to treatments that would destroy their patients' sexuality altogether. Tragically, the British mathematician Alan Turing was the victim of such treatment: one year after being forcibly treated with oestrogen, he committed suicide.

    Given this backdrop, it is remarkable that Levay is so sanguine about the possibility of genetic testing, including prenatal testing, for homosexuality. The state, he tells us, has no right to interfere with a woman's choice to have an abortion; if some women choose to abort fetuses because a prenatal test indicates a risk of future homosexuality, then so be it. Levay confuses what is legal with what is moral: even if legal, the choice to abort a “gay or lesbian” fetus is an immoral one. Assuming that society has no right to prevent abortion, it surely does have an obligation to bar access to such tests.

    My disagreement on this notwithstanding, I recommend Levay's Queer Science as a remarkable synthesis: one that deserves to be read by gays and lesbians, their families, and their doctors.—CHARLES WEIJER, biomedical ethics unit, McGill University, Canada

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