the life and legacy of david reimer

15/02/2009

David Reimer was born in 1965 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. One of a pair of identical twins, his birth-name was Bruce and that of his brother Brian. The following year at 8 months old, both brothers were referred for circumcision at a local hospital after it emerged that they suffered from phimosis, a condition where the foreskin does not retract fully from the head of the penis.

Bruce’s procedure went tragically wrong and most of his penis was cauterised beyond repair.

The family was referred to John’s Hopkins Medical Center to see Dr. John Money, who at the time was quickly developing a reputation based on his work with intersex patients. Dr. Money was a vocal proponent of the idea of gender plasticity, believing that gender developed purely as a result of learning, and was well-known for advocating that intersex children with ambiguous genitalia be reassigned and raised as girls.

Naturally, he immediately suggested that the family raise Bruce as a little girl, and at 22 months old, Bruce’s testes were removed. He was reassigned female and given the name Brenda. Dr. Money would continue to see Brenda and her brother Brian for psychological counselling and assessment, and she would be given female hormones to aid her physical development as a girl. In many ways this was an ideal … experiment to determine the validity of gender plasticity as a theory: Brenda had a twin, Brian, who could serve as a control subject, and Bruce had also been born a perfectly healthy, non-variant male. If anything could prove that gender was purely a social construct, this was it.

Throughout her early childhood and into puberty, Brenda grew up and developed as a young girl. She visited with Dr. Money regularly, and he reported the case a fantastic success. On the basis of the case, sex-reassignment in the case of children born with ambiguous genitalia was adopted as standard practice, one that has continued to the present-day in many places.

Sadly, the reality of the situation was very different from what Dr. Money was reporting.

As early as the age of two, Brenda was insisting that he was a boy like his brother Brian, whom he would regularly beat up so he could take his toys to play with. As he grew older, he was regularly bullied at school for his unfeminine behaviour, masculine walk and his insistence to both teachers and parents that he felt like a boy. He hated his visits with Dr. Money, finally threatening suicide if he had to go one more time, and finally, upon the advice of a different psychologist, Brenda’s mom and dad told him the truth in 1980. Brenda assumed a male identity and started living as David.

Unfortunately the damage had been done.

Neglected and confused, scarred by highly questionable “therapy” techniques Dr. Money had employed and struggling to process his new relationship with his “sister”, Brian eventually fell into a pattern of clinical depression, drug abuse and crime that finally culminated in his apparent suicide from a lethal overdose of drugs and alcohol in 2002. David’s parents did not fare much better, his mother attempting suicide and his father eventually sliding into alcoholism.

David also did not cope well. He tried to commit suicide twice in his 20’s, having done so repeatedly in his teens, both before and after learning the reality of his gender. Given to dark moods, fears of abandonment and explosive anger preying on his mind constantly, he believed that he would never be able to form a lasting relationship and marry.

Despite all this, he did meet and eventually marry Jane, and his life seemed to start approaching something like normal. They raised three children together, and after he went public with his story in 2000, sales from the book he had authored with John Colapinto, gave the family financial security.

Sadly it wasn’t to last. Feeling guilty over the death of his brother and haunted by his childhood, David made a string of bad investments, became estranged from his wife and family, and eventually committed suicide in 2004 at the age of 38. Dr. Money’s grand “experiment” was a tragic, terrible failure.

David’s life was an unhappy one, and the circumstances around that life touched the lives of everybody around him with devastating effect. But he left behind a powerful legacy that has given intersex people their most convincing argument in preventing doctors and parents from “fixing” intersex children. Indeed, it was only after he learned from Dr. Milton Diamond how his case had been used to push “surgical correction” of intersex people that he went public with his own story.

His case also dealt a critical blow to the theory that gender is a learned behaviour, instead pointing at one’s sense of one’s own gender being an innate characteristic as fundamental as whether we are naturally right or left-handed. In this, his life also helped the cause of transsexual people enormously, something for which I owe him and his family a profound debt.

***

To read more about David, his life and his legacy:

1. [John Colapinto] The Case of John/Joan (dec 1997, Rolling Stone Magazine)

2. [John Colapinto] Why Did David Reimer Commit Suicide? (jun 2004, Slate Magazine)

3. [Burkeman and Younge] Being Brenda (2004, The Guardian Newspaper, UK)

4. [uncredited] David Reimer: The boy who lived as a girl (may 2004, CBC News Online)

5. [John Colapinto] As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. (2001, Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092959-6)

6. Wikipedia Article on David Reimer (accessed 14 feb 2009)

7. [Hannah Rosin] A Boy’s Life (nov 2008, TheAtlantic)

8. [BBC Horizon] Dr. Money and the Boy with No Penis (2004, BBC2 Documentaries)

Mina.

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6 Responses to “the life and legacy of david reimer”


  1. […] the theory that gender is a purely social construct with his work on the case of David Reimer. In brief, he convinced David’s parents to raise him as a girl after young David’s […]

  2. Vascuous Says:

    Although in reality I would agree that David’s story does point incorrigibly towards gender being an innate property if one could call it that. It unfortunately doesn’t seem like it would be much help as an argument against people who view transsexualism as a learned behavior. The counter point (in favor of closed minded individuals) would be that David was indeed born physically male. Which means that genitalia and chromosomes still rule gender identity. (at least argument wise) I’m sad to say that even though this is probably _the_ best argument _for_ transsexualism, conversely some individuals might view it as the best argument against us.

  3. Mina Magpie Says:

    Well, only if you take the erroneous position that ONLY chromosomes and genitalia determine gender identity. We know that’s not true however – people who are born intersex, be it with ambiguous genitalia or with a chromosomal intersex condition like Klinefelter’s (XXY) still have distinct gender identities. Also, women with complete AIS, who have a male karyotype (XY) but still identify female and have female genitalia all point to something BESIDES genitalia and karyotype determining gender identity, but in combination with David Reimer’s case it does point to something biological nonetheless. Since really only the brain is left, you’re left having to conclude that it’s something in the brain that determines identity.

    That would be my counter argument anyway. In isolation yeah, David’s case often gets cited by the conservative right-wing to support their case, but when considered in the context of what else we know about sexuality, gender and intersex conditions, the exact opposite position is supported.

    Mina.

  4. Vascuous Says:

    That’s true, *sigh* now if one could just get the conservative right wing people to actually believe the rest. I’ve actually had people say that the research is made up, but then in the same breath cite other research. Perhaps hypocrisy is also biological?

  5. Vascuous Says:

    Hmm, would you mind terribly to do me a favor? Reading what you said about the David Reimer case in conjunction with research on chromosomes and sexuality I decided to try one last push on convincing some people that I’m not going through a phase and what not. Though I don’t really know where to look for all the research. Could you perhaps point me in the right direction?

  6. Mina Magpie Says:

    Sorry for taking so long to reply – I was otherwise occupied the last few days, and yeah, I didn’t get around to much PC’ing.

    You could try my causes page. I’ve been collecting research for the last year or so and have it all linked in there.

    Mina.


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