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of gender and biology: the case of David Reimer

The following essay appears on the website of NASSPE (The National Association for Single Sex Public Education) and illustrates to me how gender identity is undeniably tied to biology. I have mentioned David Reimer before in my blog but this text illustrates in more graphic detail how he came to view his imposed transition:

“On August 22 1965, Janet Reimer, a young housewife living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, gave birth to identical twins. She named her two healthy baby boys Brian and Bruce. When the boys were seven months old, they both developed phimosis: painful urination due to obstruction of the outlet of the penis. The doctor recommended both boys be circumcised.

Bruce was scheduled to go first. The operation went horribly wrong. Somehow -- it's still not clear exactly how such a thing could happen -- somehow, the cautery instrument used to cut away the foreskin was turned up to maximum power, and baby Bruce's penis was literally fried. The dead tissue smoked, turned black, and fell off like an old scab.

World-famous Johns Hopkins psychologist Dr. John Money urged Janet and Ron Reimer to raise Bruce as a girl. Dr. Money assured the parents that Bruce could become a happy and fulfilled woman, while warning them that Bruce would be miserable as a grown man without a penis. The Reimers were impressed by the confidence of the world-famous Johns Hopkins professor. They gave their consent. On July 3 1967, their son Bruce underwent surgical castration (removal of the testicles). Bruce became Brenda.

In 1972, Dr. Money published the first accounts of the amazing experiment. And it was amazing. Bruce and Brian were, after all, identical twins: they shared precisely the same genes, and they were being raised in the same home by the same parents. Would it be possible to rear one of them successfully as a girl, just by dressing Bruce/Brenda in dresses and giving her dolls to play with? Here are excerpts from Dr. Money's report in his 1972 book, Man & Woman, Boy & Girl:
The effects of emphasizing feminine clothing became clearly noticeable in the girl's attitude towards clothes and hairdo a year later, when she was observed to have a clear preference for dresses over slacks and to take pride in her long hair. . . . By four and a half years of age [she] was much neater than her brother, and in contrast with him, disliked to be dirty. The mother reported that her daughter copies her in trying to help her tidying and cleaning up the kitchen, while the boy could not care less about it. The girl wanted and received for Christmas dolls, a doll house, and a doll carriage. The boy wanted and obtained a garage with cars and gas pumps and tools.

Dr. Money's report was hugely influential, and quite understandably so. If a boy could be transformed into a girl just by having his penis removed, wearing a dress, and letting his hair grow, then sexual identity -- and the differences between the sexes -- must be primarily cultural in origin. This finding was reaffirmed by Dr. Money in his 1977 book, Sexual Signatures:

Although the girl had been the dominant twin in infancy, by the time the children were four years old there was no mistaking which twin was the girl and which the boy. At five, the little girl already preferred dresses to pants, enjoyed wearing her hair ribbons, bracelets and frilly blouses, and loved being her daddy's little sweetheart.

Money concluded that Brian's sex reassignment as a girl was "convincing evidence that the gender identity gate is open at birth for a normal child. . . and that it stays open at least for something over a year after birth."

Dr. Milton Diamond had been interested in the case since Dr. Money had first reported it, in 1972. However, his requests for further information about the "girl's" adolescence had gone unanswered. In 1992, Dr. Diamond succeeded in tracking down one of the doctors involved in the case of Brenda/Bruce: Dr. Keith Sigmundson, a psychiatrist in Winnipeg who had been treating "Brenda." "I was wondering how long it would take for you to find me," were Dr. Sigmundson's first words, when Dr. Diamond identified himself and explained why he was calling. Dr. Sigmundson knew that Dr. Money had been distorting the facts of the case, but Dr. Sigmundson had not had the courage to challenge the famous Johns Hopkins psychologist. Dr. Diamond persuaded Dr. Sigmundson to let the truth be known. Finally, in an article published jointly by Diamond and Sigmundson in March 1997 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the facts of the story came to light.

The truth turned out to be very nearly the opposite of what Dr. Money had reported. Far from an effortless transformation from male to female, Brenda/Bruce had fought the assignment to the female gender -- even though "she" had not been informed of the truth of "her" sexual identity. As a small child, "Brenda" tore off the frilly dresses her mother made. She insisted on rolling in the mud with the other boys. She stomped on the dolls that relatives gave as presents.

School had been an unending nightmare. Teachers and students alike somehow knew at a glance that something was not right about "Brenda." Girls avoided her. Boys made fun of her. Teachers anxiously asked the parents for more information about what made "Brenda" so strange, so combative, so un-ladylike. One of "Brenda's" few friends at school later recalled:
As far as I knew, Brenda was a girl -- physically. But from everything that she did and said, she indicated that she didn't want to be a girl. The other girls in our group were competitive against the boys; we wanted to prove we could do whatever they could do. We might get in arguments with the guys, but we wouldn't have gone as far as to fight with them physically. I wouldn't want a bruise on my face, for example. But Brenda fought with the boys. Brenda would take the bruises. I myself was a tomboy, but I never wanted to be a boy. Brenda did.

Injections of female hormones did nothing to change "Brenda's" boyish ways. "When I say there was nothing feminine about Brenda," brother Brian Reimer later recalled, "I mean there was nothing feminine:
She walked like a guy. Sat with her legs apart. She talked about guy things, didn't give a crap about cleaning house, getting married, wearing makeup. We both wanted to play with guys, build forts and have snowball fights and play army. She'd get a skipping rope for a gift, and the only thing we'd use that for was to tie people up, whip people with it. She played with my toys: Tinkertoys, dump trucks. This toy sewing machine she got just sat.

Remember, neither "Brenda," nor her brother, nor any of her classmates knew the true story about her sexual identity. They all thought she was a girl, albeit a girl who behaved pretty strangely. The other kids at school called her "gorilla," or "Cavewoman." One girl who made fun of Brenda must have been surprised when Brenda "grabbed her by the front of her shirt, smashed her against the lockers, and threw her onto the ground. Boys who teased her got similar treatment. "That's what always impressed me about Brenda," said a classmate. "She'd actually fight with the boys who teased her. She'd haul off and punch them. I always wished I could do that."

On March 14, 1980 -- when "Brenda" was 15 years old -- Ron and Janet Reimer finally told their child the truth: "She" had been a normal boy until a terrible act of medical malpractice had destroyed his penis. "Brenda" was relieved. He wasn't crazy, after all; his growing sexual interest in girls suddenly made sense; everything made sense. "Brenda" insisted on immediately reassuming a male identity, and he did so with remarkable ease, despite having neither a penis nor testicles. He chose the name David, because he felt that his life so far had been a David-and-Goliath struggle. "Brenda" is now David Reimer, happily married and the adoptive father of three children. He is proficient at automobile mechanics and enjoys watching televised sports.

Reflecting on the case, Dr. Milton Diamond commented that "if all these combined medical, surgical, and social efforts could not succeed in making that child accept a female gender identity, then maybe we really have to think that there is something important in the individual's biological makeup; that we don't come to this world neutral; that we come to this world with some degree of maleness and femaleness which will transcend whatever the society wants to put into it."

David Reimer committed suicide in May, 2004. He was 38 years old”


  1. Thank you for the nice reivew of the "Reimer" experiment.

  2. You're welcome Pat. Not a happy ending but certainly proof that scientific hubris has no place in these delicate issues.


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