Gender and Reality: The Strange Case of David Reimer
This is the story of David Reimer, a Canadian man who was the subject of a strange and ultimately tragic medical experiment conducted by Dr. John Money.
David was born under the name Bruce in 1965 along with his identical twin brother, Brian. At the age of 6 months, a botched circumcision resulted in Bruce’s penis being amputated. The parents, concerned about their son’s ability to lead a normal and happy life, took Bruce to Dr. John Money of Johns Hopkins University, a renowned psychologist in the field of sexual development and gender identity.
Money was a leading proponent of the theory of gender neutrality, now canonized in academic dogma, but still in its infancy in 1967.
The theory holds that gender identity is created as a result of social learning in early childhood rather than by genetics or biology. A somewhat extreme stance on the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate, it claims that biology plays a trivial role, if any at all, in the development of gender identity. He is also credited with coining the terms ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender role.’
To Money, the situation must have represented a rare and golden opportunity. Bruce and his brother Brian, as twins, shared the same genome and the same home environment, allowing Money to isolate the variable of whether a child was raised as a boy or girl in his experiment. Money persuaded Bruce’s parents that surgically reassigning his sex and raising him as a girl was in the child’s best interest.
Parental consent created a loophole that allowed Money to conduct an experiment on a human infant that would otherwise have been illegal. At 22 months, the remainder of the infant’s genitals was surgically removed at Dr. Money’s orders. Bruce was renamed Brenda, and his biological gender was not revealed to him until the age of 14.
Among the more bizarre therapies Bruce/Brenda was forced to endure was engaging in simulated sex acts with Brian, her twin, in which she was required to assume the submissive or traditionally female position while Money observed. Money had posited that pseudo-sexual play in children was a part of gender identity development. Money also believed that pedophilia was not a behavioral disorder, and that consensual erotic relationships between children and adults were not pathological.
The experiment – known as the ‘John/Joan’ case – was lauded as a great success among scientists, doctors, and gender feminists throughout the 1970s, and proof of the theory of gender neutrality. Gender reassignment for infants became standard medical practice, and thousands were later subjected to similar procedures.
However, as the twins grew into adolescence, problems began to emerge. Brenda bitterly resented being forced to wear dresses and told to play with dolls rather than engaging in games of army, cops and robbers, and fort building with her twin brother and his friends. She insisted on standing up to urinate through the hole surgeons had created on the front of her abdomen, and showed little interest in socializing with girls.
Bullied and ostracized by her peers, both male and female, she became deeply depressed. She found the visits to Dr. Money in Baltimore traumatic rather than therapeutic. When Money began pressuring the family to have a vagina surgically constructed for Brenda, she threatened to commit suicide, and the parents discontinued therapy.
In 1980, Brenda’s father revealed her biological gender to her. Brenda reportedly had only one question in response: “What was my name?” Shortly after, Brenda assumed a male identity and took the name David. By 1987, at the age of 22, David had reversed the gender reassignment through phalloplasty operations, hormone therapy, and a double mastectomy. In 1990 he married a woman, Jane Fontaine, and adopted her three children.
The case became of public interest in the 1990s, and numerous articles, documentaries, and interviews with David began to create questions about Money’s initial conclusions. In 1997, John Colapinto published the book As Nature Made Him: The Boy who was Raised as a Girl, an extensive re-evaluation of the case. David told Colapinto that, despite surgery and hormone therapy, he had never felt like a girl, and did not identify as a girl when he was a child. Money blamed right-wing media bias for the reporting of the failure of the experiment. Groups advocating for the rights of intersex people (people with rare medical conditions that leave them without a clear biological gender) have also sharply criticized Money’s approach.
David’s twin brother, Brian, had developed schizophrenia, and died from an intentional overdose of antidepressants in 2002. Shortly afterwards, David lost his job and his wife requested a separation. On May 2, 2004, David Reimer drove into a grocery store parking lot and shot himself in the head with a sawed-off shotgun. He died instantly.
On July 7, 2006, Dr. John Money passed away from complications of Parkinson’s disease, publicly unapologetic about the experiment. According to colleges he refused to discuss it even in private. The Reimer parents have stated that Money’s methodology was responsible for the death of both of their children. Dr. Money remains highly esteemed in academic circles.
Featured image: fatosdesconhecidos.com.br
* Greg Eckard is a freelance writer and accountant. He lives in Boulder, Colorado with his cat, Steve.
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