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David Reimer (August 22, 1965 as Bruce Reimer – May 5, 2004) was a Canadian man who was born as a healthy male, but was sexually reassigned and raised as female after his penis was accidentally destroyed during circumcision. Psychologist John Money oversaw the case and reported the reassignment as successful, and as evidence that gender identity is primarily learned. Academic sexologist Milton Diamond later reported that Reimer never identified as female, and that he began living as male at age 15. Reimer later went public with his story to discourage similar medical practices. Due to years of severe depression, financial instability, and a dissolving marriage, he committed suicide.
David Reimer was born as a male identical twin in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His birth name was Bruce; his twin brother was named Brian. At the age of 6 months, after concern was raised about how both twins urinated, both boys were diagnosed with phimosis. They were referred for circumcision at the age of 8 months. On April 27, 1966, a Urologist performed the operation using the unconventional method of cauterization. The procedure did not go as doctors had planned, and David Reimer's penis was burned beyond surgical repair.
Reimer's parents, concerned about their son's prospects for future happiness and sexual function without a penis, took him to
Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to see John Money, a psychologist who was developing a reputation as a pioneer in the field of sexual development and gender identity, based on his work with intersex patients. Money was a prominent proponent of the 'theory of Gender Neutrality'; that gender identity developed primarily as a result of social learning from early childhood and could be changed with the appropriate behavioral interventions. The Reimers had seen Money being interviewed on the Canadian news program This Hour Has Seven Days, where he discussed his theories about gender. He, and physicians working with young children born with abnormal genitalia, believed that a penis could not be replaced but that a functional vagina could be constructed surgically, and that Reimer would be more likely to achieve successful, functional sexual maturation as a girl than as a boy.
They persuaded his parents that sex reassignment would be in Reimer's best interest, and, at the age of 22 months, surgery was performed to remove his testicles. He was reassigned to be raised as a female and given the name 'Brenda'. Psychological support for the reassignment and surgery was provided by John Money, who continued to see Reimer for years, both for treatment and to assess the outcome. This reassignment was considered an especially valid test case of the social learning concept of gender identity for two reasons. First, Reimer had a twin brother, Brian Reimer, who made an ideal control since the two not only shared genes and family environments, but they had shared the intrauterine environment as well. Second, this was reputed to be the first reassignment and reconstruction performed on a male infant who had no abnormality of prenatal or early postnatal sexual differentiation.
For several years, Money reported on Reimer's progress as the "John/Joan case," describing apparently successful female gender development, and using this case to support the feasibility of sex reassignment and surgical reconstruction even in non-intersex cases. Money wrote: "The child's behavior is so clearly that of an active little girl and so different from the boyish ways of her twin brother." Estrogen was given to Reimer when he reached adolescence to induce breast development. However, Reimer had experienced the visits to Baltimore as traumatic rather than therapeutic, and when Dr. Money started pressuring the family to bring him in for surgery during which a vagina would be created, the family discontinued the follow-up visits. John Money published nothing further about the case to suggest that the reassignment had not been successful.
Reimer's later account, written two decades later with John Colapinto, described how, contrary to Money's reports, when living as Brenda, Reimer did not identify as a girl. He was ostracized and bullied by peers, and neither frilly dresses nor female hormones made him feel female. By the age of 13, Reimer was experiencing suicidal depression, and told his parents he would commit suicide if they made him see John Money again. In 1980, Reimer's parents told him the truth about his gender reassignment, following advice from Reimer's endocrinologist and psychiatrist. At 14, Reimer decided to assume a male gender identity, calling himself David. By 1997, Reimer had undergone treatment to reverse the reassignment, including testosterone injections, a double mastectomy, and two phalloplasty operations. He also married a woman and became a stepfather to her 3 children.
His case came to international attention in 1997 when he told his story to Milton Diamond, an academic sexologist who persuaded Reimer to allow him to report the outcome in order to dissuade physicians from treating other infants similarly. Soon after, Reimer went public with his story and John Colapinto published a widely disseminated and influential account in Rolling Stone magazine in December 1997. They went on to elaborate the story in a book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl.
Colapinto split the revenues from the book with Reimer, giving him financial security but not freedom from his problems. In addition to his lifelong difficult relationship with his parents, Reimer had to deal with the death of his twin brother from an overdose of antidepressants in 2002, unemployment and separation from his wife Jane. On the weekend of May 2, 2004, she told him she wished to temporarily separate; Reimer stormed out of the house and did not return. On May 5 Jane Reimer received a call from the police that they had located her husband but he did not want his location revealed. Two hours later, they called again, informing her of his suicide. Reimer had returned home while she was out and retrieved a shotgun, sawing off its barrel before leaving. On that morning of May 5, he drove to the nearby parking lot of a grocery store, parked his car and fatally shot himself in the head.
Social effect of David Reimer's story
The report and subsequent book about Reimer influenced several medical practices and reputations, and even current understanding of the biology of gender. The case accelerated the decline of sex reassignment and surgery for unambiguous XY male infants with micropenis, various other rare congenital malformations, and penile loss in infancy.
It supported the arguments of those who feel that prenatal and early-infantile hormones have a strong influence on brain differentiation, gender identity and perhaps other sex-dimorphic behavior. The applicability of this case to appropriate sex assignment in cases of intersex conditions involving severe deficiency of testosterone or insensitivity to its effects is more uncertain. For some people, the inability to predict gender identity in this case confirmed skepticism about doctors' abilities to do so in general, or about the wisdom of using genital reconstructive surgery to commit an infant with an intersex condition or genital defect to a specific gender role before the child is old enough to claim a gender identity.
The Intersex Society of North America, who opposes involuntary sex-reassignment, treats the story of David Peter Reimer as a cautionary tale about why one should not needlessly modify the genitals of unconsenting minors.
Among the repercussions was damage to John Money's reputation. Not only had his theory of gender plasticity been dealt a severe blow, but Colapinto's book described bizarrely unpleasant childhood therapy sessions, and implied that Money had ignored or concealed the developing evidence that Reimer's reassignment to female was not going well. Money's defenders have suggested that some of the allegations about the therapy sessions may have been the result of False memory syndrome. However, David's brother and mother both agreed that the therapy was not "working" in the sense that Reimer was not in any way developing a female self-image. Dr. Money never publicly stated that his conclusions were incorrect.
The reputation of Johns Hopkins Medical Center as an institution at the forefront of progressive care for people with intersex and transgender conditions was hurt as well.
In popular culture
- The "Boys Will Be Girls" episode of Chicago Hope was based on Reimer's life and the child's right to be raised as a male.
- "Identity", from season six of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was based on David and Brian Reimer's lives and their treatment by Money.
- On the album Reunion Tour by the band The Weakerthans a song entitled "Hymn of the Medical Oddity" was inspired by the story of David Reimer.
- The documentary BBC TV series Horizon based two episodes on his life, "The Boy who was Turned into a Girl" (2000)
- Episode in Mental deals with this
 and "Dr. Money and the Boy with No Penis" (2004).
- ↑ 1.01.1"David Reimer: The boy who lived as a girl", CBC News, July, 2002. Retrieved on 2006-01-20.
- ↑ 2.02.1Error on call to Template:cite book: Parameter title must be specifiedJohn Colapinto (2001). . Harper Perennial. Revised in 2006
- ↑Colapinto, John. "The True Story of John/Joan", Rolling Stone, 1997-12-11, pp. 54–97.
- ↑John Colapinto. "Gender Gap: What were the real reasons behind David Reimer's suicide?", Slate, 2004-06-03. Retrieved on 2009-02-13.
- ↑Intersex Society of North America | A world free of shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgery
- ↑Burkeman, Oliver. "Being Brenda", Guardian Unlimited, 2004-05-12. Retrieved on 2010-05-01. Retrieved December 19, 2005
- ↑ 7.07.1Treatment of Circumcision on TV. Retrieved on 2009-02-01.
- ↑Barclay, M. The Weakerthans: Time is on John K. Samson’s side. SOCAN. Retrieved on 2009-02-01.
- ↑The Boy who was Turned into a Girl. BBC. Retrieved on 2009-10-06.
- ↑Dr Money and the Boy with No Penis. BBC. Retrieved on 2009-10-06.
- ↑Dr. Money and the Boy with No Penis. Google video. Retrieved on 2008-12-04.
On 22 August 1965 Janet Reimer was granted her dearest wish: she gave birth to twins. The two boys, Brian and Bruce, were healthy babies, but they would lead tragic lives, blighted by one scientist's radical theory.
When they were seven months old, the boys, who lived in Winnipeg, Canada, were sent to the local hospital for a routine circumcision. Unfortunately the doctor in charge of the procedure was using electrical equipment, which malfunctioned several times. On the last trial, Bruce's entire penis was burnt off. Brian was not operated on. The family were distraught. In the Sixties plastic surgery was not an option: even today it is not recommended that new-borns undergo penis reconstruction operations.
It wasn't until several months later that Janet and her husband, Ron, saw a television programme that gave them some hope. Dr John Money, a highly renowned sexologist, featured in a debate about sex change operations on transsexuals. He had brought a transsexual with him who was convincingly feminine looking.
Perhaps, thought Janet Reimer, this was the solution - they could turn their baby son into a daughter. She wrote to Dr Money immediately. He responded swiftly and invited them to come and visit him in Baltimore, Maryland.
Dr Money is a highly intelligent, well respected, charismatic individual. He suggested to the Reimers that they bring their son up as a girl. Thus, when Bruce was 18 months old, he was castrated and a rudimentary vulva was created for him. The family now called him Brenda and tried to treat him like a little girl.
Dr Money was the answer to the Reimers' prayers, but they were the answer to his too. He had studied people known then as hermaphrodites, now referred to as intersex, who are physically both male and female. As it was surgically easier to turn these people into females, this was standard practice.
The gender gate
Dr Money had used case studies of hermaphrodites to show that there was a window of opportunity for surgery - a 'gender gate' - which lasted up to the age of two. During that period, he argued, if the parents chose the sex of the child, the way they brought it up would determine the child's gender, not its physical characteristics. But until this point, Dr Money had never put his controversial theory into practice with a non-intersex child. Now he had the perfect and unplanned opportunity to do so: a set of identical twins, two biological boys, one of whom could be raised a girl.
Janet Reimer wrote to Dr Money of Brenda's progress and once a year the whole family visited him in Baltimore. When Brenda was five Dr Money started to publish her case - disguising her by referring to her as Joan/John - in his books. The case became a sensation. It was the proof that feminists in particular were looking for. It was proof, they argued, that there was no biological reason that boys are better at maths and that men should earn more than women.
Nurture not nature determines whether we feel feminine or masculine. Widely cited in many text books, the case was a landmark study - hailed as proof of the overwhelming force of nurture - in spite of increasing evidence that hormones both in the womb and throughout a child's life, play a huge part in an individual's perception of themselves as masculine or feminine.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, things were not so good for the Reimer family. Brenda behaved in a distinctly masculine fashion. She liked running and fighting and climbing and loathed playing with dolls. She had no friends and was increasingly lonely as her twin Brian was embarrassed to play with her in front of his other friends. She hated going to visit Dr Money.
Convincing Brenda of her gender
He insisted that to fully understand that she was a girl, she needed to grasp the difference between men and women, and frequently spoke to her about her genitalia. He took photographs of her and her brother naked. He tried to persuade her to have a vagina constructed, which, at the time, would have been made out of section of her bowel or else from the skin of her thigh, which would then be inserted into the pelvic region.
He showed her graphic photographs of a woman giving birth when she was seven years old in an attempt to get her to agree to having a 'baby-hole' made. He also suggested strongly that she take hormone tablets in order to make her grow breasts when she was 12. Other scientists, including Dr Money's ex-students, argue that he did these things in the best possible interests for his patient - to make her believe that she was indeed a girl. Brenda however felt traumatised and became suicidal.
Finally when she was 13, the family told her and Brian the truth. Brenda was intensely relieved as she had felt she was going insane. Almost immediately she turned herself back into a boy and called herself David. David received compensation money for the circumcision and used this to pay for surgery to have a new penis constructed. In his early twenties he met Jane Fontane, who had three children of her own, and they married.
Unfortunately, his relationship with his brother worsened. Brian had felt that David, as Brenda, had received all the attention when they were growing up; once he discovered that he was no longer the only boy in the family, he became extremely angry. It was the start of mental disturbance that would develop into schizophrenia. After two failed marriages, he died, possibly of a drug overdose, which may have been a suicide attempt.
David had never managed to complete his education and had to take semi-skilled work. He was made redundant and was unemployed for a year. He sold the movie rights to his story, but lost the money when a business man absconded with his investment. Stricken with grief for his brother, his marriage started to fail. Jane asked him for a short separation period, but David took this very badly. He returned to his parents' house for a few days, before driving to a supermarket car park on 4 May 2004 and shooting himself in the head. He was 38 years old.
Dr Money argues that he cannot be held to blame because David did not accept a female gender identity. He says that the family delayed making a decision until their son was almost two, just before the gender gate was about to shut. Others, however, argue that he could have admitted he made a mistake when the case clearly was not working, for he continued to let people believe that it had been successful long after he had stopped seeing Brenda and she had become David. It is, perhaps above all, a cautionary tale of what may happen when a scientist falls in love with a beautiful theory and ignores the ugly facts.
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