In 1966, eight-month old David Reimer was circumcised at a Winnipeg hospital. During the procedure, a general practitioner filling in for the regular surgeon seared the boy’s penis with an electric cauterizing machine. His penis was so badly burned that it eventually fell off.1 Reconstructive genital surgery at the time was rudimentary so the parents of David were left with little optimism.
A couple of years later, David’s parents sought advice from Dr. John Money, a sex researcher at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. Dr. Money had been credited with coining the term “gender identity” and had persuaded John Hopkins to become the first hospital in the United States to perform sex reassignment surgeries in 1965. Dr. Money strongly believed that parental influences and society formed sexual identity and that the sense of being male or female would be created “in the course of the various stages of growing up.”2
Dr. Money would see David as an experiment to prove his theories. When David was two-years-old, Dr. Money convinced David’s parents to allow him to undergo sex reassignment surgery and to be raised as a girl instead of a boy. His parents would agree and in 1967, David underwent surgery and was prescribed female hormones. He was fully castrated and the remaining skin was used to forge a “cosmetic vaginal cleft.” He would be brought up as a girl. His name would be changed from David to Brenda and his progress would be compared with that of his identical twin brother, Brian.
A number of scientists would cite the success of the case as proof of Dr. Money’s theory and would hail it as a great leap forward. In fact, in 1973, Time magazine ran an article which said the “dramatic case provides strong support for a major contention of women’s liberationists: that conventional patterns of masculine and feminine behaviour can be altered.” However, while publications were hailing Dr. Money’s experiment, it wasn’t working with David. As David grew up, his differences with his twin brother diminished. “I tried really hard to rear her as a gentle lady but it didn’t work,” said David’s mother.3
Despite the fact that David would be dressed in girl’s clothing, wore his hair long, and would be sent to counselling and therapy, he insisted that he was a boy. While growing up, his parents had given him dolls to play with but he much preferred playing with his brother’s trucks. In school, he was mocked by girls for going to the bathroom while standing up but he was excluded from the boy’s bathroom as well. “He had to go in the back alley,” his mother recollected. At just nine-years-old, David suffered a mental breakdown.4
Then when David turned 15-years-old, his parents told him about the botched surgery. From that point onward, he rejected further treatment, including an operation that was planned to create a vagina. David underwent surgery to remove his breasts and to construct a penis. He changed his name back to David and eventually went on to get married. He was never able to father children himself but became an outstanding stepfather and went on to adopt his wife’s three children.
Years later, David would state that once a year as part of his treatment, he and his brother would be sent to Dr. Money’s clinic where they would be forced to take part in “sexual rehearsal play.” David had suffered from mental health problems and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. A supporter of Dr. Money would claim that the allegations he had made were false and ever suggested he was a victim of “false memory syndrome” which stemmed from his schizophrenia.
However, in the past, Dr. Money had made statements which appeared to endorse incest and paedophilia. When David and Brian went to his clinic, they would be shown sexually explicit photographs which were apparently central on his theories on gender reassignment. David recollected how on one occasion, Dr. Money ordered him to take off his clothing and on another occasion, he had forced him to assume a position on all fours on his office sofa and then ordered Brian to come up behind him and place his crotch “against her buttocks.”
His case created an upheaval in theories on sexual identity and would force medical experts to rethink once accepted wisdom when it came to treating sexual identity cases. “It’s challenged a lot of the notions that I just accepted growing up in the 1970s,” said John Colapinto, a journalist for Rolling Stone, who wrote the book: “As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl.” The case would also teach a disturbing lesson on how harmful scientific arrogance can be. As Colapinto said: “John Money was going to play God.”
Tragically, on the 4th of May, 2004, David ended his own life by shooting himself in the head while sitting in his car in Winnipeg, Manitoba; he was just 38-years-old. He had attempted suicide at least three times in the past. When he had spoken about his childhood in the past, he had said: “I’d give just about anything to go to a hypnotize to black out my whole past, because it’s torture. What they do to you in the body is sometimes not near as bad as what they did to you in the mind.”
As news of his suicide swept throughout the community, his mother said: “He managed to have so much courage. I think he felt he had no options. It just kept building up and building up.”5 David’s suicide had come just two years after his brother Brian ended his own life by overdosing on anti-depressants. David had felt responsible for his brother’s suicide and would visit his grave daily.6
Dr. Money refused to ever speak publicly about the case. He passed away in 2006.
- Sun Sentinel, 13 May, 2004 – “David Reimer, Male Raised as a Girl”
- The Washington Times, 10 March, 2000 – “Man Raised as a Girl Challenges Theories on Sexual Identities”
- The Seattle Times, 13 May, 2004 – “Canadian Who Was Born a Boy, Raised as Girl, Commits Suicide”
- The Daily Telegraph, 13 May, 2004 – “David Reimer”
- The Standard, 10 May, 2004 – “Winnipeg Man Who was the Victim of Nature Vs. Nurture Experiment Commits Suicide”
- The Guardian, 12 May, 2004 – “Being Brenda”