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Death by theory?

By Wendy McElroy
web posted May 31, 2004

The little boy that Bruce Reimer was never had a chance. As an adult, he chose suicide on May 4 rather than live in unbearable torment. Underlying his death is a theory that still impacts children across North America: that sexual identity comes from nurture not nature and, so, can be entirely determined by proper social conditioning.

In 1966, Reimer’s mother took her 8-month-old identical twins to a local doctor in Winnipeg, Canada, for circumcision. The procedure went badly for Bruce, leaving him without a sex organ.

Although the Reimers were working-class parents, they took their mutilated son to a string of doctors until finally arriving at the door of medical psychologist Dr. John Money of Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore.

Money was out to prove a theory that would subsequently bring him fame and fortune. He maintained that Bruce was young enough to be successfully raised as a girl because gender was not determined by DNA but by environment. For Money, Bruce was a perfect candidate for the experiment because his identical twin brother would act as a control for the experiment.

At that time, surgery to reassign gender had never been performed on a boy born with normal genitalia. Bruce’s testicles were removed, and he underwent 12 years of social and hormonal treatment to become "Brenda."


"Joan" at age 13

The transformation became internationally renowned as "the John/Joan case." Dr. Money’s research was offered as proof positive that sexual identity was learned behavior. He declared, "The child's behaviour is so clearly that of an active little girl and so different from the boyish ways of her twin brother."

Every textbook on gender included Money’s experiment and grants poured into his pocket. Doctors began to surgically "reassign" the gender of babies born with ambiguous genitals. Feminists declared human beings to be "psychosexually neutral" at birth and campaigned to change everything from children’s stories to the curricula of schools in order to change the gender identity being taught to children. Money’s research supported their contention that patriarchal conditioning, not nature, was entirely responsible for women’s roles in society.

Behind the scenes, Reimer's mother told Money that Brenda ripped off dresses, rejected dolls, insisted on standing up to urinate, and asked to shave like her father. Nevertheless, Money’s 1972 book Man and Woman, Boy and Girl declared the experiment to be a success.

Indeed, Money urged the Reimers to complete the gender experiment on the pubescent Brenda by having a vagina surgically constructed. When she threatened to commit suicide rather than undergo more treatment by Money, the Reimers revealed the truth. Brenda adopted the name David and began to live as a man.

Of his childhood, David later stated: "It was like brainwashing … I’d give just about anything to go to a hypnotist to black out my whole past. Because it’s torture. What they did to you in the body is sometimes not near as bad as what they did to you in the mind with the psychological warfare in your head."

For years, David remained silent while Money’s version of the research was applauded by feminists and continued to influence public policy on gender. Then, in 1997, biologist Milton Diamond and psychiatrist Keith Sigmundson published a report in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, which exposed the John/Joan case as a failure and fraud. To the extent that the case proved anything, it proved the opposite of what Money claimed. John/Joan suggested that maleness developed in the womb; gender could not be reassigned through medical and social conditioning.

Money’s response? The report was "part of the anti-feminist movement."

In 2000, Rolling Stone journalist John Colapinto published "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl." The book created a sensation by popularizing the findings of the Diamond-Sigmundson report.

Shortly thereafter, the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center released two scientific studies that indicated "prenatal exposure to normal male hormones alone dictates male gender identity in normal XY male babies, even if they are born without a penis." If true, this utterly discredits the medical practice of reassigning the gender of babies.

The studies came too late for David Reimer. Although he endured four reconstructive surgeries to reverse Money’s experiment and to rebuild his penis, David was unable to overcome a tortured past. After several setbacks in his personal life, David committed suicide at the age of 38. It was the last of several attempts to die that dated back to his teenage years.

Although Money’s research has been widely discredited, the belief that sexual identity is socially constructed still deeply impacts our culture. A good first step toward reversing the damage this belief can inflict is to reclaim a word usage that has been virtually abandoned. We should use the word "sex" and reject the word "gender" when discussing sexual identity.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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