Bruce Peter Reimer
22 August 1965
|Died||4 May 2004 (aged 38)|
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
|Cause of death||Suicide by gunshot|
|Resting place||St. Vital Cemetery, Winnipeg|
Jane Fontane (m. 1990)
|Relatives||Brian Henry Reimer (identical twin)|
David Reimer (born Bruce Peter Reimer; 22 August 1965 – 4 May 2004) was a Canadian man born male but reassigned female and raised as a girl following medical advice and intervention after his penis was severely injured during a botched circumcision in infancy.
The psychologist John Money oversaw the case and reported the reassignment as successful and as evidence that gender identity is primarily learned. The academic sexologist Milton Diamond later reported that Reimer's realization that he was not a girl crystallized between the ages of 9 and 11 years and he transitioned to living as a male at age 15. Well known in medical circles for years anonymously as the "John/Joan" case, Reimer later went public with his story to help discourage similar medical practices. He committed suicide after suffering years of severe depression, financial instability, and a troubled marriage.
David Reimer was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on August 22, 1965, the elder of identical twin boys. He was originally named Bruce, and his identical twin was named Brian. Their parents were Janet and Ron Reimer, a couple of Mennonite descent who had married the previous December. At the age of six months, after concern was raised about how both of them urinated, the boys were diagnosed with phimosis. They were referred for circumcision at the age of seven months. General practitioner Dr. Jean-Marie Huot performed the operation using the unconventional method of electrocauterization, but the procedure did not go as doctors had planned, and David's penis was burned beyond surgical repair. The doctors chose not to operate on Brian, whose phimosis soon cleared without surgical intervention.
The parents, concerned about their son's prospects for future happiness and sexual function without a penis, took him to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in early 1967 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 that it could be changed with the appropriate behavioural interventions. The Reimers had seen Money being interviewed in February 1967 on the Canadian news program This Hour Has Seven Days, during which he discussed his theories about gender.
Money and physicians working with young children born with intersex conditions believed that a penis could not be replaced but that a functional vagina could be constructed surgically. Money also claimed that Reimer would be more likely to achieve successful, functional sexual maturation as a girl than as a boy.[page needed][failed verification] For Money, a case where identical twin boys were involved where one could be raised as a girl provided a perfect test of his theories.
Money and the Hopkins team persuaded the baby's parents that sex reassignment surgery would be in Reimer's best interest. At the age of 22 months, David underwent a bilateral orchidectomy, in which his testes were surgically removed and a rudimentary vulva was fashioned. David was reassigned to be raised as female and given the name Brenda (similar to his birth name, "Bruce"). Psychological support for the reassignment and surgery was provided by John Money, who continued to see Reimer annually for consultations and to assess the outcome. This reassignment was considered an especially important test case of the social learning concept of gender identity for two reasons: first, Reimer's identical twin brother, Brian, made an ideal control because the brothers shared genes, family environments, and the intrauterine environment; second, this was reputed to be the second reassignment and reconstruction performed on a male infant who had no abnormality of prenatal or early postnatal sexual differentiation.
Later childhood and adolescence
Reimer said that Money forced the twins to rehearse sexual acts involving "thrusting movements", with David playing the bottom role. Reimer said that, as a child, he had to get "down on all fours" with his brother, Brian Reimer, "up behind his butt" with "his crotch against" his "buttocks". Reimer said that Money forced David, in another sexual position, to have his "legs spread" with Brian on top. Reimer said that Money also forced the children to take their "clothes off" and engage in "genital inspections". On "at least one occasion", Reimer said that Money took a photograph of the two children doing these activities. Money's rationale for these various treatments was his belief that "childhood 'sexual rehearsal play'" was important for a "healthy adult gender identity".[page needed] Estrogen was given to David during adolescence, inducing breast development.
For several years, Money reported on Reimer's progress as the "John/Joan case". 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." Notes by a former student at Money's lab state that, during the follow-up visits, which occurred only once a year, Reimer's parents routinely lied to lab staff about the success of the procedure. The twin brother, Brian, later developed schizophrenia.
By the age of 13 years, Reimer was experiencing suicidal depression and he told his parents he would take his own life if they made him see Money again. Finally, on March 14, 1980, Reimer's parents told him the truth about his gender reassignment, following advice from Reimer's endocrinologist and psychiatrist. At 14, having been informed of his past by his father, Reimer decided to assume a male gender identity, calling himself David. He underwent treatment to reverse the reassignment, including testosterone injections, a double mastectomy, and phalloplasty operations.
Reimer worked in a slaughterhouse and then worked doing odd-jobs. On September 22, 1990, he married Jane Fontane and would adopt her three children. His hobbies included camping, fishing, antiques and collecting old coins.
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. The article won the National Magazine Award for Reporting.
This was later expanded into The New York Times best-selling biography As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl (2000), in which 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 (who dubbed him "cavewoman"), and neither frilly dresses, nor female hormones made him feel female.
In addition to his difficult lifelong relationship with his parents, Reimer had to deal with unemployment and the death of his brother Brian from an overdose of antidepressants on July 1, 2002. On May 2, 2004, his wife Jane told him she wanted to separate. On the morning of May 4, 2004, Reimer drove to a grocery store's parking lot in his hometown of Winnipeg and took his own life by shooting himself in the head with a sawed-off shotgun. He was 38 years old. He was buried in St. Vital Cemetery in Winnipeg.
For the first thirty years after Money's initial report that the reassignment had been a success, Money's view of the malleability of gender became the dominant viewpoint among physicians and doctors, reassuring them that sexual reassignment was the correct decision in certain instances, resulting in thousands of sexual reassignments.
The report and subsequent book about Reimer influenced several medical practices, reputations, and even current understanding of the biology of gender. The case accelerated the decline of sex reassignment and surgery for unambiguous XY infants with micropenis, various other rare congenital malformations, or penile loss in infancy.
Colapinto's book described unpleasant childhood therapy sessions, implying 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 and that the family was not honest with researchers.
He was also mentioned in the 2017 documentary Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric.
An episode of BBC Radio 4 Mind Changers, Case Study: John/Joan - The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, discusses the impact on two competing psychological theories of nature vs. nurture.
In popular culture
The Chicago Hope episode "Boys Will Be Girls" (2000) was based on Reimer's life. The episode explored the theme of a child's right not to undergo sexual reassignment surgery without consent. The Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Identity" (2005) was based on David and Brian Reimer's lives and their treatment by Money.
"Hymn of the Medical Oddity", a song by the Winnipeg-based indie rock band The Weakerthans, is about Reimer. The Ensemble Studio Theatre produced the play Boy (2016) inspired by Reimer's story.
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