Who was David Reimer (also, sadly, known as John/Joan)?
David Reimer was born an identical (non-intersex) twin boy in 1965. At the age of 8 months, David and his brother each had a minor medical problem involving his penis, and a doctor decided to treat the problem with circumcision. The doctor botched the circumcision on David, using an inappropriate method and accidentally burning off virtually all of David’s penis. At the advice of psychologist John Money at Johns Hopkins University, David’s parents agreed to have him “sex reassigned” and made into a girl via surgical, hormonal, and psychological treatments—i.e., via the system Money advocated for intersex children.
For many years, John Money claimed that David (known in the interim as “Brenda”) turned out to be a “real” girl with a female gender identity. Money used this case to bolster his approach to intersex —the approach that is still used throughout much of the U.S. and developed world—one that relies on the assumption that gender identity is all about nurture (upbringing), not nature (inborn traits), and that gender assignment is the key to treating all children with atypical sex anatomies.
As it turns out, Money was lying. He knew Brenda was never happy as a girl, and he knew that as soon as David found out what happened to him, David reassumed the social identity of a boy.
The case of David Reimer has been used by the proponents of the “gender is inborn” (nature) theory as proof that they are right. We like to point out that what the story of David Reimer teaches us most clearly is how much people are harmed by being lied to and treated in inhumane ways. We don’t think we can ever predict, with absolute certainty, what gender identity a person will grow up to have. What we can predict with a good degree of certainty is that children who are treated with shame, secrecy, and lies will suffer at the hands of medical providers who may think they have the best of intentions and the best of theories.
To read more about David Reimer, see:
- David Reimer: The Boy who Lived as a Girl at Canada’s __CBC News__.
- John Colapinto’s excellent biography, As Nature Made Him, available at our bookshelf.
- John Colapinto’s original article about David Reimer in Rolling Stone.
- The Death of David Reimer: A tale of sex, science, and abuse by Jesse Walker, at __Reason__.
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