Long before Caitlin Jenner emerged as the recognizable face of the contemporary transgender community, there existed a man who was thrust into a type of unwanted and tragic biological sex change experience. This man, David Reimer (originally born with the name Bruce), serves to remind us that gender identity is far more than the presence/absence of male/female genitalia or social conditioning. More than that, he was a biological man who suffered indescribable suffering through no fault of his own.
I was first introduced to the plight of Reimer when I was a college student the early 1980’s, though in far greater depth as a young professor later the same decade, while teaching a Gender Communication class. Reimer, born August 22, 1965, was born a healthy and vibrant male baby boy with no signs of any peculiarities. At the age of 8 months both he and his twin brother, Brian, were diagnosed with a condition, phimosis, that causes the foreskin of the penis to block urine flow. The condition is not considered serious as many toddlers and infants apparently outgrow the condition without any invasive measures. The most common treatment today (as far as this non-medical blogger knows) is a variety of topical creams and ointments.
However, the general practitioner at the time, recommended that a “simple” circumcision could solve the issue. The parents agreed. In short, the circumcision went terribly awry and the electric cautery machine used (it was never determined if it was due to the machine or human error) caused the penis to be completely mutilated and rendered destroyed. His twin brother, who was set to be circumcised shortly thereafter this incident, though for obvious reasons was not, was never treated though the condition went away on its own.
The horrified parents had some very difficult decisions to make.
I would imagine that in our world of contemporary medical innovation, reconstructing/reinventing the damaged male organ is likely rather commonplace, at least in comparison to a time in 1965 when gender reassignment was essentially non-existent. Since this restructuring was not an option, what were the parents to do?
Enter Dr. John Money, an American doctor whose advice they sought and one who believed in the “Theory of Gender Neutrality,” essentially proposing that gender is a socially learned construct. Money recommended that their son be castrated, given hormone treatments and raised as a girl. The physician, Money, who was credited with developing the term “gender identity,” supervised the case for several years and eventually wrote a paper declaring the success of the gender conversion. Rumor has it that Money may have practiced some very controversial “sex therapies” with both Bruce and his twin brother when they were children, which was yet another dysfunctional cog in the tragic wheel of his life.
However, this conversion from male-to-female was anything but a success. In fact, it was an absolute tragic tale of mutilation tribulation. The prevailing attitudes of the time held by progressive gender leaning groups, was that sexuality is, essentially, a learned social construct and that one’s gender identity can be successfully manipulated with the right medical treatments (hormones/surgery) and a great deal of social conditioning. I would imagine that the basic thought process behind this belief was that the right mixture of estrogen, coupled with the engagement of traditional female toys and clothing, can successfully transform a male into female. After all, it was believed by some at the time, that gender was essentially learned with a hormone or two thrown in for good measure.
If Reimer’s (born as baby named Bruce, then Brenda, then at 15 changed his name to David) situation was at all indicative of the process of gender reassignment, we learned that hormones, dolls and dresses does not a female make. Reimer himself never bought it.
The LA Times reported: “About six weeks before his second birthday, Bruce became Brenda on an operating table at Johns Hopkins. After bringing the toddler home, the Reimers began dressing her like a girl and giving her dolls.
She was, on the surface, an appealing little girl, with round cheeks, curly locks and large, brown eyes. But Brenda rebelled at her imposed identity from the start. She tried to rip off the first dress that her mother sewed for her. When she saw her father shaving, she wanted a razor, too. She favored toy guns and trucks over sewing machines and Barbies..In an article published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine in 1997, Diamond and the psychiatrist, Dr. H. Keith Sigmundson, showed how Brenda had steadily rejected her reassignment from male to female. In early adolescence, she refused to continue receiving the estrogen treatments that had helped her grow breasts. She stopped seeing Money. Finally, at 14, she refused to continue living as a girl.”
Perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of the Reimer case was how he was abused and exploited in the attempt to further political agendas. Reimer was championed as a “success” in Time magazine, which, in reporting on his situation, wrote that Money’s research provided “strong support for a major contention of women’s liberationists (yes, it was the 1970’s): that conventional patterns of masculine and feminine behavior can be altered.”
The Reimer case apparently “proved” that sexual identity was far more malleable than anyone had thought possible. Money’s claims provided powerful support for those seeking medical or social remedies for gender-based issues.
These claims in and of themselves may or may not be true. However, we can never realize the potential validity of such observations using Reimer as the example.
As the article above stated, at the age of fourteen he was refusing estrogen treatments and procedures to grow breasts. It was this constant pain and agony he experienced, as the doctors attempted to make him a girl, was what lead his parents in the decision to finally let him know the truth: “She” was born a male.
Upon finding out this information, he was angry, though greatly relieved to finally know the source of his confused and struggling gender identity.
I wish I could say the story was a “happily ever after” one after this point; it was not.
Reimer was, essentially, miserable the rest of his days and, eventually, on May 4, 2004, after trying to rebuild gender security with a marriage, three children, and a poorly reconstructed penis, committed suicide.
According to the same LA Times article, prior to his death, Reimer observed, “You can never escape the past,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2000. “I had parts of my body cut away and thrown in a wastepaper basket. I’ve had my mind ripped away.”
And why do I write of Reimer today?
Reimer was used as a political football for his entire life. It was never about the individual person, David Reimer, as to why his story was significant, rather the explosive and controversial politics his life represented. Many have used Reimer’s story to justify nature over nurture, to extol the great importance of gender identity, or just contort the story in any such a way as to make it justify a narrative of our political choosing. Perhaps this is indicative of our current cultural state of political correctness -it is rarely about the well-being of the person, rather the well-being of our agenda.
Again, unfortunate. Reimer may have been an outlier and an anomaly, though he was a person first and foremost.
Reimer was not a political football. He was a human being who suffered a miserable fate at the hands of an incompetent other, be it an incompetent surgical person or a person who created a mutilating machine. He was not evidence or support of an agenda or cause, he was a soul.
If the life of Reimer has taught us anything, it is to honor each person and their individual uniqueness. It is to celebrate the gift of personal identity and the sacredness it carries. Like the foundation and under girding of structures, our identify is the rock in which the rest of our lives are built. A confused gender identity equals little stability equals a lack of purpose.
Reimer has taught me to honor identity, specifically, gender identity. Whether the genitalia matches the emotions or not, to blatantly possess the hubris to believe we can be the Dr. Frankenstein of gender is a serious and audacious mistake. I cannot imagine the pain and confusion in situations where the “plumbing” does not match the gender makeup, probably all the same pain as Reimer though without a clear cut understanding of why the mismatch took place. (In order to better understand this mismatch, I refer you to my transgendered friend Georgia, who does an excellent job theorizing why such mismatches may occur).
One’s gender identity can be observed as sacred. Imagine a life in which your emotional world does not match your physical one, be it through a botched circumcision, an act of nature or some other unknown reason? That is a life of pain.
Thank you for your life David Reimer. You have shown us the importance of honoring one’s identity and serve as a reminder that the only person who is an expert on one’s personal gender identity is oneself.
Thank god, that -I think- we are slowly beginning to realize such a lesson.