The Tragedy Of Bruce, Brenda and David Reimer

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.

Unfortunate.

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.

Temporalcentrism or Temporocentrism: Either Way, It’s “Time” To Stop

Ethnocentrism:

  1. Sociology: The belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own ethnic group or culture.
  2. A tendency to view alien groups or cultures from the perspective of one’s own.

Temporalcentrism:

  1. Sociology: The belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own period of history as the most enlightened and all previous cultures are judged through its lens;
  2. A tendency to view alien and historical groups or cultures from the prejudicial perspective of one’s own time period.

Most people are familiar with the concept of ethnocentrism and understand it to be a negative and unwanted social practice.

In 2017 I find a much more troubling phenomena taking place that causes me concern -which is a close cousin to ethnocentrism. I call this growing practice “temporalcentrism,” in which we believe in the inherent superiority of our time in history, over all others, while believing all of history must be evaluated through the lens of contemporary prejudices and practices.

Well, so much for thinking I had an original thought. I have never formally heard this term so I did a quick online search only to find that:

“Temporocentrism” is the temporal equivalent of ethnocentrism…Applying the context of ethnocentrism to a chronological vantage point, then, temporocentrism is the belief, whether consciously held or unconsciously, that one’s own time is more important than the past or future. Individuals with a temporocentric perspective judge historical events on the basis of contemporary standards rather than in their own context, often resulting in fallacy.

It is akin to harshly criticizing a washboard and clothesline because they are not yet a washer and dryer or an abacus because it had not yet evolved into a computer.

Bad idea kids.

I am not suggesting that those who practice temporalcentrism (not to be confused with “tempuracentrism,” the belief that all foods should be deep fried…sorry) find contemporary society a utopia with no problems…they do. What I am suggesting is the notion that the “enlightened” norms and ethics of the day far surpass those of yesterday, is, well, temporalcentric (I like my spelling better).

Why is temporalcentrism a dangerous idea?

  • It unnecessarily belittles and shames periods of history and historical figures in an unfair and uncritical light without context.
  • It gives us an unrealistic sense of the superiority of current day values and attitudes.
  • It breeds both ignorance and arrogance resulting in fallacial thinking.

Temporalcentrism unnecessarily belittles and shames historical figures and periods of history.

Let us look at temporalcentrism through the lens of slavery and American history. Please understand what I am saying here. I believe the concept of slavery is humanity at its worst. It is evil, disgusting, sad, horrid, atrocious and shameful. Which is why this temporalcentric 2017 blogger has a very difficult time understanding how it has been a practice of humanity since prehistoric times. Yet historians inform us that, “Slavery dates back to prehistoric times and was apparently modeled on the domestication of animals. From the earliest periods of recorded history, slavery was found in the world’s most “advanced” regions. The earliest civilizations–along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia, the Nile in Egypt, the Indus Valley of India, and China’s Yangtze River Valley–had slavery. The earliest known system of laws, the Hammurabi Code, recognized slavery.”

To believe slavery commenced as a human practice in America circa 1619 is misguided as that began a new period in slavery, the western slave trade. Slavery was not a uniquely American practice as American forefathers were following a generally accepted human practice since recorded world history.

I am in no way, shape or form suggesting American forefathers were entirely blameless in regards to perpetuating slave practices; what I am suggesting is, in attempt to rid myself of temporalcentrism, to consider that the strong and ever-present global practice of slavery at the very least provides some explanation and context as to why otherwise noble men of character could own slaves.

I would rather attempt to reach understanding before the application of shaming. That said, perhaps we could tone down our idolatrous praise of our forefathers (when visiting Washington DC some years back I was sickened to learn that the mural painted in the rotunda of the nation’s capital depicts the “Deification of George Washington,” ugh) and simply understand them for who these very human men were and we cannot discount them as products of their cultural contexts in that assessment.

When certain norms and ethics are woven so deeply into the fabric of society not only are such decisions to abide by them both unconscious and automatic, they are expected as it is the norm many were birthed into. In the case of women’s suffrage, for a women to vote and usurp a man’s authority was generally as horrid and wrong in 1800 as much as they are championed and embraced in 2017. As the wise fictitious filmmaker Christof stated in one of my favorite films, “The Truman Show,” we simply accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented.

Norms, ethics, and social practices change over time and to completely and entirely judge one’s moral character in a completely different era, through different time periods, is like saying the model T was a shitty car because it lacked seat belts and air bags.

If one does not bother to closely examine the overall social, political, religious, technological, sociological, psychological contexts of any given point in history, one will never understand it. Perhaps it is just convenient and, well, lazy, to throw all of history under the bus because it does not align with our contemporary thought forms and practices.

Temporalcentrism gives us an unrealistic sense of the superiority of current day values and attitudes.

Let me put it this way: If we are now an enlightened and evolved culture, we must now be doing everything “right,” right? Wrong. How do I know this? Look back in history and we see practices that we cannot remotely fathom today…what would make us think our contemporary society is any different?

In a hundred years, what will society look back at us and wonder what in they hell were they thinking? Could it be factory farming? GMO’s? Gasoline powered cars? The consumption of mass amounts of fast food? Eating animals? Our current media practice of guilty until proven innocent? Trump? Traditional marriage? Gender? Separate bathrooms for men and women? Heteronormativity? Political correctness run amok? Our addiction to entertainment? Hell, I could not tell you what they will look back at and scratch their heads; or else I would stop or start doing whatever it may be, yet, I can tell you with relative certainty that they will look back at us and scratch their heads, or worse, shame our vile and ignorant generation over such matters that we currently barely take note.

Temporalcentrism breeds both ignorance and arrogance.

Ignorance because temporalcentrism turns a blind eye to contemporary practices that are so pervasive they are invisible to the mainstream of society, and, arrogant to think that current thought trends and practices are the end all, be all of progress…that we have somehow arrived.

Temporalcentrists can be so smug.

Enter the idea of anachronisms, which is something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time, especially a thing or person that belongs to an earlier time. Can we judge the entirety of human history through the lens of 2017? We could, yet then we would be missing out on the process of human evolution and thought, how and why people behave or believe the way they do and what one’s beliefs informs us of certain periods of time in history.

Would I have preferred misogyny and slavery, among other atrocities, never existed? Of course, but they did. And since they did, it only behooves us to study such phenomena and ask what were the confluences of social factors that resulted in these horrors? What was the justification? How could such tragic institutions exist at such a widespread and acceptable level that some contend still strongly exists? What was the recipe for its demise? How do we commit as a society to ensuring such things never happen again?

Perhaps the greatest temporalcentric queston of all time is Hitler’s Germany: How the hell did god-fearing, family loving men and women turn into mass murders? We must escape contemporary thought patterns and social constructs to even begin to answer that question and attempt to recreate the basic contextual historical understanding to ensure it never happens again.

I, for one, want to watch and learn from the evolution of change. If we continue to evaluate history through the norms and assumptions of contemporary culture, we will be blinded by these contemporary norms and we will lose our ability to be self-reflective and critical. We ought to be in the state of continually challenging and questioning our contemporary norms and practices, not judging the entirety of human history through them.

Twin Sirens hide in the sea of history, tempting those seeking to understand and appreciate the past onto the reefs of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. These twin dangers are temporocentrism and ethnocentrism. Temporocentrism is the belief that your times are the best of all possible times. All other times are thus inferior. Ethnocentrism is the belief that your culture is the best of all possible cultures. All other cultures are thus inferior. Temporocentrism and ethnocentrism unite to cause individuals and cultures to judge all other individuals and cultures by the “superior” standards of their current culture. This leads to a total lack of perspective when dealing with past and / or foreign cultures and a resultant misunderstanding and misappreciation of them. Temporocentrism and ethnocentrism tempt moderns into unjustified criticisms of the peoples of the past.”

 

I could not have said it better myself.

 

 

The 5 Things I Learned While Wearing A Dress All Day As A Man

I love to challenge my students in regards to beliefs, societal norms, and cultural expectations.  As a strong proponent of new experiences and change, I frequently find myself encouraging others to try something different in order to gain new perspectives.  I believe this to be of particular importance the older we get—as opening ourselves up to new information and experiences truly helps to keep our minds fresh and challenged.

So, this past week when I challenged a particularly effeminate male student, who basically despises everything masculine, to open himself up to new “macho” experiences in which he may feel uncomfortable, going to an NFL game for example, he cringed.  It occurred to me that perhaps that could be too much, too soon. So I reconsidered.

“Ok, Jack,” I stated, “if you wear an NFL football jersey to class on Thursday, I will wear a dress…all day.”

As a man who has no interest in wearing women’s clothing, I somewhat instantly regretted my offer as he quickly took me up on it. However, I also have no interest in being a hypocrite. If I challenge my students to take on new experiences that go against their natural inclinations, why shouldn’t I?

It turned out to be one of the better ideas I have had in my life

So, the next day, I went with my daughter Tessa dress shopping (at The Good Will…. I knew I would likely never wear it again) who helped me pick out a nice red and black paisley with matching sleeves and a delicious plunging neckline.

And what did I learn from my day dressed as a woman?  5 things. 5 things I already knew at some superficial level, though experiencing it firsthand solidified and greatly deepened my understanding. I realize these lessons are very specifically from the United States perspective of cultural norms.

  • Wearing a dress all day gave me an unusually high level of awareness concerning my, ah, “junk.” A dress provides extremely easy access to the genital area while having to work fairly hard all day ensuring you are not the victim of public upskirt porn or the Marilyn Monroe style blown up dress.  Could it be that we made dresses for women the, essentially, cultural norm in a society that hyper-sexualizes them? I do not claim to be a student of fashion history, yet dresses certainly make women more easily sexually available from a practical, “let’s make this as accessible as possible” perspective. In the little bit of research I performed for this blog, it does appear that the voracious male sexual appetite has always played a central role in determining clothing norms.  Call me crazy, yet when you have to work all day ensuring your genitals do not fall out, a much greater cognizance of their presence is the natural result. As a man with pants we just tuck that bad boy away, zip up, and move on.
  • Wearing a dress all day made me feel somewhat scared and vulnerable.  As I walked through campus and endured the laughs, the dirty looks and even taunts (one young man said, “you wearing that dress makes me want to kiss you,” in jest, to be sure, though it still crossed his mind) I was not sure if I was even safe. Now I am quite certain if I did wear a dress everyday my level of sensitivity would decrease, yet this experience offered me a very small, yet profound insight into the vulnerability some disenfranchised others—such as the handicapped, effeminate males, “bull dike” lesbians or certain out-of-place ethnicities, may feel on a daily basis. Wow. I just wore a dress one day at a college campus as a stunt…while certain people have to live this as a way of life. This experience was surprisingly insightful and has given me a new perspective of cultural outliers.
  • Wearing a dress all day caused me to reach a higher level of critical understanding concerning cultural norms and practices. Why shouldn’t men wear dresses? It is just fabric that covers the body—which is really the entire purpose of clothing. Why have we attached such strong gender specific identification to clothing? It is just…CLOTHING. Who gives a flying f? Who was the council that got together and declared what is for men and what is for women… and what was the logic behind it? It makes absolutely no sense from a strictly “do things rationally for a valid reason” perspective. I realize that some men wear dresses as official garb, such as priests and supreme court justices, yet that is designed to place dress over existing clothing as to not let the outfit you are wearing underneath play any form of distraction in official proceedings. What other bullshit cultural norms do we we buy into everyday? This experience really has me thinking at a higher level of consciousness concerning what we do and why we do it.
  • Wearing a dress all day made me realize society has a double standard: Women can dress like men and it is socially acceptable though men cannot dress like women. Ok, my daughter, Tessa (the one who likes to go dress shopping for her dad)  disagrees with me on this one and I understand her point and do not necessarily disagree with it.  Her understanding is that this double-standard really is not a double-standard at all.  Men are the powerful in society and to emulate one through dress is acceptable; to emulate the less powerful is unacceptable—and perhaps this is true, yet, it still creates the same result —there is a stigma against males dressing as females, whatever the reason. Ruth Greyraven, a card toting member of the “female who dresses as male” club and biology professor at Crafton Hills College, had this to say about gender and clothing on Facebook:

Since 1968, I’ve been participating in a social experiment where I wear “men’s” clothes. I got sent home from school and threatened with expulsion the first few times, even when the outfit was a girlie-colored and femme-cut pantsuit. Times changed for women, but not as much for menwomen don’t get arrested for cross-dressing in this country. And a butch woman is far less likely to be beat to shit by queer bashers than a cross-dressing guy.

Agreed Ruth. In my courses, most female students do not wear dresses, rather, mostly, jeans and a t-shirt…traditional guy clothing. However, to my point above, why does this double-standard even exist? Clothing should not be an issue in the first place. Wearing a dress all day reaffirmed my commitment to continually challenge myself and others to test all cultural norms. Why? Not to be different, arrogant, unwilling or defiant—rather for the purpose of assisting the evolution of culture to be more loving and accepting of others, and, secondly, for the purpose of personal growth. As mentioned above, what else are we doing in 2016 that is traditional though not logical; unacceptable but with no basis; insensitive and for no good reason? Clothing is likely just one cultural contradiction of many.

So there you have it, my day dressed as a woman, in a dress. I had absolutely no idea the profound impact this would have on my psyche.

I dare you. Step out and explore new realms.  You will have no idea of the effects it may have on you, the individual, and culture, the collective. Jack did it…so can the rest of us.

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