40 years of faulty wiring

Born a Boy Raised a Girl – The John/Joan/David Reimer Case and Sex Reassignment Surgery

David Reimer , well known in medical and psychiatric circles specializing in gender re-assignment, served as a ground-breaking study in regard to sexual orientation and sexual identity.
Reimer was born a boy with an identical (monozygotic) male twin.  (Yes it is possible for a boy and a girl to be nearly “identical” and to have begun as monozygotic twins in the womb … if you’re interested read my blog Seeing (almost) Double).

In 1966, a botched electrical circumcision left David Reimer (then named Bruce) without a penis. A malfunction in the doctor’s equipment (electro-cautery needle) caused the needle to burn Reimer’s penis from tip to base. The Reimers were left with a dilemma: a son with no penis. They visited several medical experts who assured them that penile reconstruction would prove worthless. The Reimers were at a loss as to how to help David. One afternoon when the Reimers saw Dr. John Money, a so-called expert in sex reassignment, on television they contacted him and brought their son to see him. It would prove to be a tragic decision.
Money persuaded the Reimers to reassign their son as a female by having his testes removed and naming him Brenda. Dr. Money assured the initially reluctant parents that after the operation was complete raising him as a girl would be successful and no one would be any the wiser. Watch video The story of David Reimer – (Born a boy brought up as a girl)

Money met with “Brenda” once a year throughout the following years to report on her progress. In spite of growing evidence that Brenda was not adjusting well to her gender reassignment, Money published papers to the contrary. In psychiatric circles to protect Reimer’s identity Money referred to “Brenda” as John/Joan . Money’s experiment became well-known in psychiatric communities worldwide and partly as a result of Money’s publications, a number of infants  born with ambiguous genitalia underwent gender reassignment. However many psychologists were unconvinced about the John/Joan experiment. One of these was academic sexologist Milton Diamond, who, in a bold move against Money reported to the psychiatric community that Reimer never identified as female, and that he began living as a male from the age of 15.

Sexual reassignment in the Reimer case is not a gender identity disorder. He was born male unlike than intersex (hermaphrodite) individuals. Intersex is a term that usually defines discordance of the biological aspects of sexual gender.  Traits related to the genitalia, such as internal organs, gonadal tissue, or chromosomes that are more typical of the other sex, or incompletely differentiated define the intersex individual.  Sub-types of hermaphroditism include:

  1. Pseudohermaphroditism Typically a female  has a clitoris that is greatly enlarged to the point that they are categorized as intersexed. These people are identified immediately at birth as intersex because those with the condition have a sexual organ larger than a clitoris and smaller than a penis.
  2. Simultaneous hermaphrodite (intersex)  A simultaneous  hermaphrodite (homogamy) is a person that has both male and female sexual organs.  This definition tends to be misleading since there have been very few human beings with fully developed male and female internal and external genitalia and female breasts. Normally one genitalia is more prominent than the other.

Some people who are intersex individuals, such as those with Klinefelter’s syndrome and androgen insensitivity syndrome, appear completely female or male without realizing they are intersexed. An intersex person may express diversion from typical XX-female or XY-male chromosomes, for example a sex reversal of XY-female and XX-male.
Sometimes an intersex person who is born with partially formed dual genitalia prefers one gender over the other. Sometimes they don’t. Their commonality with David Reimer is that the assignment of their gender should be their own choice rather than that of the medical community. Watch video I’m 80% girl, 20% boy In effect their message to family, medical doctors and the community is: no cutting. Watch video Hermaphrodite – The Documentary

 One of the most difficult experiences Reimer faced due to his increasingly unusual looks and behaviours was rejection from his peers. He became a pariah during his elementary school years. From as early as kindergarten, he was a target for bullying by both male and female. “As [I’d ]walk by, they’d start giggling. Not one, but almost the whole class. It’d be like that every day. The whole school would make fun of [me] about one thing or another.” In his early teens Reimer attended a technical high school. Right away his peers dubbed him Cave-woman and told him, “You’re a boy.” But it was his habit of urinating standing up that caused the greatest problem between Reimer and his schoolmates. The girls prevented him from using their bathroom. When he tried to use the boys’ room he was threatened with a knife. By December, he dropped out of school.

When I say there was nothing feminine about David” Brian told John Colapinto, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, “I mean there was nothing feminine. She walked like a guy. She talked about guy things, didn’t give a crap about cleaning house, getting married, wearing makeup…. We both wanted to play with guys, build forts and have snowball fights and play army.”
Along with struggling against emotional uncertainty about his life and his innate attraction to females, Reimer made no friends and was forcibly a loner. During puberty Reimer’s erroneous belief that he was a lesbian added to his emotional angst. The David Reimer case also serves to reinforce the scientific hypothesis that sexual orientation is not one of choice. Sexual orientation is innate, not solely a result of environmental influences although the latter may have some bearing. Watch video Science & Homosexuality: Nature vs Nurture No single cause for sexual orientation is conclusively proven. Researchers suggest that a combination of genetic, hormonal, and environmental influences, along with biological factors, genetics and the early uterine environment bear significant influence on sexual orientation. I tend to favour the physio-neurological theory myself. I didn’t choose to be straight. I just am. Watch video Gay Twins and the Science of Epigenetics

Reimer finally reached a point where he told his parents if he had to visit his psychologist Dr. Money anymore he would kill himself. It was then that his parents chose to tell him the truth about his gender. Surprisingly, Reimer took the news well. It answered a lot of difficult questions and he began to live his life as a male. He did not use his birth name of Bruce. He chose David. Throughout his teens Reimer seemed well-adjusted and was much happier than he’d been as Brenda. Watch video David Reimer Pt 4

  Eventually Reimer met a woman named Jane Fontaine, a single mother. They married and Reimer became both a husband and father. It was during this well-adjusted time in his life that Reimer discovered Dr. Money was still claiming that Reimer’s sex reassignment was highly successful. Money  encouraged the medical and psychiatric communities to conduct the same procedures on children with genital deformities or ambiguous genitalia. Most likely it was due to two factors that Reimer chose to go public with his personal experience in an effort to contradict Money’s publications: he was secure within his marriage to a supportive spouse and he was determined to expose Money as a fraud. Reimer took part in public television and magazine interviews such as The Rolling Stone .Read David Reimer’s interview with John Colapinto.

When released to the public Reimer’s story loosed an unexpected reaction. Intersex people born and reassigned after the publication of Money’s false protocols came forward with their stories. Among them was a San Francisco activist named Cheryl Chase/Brian Sullivan. When she was born Chase displayed ambiguous genitalia with a phallic structure of a size that, if she was female, could be an enlarged clitoris or if she was male, a micropenis. Her doctors assigned Chase as a boy and her parents named her Charlie. But 18 months later, her parents consulted another team of experts. Based partly on the fact that Chase had a fairly normal vagina, this team of doctors reassigned her as a girl. They amputated her phallus and her parents named her Cheryl. After the operation Cheryl refused to speak for 6 months. In 1995 Chase changed her name again to Bonnie Sullivan. In her mid-30’s Cheryl experienced a mental breakdown due to the reassignment of her gender. She made Hermaphrodites Speak! (1995), a 30 minute documentary film in which intersex people discuss the psychological impact of their conditions. Chase advocates a complex perspective of intersexuality, namely that gender difficulties cannot be eliminated by early genital surgery.
Years after Reimer’s public appearances, John Colapinto conducted a telephone interview with John Money, who refused to meet in person. His response to Calopinto`s observation that scientists and psychologists have disproven his book Man & Woman, Boy & Girl wherein he discussed the John-Joan experiment was,  “It’s part of the antifeminist movement. They say masculinity and femininity are built into the genes, so women should get back to the mattress and the kitchen.” Money stood by his original summary of the Reimer case and dismissed Colapinto’s suggestion that he “misperceived” Reimer’s psychological condition. Colapinto reiterated that significant scientific evidence leaned towards the hypothesis that gender assignment was not as simple as reassigning gender, and asked Money if he was considering making some alternations to Man & Woman, Boy & Girl to which Money replied flatly, “I’ll be dead by then.” Suitably, an ambiguous answer from a man who spent most of his career misleading parents and children about ambiguous genitalia. Money also published a book still available for commercial purchase entitled Gay, Straight, and In-Between: The Sexology of Erotic Orientation

As with many family traumas Reimer’s sex reassignment deeply effected his whole family. “My parents feel very guilty, as if the whole thing was their fault,” Reimer told Colapinto. “But it wasn’t like that. They did what they did out of kindness, and love and desperation. When you’re desperate, you don’t necessarily do all the right things.” Reimer could not possibly have forseen the effect his public appearances would have on his brother Brian. Unable to accept Reimer’s openly candid description of his life, and still unable to accept that what was once his sister was now his brother, Brian committed suicide by drug overdose. watch born a boy raised a girl

After Brian’s suicide Reimer experienced a series of unfortunate developments:his marriage disintegrated; he found himself unable to maintain stable employment; he experienced financial difficulty after making a poor investment; his anger at Dr. Money and the medical doctor responsible for his gender reassignment intensified; and his depression returned to haunt him.  In May 2004 at the age of 38 Reimer committed suicide with a shotgun.

For several decades provinces in Canada have provided funding for people in need of SRS surgery. However the provinces differ in the amount of budgeting for intersex and reassignment surgery they offer, and also in its priority within the context of Canada`s medical community. Newfoundland, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C. currently cover SRS operations. Since 1969 SRS was covered in Ontario until funding was cut by Mike Harris and his Conservative party on October 1, 1998. Read Egale Canada >Ontario Isolated and Alone in Refusing to Fund Sex Reassignment Surgery. In June 2010 Ontario’s premier Dalton McGuinty refused to reinstate funding for SRS, although he stated the Liberal party will study and fund health programs for the queer community. Read Province stalls on SRS funding. In 2009, Alberta, the wealthiest province in Ontario, cut financial support for sex reassignment services (SRS). Watch video Laurie Blakeman in Question Period: Gender Reassignment Surgery In response the Public Service Alliance of Canada petitioned that Alberta reconsider its decision.  Read News PSAC urges Alberta to reverse its decision on gender surgeryPetition to the Alberta government to reconsider its decision is located here. 

End Note: Not everyone who undergoes sex reassignment surgery lives a more satisfying life. Read Transsexual lottery winner regrets paying for gender reassignment.
Read Sex Change Regret

Further Reading and Videos

Read The Scientist – a perspective from Cheryl Chase is included.
Read CBC News – Montreal sex-change clinic attracts patients from around the world.
Watch videoIntersex True-Hermaphrodite
Watch video Living A Lie – An Intersex Woman Tells Her Story
Link to the Intersex Society of North America 
Watch video Quagmire’s Daddy



November 5, 2010 - Posted by | Human Biology, Human psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. My name is Beatriz Bátiz, I am editor from Mexico City.
    I am editing a high school book for public education and I would like to use one of your pictures.
    Please let me know if there is no problem to publish it. My email address is bbatiz@gmail.com
    Thank you very much.

    Kind regards,

    Beatriz Bátiz

    Comment by Beatriz Bátiz | September 13, 2011 | Reply

  2. I am 22 years old from Bulgaria live as a girl of 13 years my dream is to change their gender has no day in which I have not asked it to sluchi.Za now it seems to me impossible, my country is very poor here normal salary people is $ 200 a month … I am writing this letter in hopes someone with a good heart to read it and help me if so my dream to come true my life will become meaningful and will be the happiest man in the world if someone can help my facebook: Aleks Simeonova

    Comment by aleks | September 25, 2011 | Reply

  3. My name is Amerita C. Elf, I was born a boy also and at 5 months old a military doctor circumcised me and burned my penis off. I have lived as a girl since I was 21/2 years old. I would like to share my story with the world also. I would like for my mother to speak for me, because she was there and knows more, she has also kept records and remembers the name of the doctor that used the cauterizing machine that did the damage to me that changed my life. My Mothers name is Rebecca Lewis. More infor below.

    Comment by Rebecca Lewis | December 1, 2011 | Reply

    • Has living as a female when you are biologically male worked for you emotionally and psychologically? David Reimer committed suicide ultimately because of his tragic experience. The message he delivered was that changing a person’s physical, outward appearance from male to female doesn’t change that person’s internal, natural inclinations.

      Comment by teacher | March 2, 2012 | Reply

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