What does the case of the "boy
who was raised as a girl" tell us about innate sex differences?
Except where otherwise noted, all direct quotations
in this essay come from John Colapinto's book, As Nature
Made Him: the boy who was raised as a girl, published in 2000
On August 22 1965, Janet Reimer, a young housewife living in
Winnipeg, Manitoba, gave birth to identical twins. She named
her two healthy baby boys Brian and Bruce. When the boys were
seven months old, they both developed phimosis: painful urination
due to obstruction of the outlet of the penis. The doctor recommended
both boys be circumcised.
Bruce was scheduled to go first. The operation went horribly
wrong. Somehow -- it's still not clear exactly how such a thing
could happen -- somehow, the cautery instrument used to cut
away the foreskin was turned up to maximum power, and baby Bruce's
penis was literally fried. The dead tissue smoked, turned black,
and fell off like an old scab.
World-famous Johns Hopkins psychologist Dr. John Money urged
Janet and Ron Reimer to raise Bruce as a girl. Dr. Money assured
the parents that Bruce could become a happy and fulfilled woman,
while warning them that Bruce would be miserable as a grown
man without a penis. The Reimers were impressed by the confidence
of the world-famous Johns Hopkins professor. They gave their
consent. On July 3 1967, their son Bruce underwent surgical
castration (removal of the testicles). Bruce became Brenda.
In 1972, Dr. Money published the first accounts of the amazing
experiment. And it was amazing. Bruce and Brian were, after
all, identical twins: they shared precisely the same genes,
and they were being raised in the same home by the same parents.
Would it be possible to rear one of them successfully as a girl,
just by dressing Bruce/Brenda in dresses and giving her dolls
to play with? Here are excerpts from Dr. Money's report in his
1972 book, Man & Woman, Boy & Girl:
The effects of emphasizing feminine clothing became clearly
noticeable in the girl's attitude towards clothes and hairdo
a year later, when she was observed to have a clear preference
for dresses over slacks and to take pride in her long hair.
. . . By four and a half years of age [she] was much neater
than her brother, and in contrast with him, disliked to be dirty.
The mother reported that her daughter copies her in trying to
help her tidying and cleaning up the kitchen, while the boy
could not care less about it. The girl wanted and received for
Christmas dolls, a doll house, and a doll carriage. The boy
wanted and obtained a garage with cars and gas pumps and tools.
Dr. Money's report was hugely influential, and quite understandably
so. If a boy could be transformed into a girl just by having
his penis removed, wearing a dress, and letting his hair grow,
then sexual identity -- and the differences between the sexes
-- must be primarily cultural in origin. This finding was reaffirmed
by Dr. Money in his 1977 book, Sexual Signatures:
Although the girl had been the dominant twin in infancy,
by the time the children were four years old there was no mistaking
which twin was the girl and which the boy. At five, the little
girl already preferred dresses to pants, enjoyed wearing her
hair ribbons, bracelets and frilly blouses, and loved being
her daddy's little sweetheart.
Money concluded that Brian's sex reassignment as a girl was
"convincing evidence that the gender identity gate is open
at birth for a normal child. . . and that it stays open at
least for something over a year after birth."
Dr. Milton Diamond had been interested in the case since
Dr. Money had first reported it, in 1972. However, his requests
for further information about the "girl's" adolescence had
gone unanswered. In 1992, Dr. Diamond succeeded in tracking
down one of the doctors involved in the case of Brenda/Bruce:
Dr. Keith Sigmundson, a psychiatrist in Winnipeg who had been
treating "Brenda." "I was wondering how long it would take
for you to find me," were Dr. Sigmundson's first words, when
Dr. Diamond identified himself and explained why he was calling.
Dr. Sigmundson knew that Dr. Money had been distorting the
facts of the case, but Dr. Sigmundson had not had the courage
to challenge the famous Johns Hopkins psychologist. Dr. Diamond
persuaded Dr. Sigmundson to let the truth be known. Finally,
in an article published jointly by Diamond and Sigmundson
in March 1997 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent
Medicine, the facts of the story came to light.
The truth turned out to be very nearly the opposite of what
Dr. Money had reported. Far from an effortless transformation
from male to female, Brenda/Bruce had fought the assignment
to the female gender -- even though "she" had not been informed
of the truth of "her" sexual identity. As a small child, "Brenda"
tore off the frilly dresses her mother made. She insisted
on rolling in the mud with the other boys. She stomped on
the dolls that relatives gave as presents.
School had been an unending nightmare. Teachers and students
alike somehow knew at a glance that something was not right
about "Brenda." Girls avoided her. Boys made fun of her. Teachers
anxiously asked the parents for more information about what
made "Brenda" so strange, so combative, so un-ladylike. One
of "Brenda's" few friends at school later recalled:
As far as I knew, Brenda was a girl -- physically. But
from everything that she did and said, she indicated that
she didn't want to be a girl. The other girls in our group
were competitive against the boys; we wanted to prove we could
do whatever they could do. We might get in arguments with
the guys, but we wouldn't have gone as far as to fight with
them physically. I wouldn't want a bruise on my face, for
example. But Brenda fought with the boys. Brenda would take
the bruises. I myself was a tomboy, but I never wanted to
be a boy. Brenda did.
Injections of female hormones did nothing to change "Brenda's"
boyish ways. "When I say there was nothing feminine about
Brenda," brother Brian Reimer later recalled, "I mean there
was nothing feminine:
She walked like a guy. Sat with her legs apart. 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.
She'd get a skipping rope for a gift, and the only thing we'd
use that for was to tie people up, whip people with
it. She played with my toys: Tinkertoys, dump trucks.
This toy sewing machine she got just sat.
Remember, neither "Brenda," nor her brother, nor any of her
classmates knew the true story about her sexual identity.
They all thought she was a girl, albeit a girl who behaved
pretty strangely. The other kids at school called her "gorilla,"
or "Cavewoman." One girl who made fun of Brenda must have
been surprised when Brenda "grabbed her by the front of her
shirt, smashed her against the lockers, and threw her onto
the ground. Boys who teased her got similar treatment. "That's
what always impressed me about Brenda," said a classmate.
"She'd actually fight with the boys who teased her. She'd
haul off and punch them. I always wished I could do that."
On March 14, 1980 -- when "Brenda" was 15 years old -- Ron
and Janet Reimer finally told their child the truth: "She"
had been a normal boy until a terrible act of medical malpractice
had destroyed his penis. "Brenda" was relieved. He wasn't
crazy, after all; his growing sexual interest in girls suddenly
made sense; everything made sense. "Brenda" insisted on immediately
reassuming a male identity, and he did so with remarkable
ease, despite having neither a penis nor testicles. He chose
the name David, because he felt that his life so far had been
a David-and-Goliath struggle. "Brenda" is now David Reimer,
happily married and the adoptive father of three children.
He is proficient at automobile mechanics and enjoys watching
Reflecting on the case, Dr. Milton Diamond commented that
"if all these combined medical, surgical, and social efforts
could not succeed in making that child accept a female gender
identity, then maybe we really have to think that there is
something important in the individual's biological makeup;
that we don't come to this world neutral; that we come to
this world with some degree of maleness and femaleness which
will transcend whatever the society wants to put into it."
David Reimer committed suicide in May, 2004. He was 38 years old.