04 February 2015

What Money Couldn't Do

If I ever hear anyone say, "Gender is learned" or "Gender is performative" again, I'll scream.  Trust me, you don't want to hear that.

I can't understand how anyone who knows the story of David Reimer can utter such nonsense.  He--originally named Bruce-- and his identical twin brother Brian  were born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on 22 May 1965.  At six months, concerns were raised about how both of them urinated.  They were diagnosed with phimosis and, as a result, circumcision was recommended. However, only Bruce underwent the procedure, which a urologist did by the unconventional method of cauterization.  It went horribly wrong, and Bruce's penis was burned beyond repair.  Brian's condition cleared up without surgery.

The parents, worried about Bruce's prospects for future happiness and sexual function without a penis, consulted with John Money, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  At that time, Johns Hopkins was the chief center for research on gender identity disorders and of gender reassignment surgery.  Money was an early and prominent proponent of the idea that gender is learned and believed, as most practitioners did at the time, that a penis could not be replaced but a satisfactory vagina could be constructed.  Not surprisingly, he believed that Reimer could achieve a more satisfactory life as a female and recommended that he undergo gender reassignment surgery.  So, at the age of 22 months, Bruce's testes were surgically removed.  

He was renamed Brenda and underwent years of hormone treatments and attempts to socialize him as a girl.  According to Reimer, Dr. Money forced him and Brian to play sexual roles, with Bruce/Brenda on bottom, as he believed this would help both of them develop "healthy adult gender identity."  His parents made him wear frilly dresses in the harsh Canadian prairie winters.

Through it all, Bruce/Brenda always idenitified as a boy.  Never once, he said, did he believe himself to be a girl.  He fell into a deep depression and, at age thirteen, threatened to commit suicide if he were forced to see Dr. Money again.  His parents then told him the truth about his gender identity, and at age fourteen started to live as male and assumed the name David.  Later, he would undergo testosterone treatments, a double masectomy and a phalloplasty to reverse the effects of his estrogen treatments and earlier gender-reassignment surgery.

One of the cruel ironies of this story is that his brother Brian was, if anything, more "feminine", at least in the way people would define that term. Brian was gentle, introspective and had little interest in masculine pursuits.  In contrast, Bruce was, in the words of John Colapinto--who wrote As Nature Made Him:  The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl--"a hellraiser".  Brian died of an overdose of antidepressants in 2002, as David was dealing with unemployment and difficult relationships with his parents and wife, whose three children he adopted.    On 2 May 2004, his wife told him she wanted to separate; two days later, David committed suicide.

As Colapinto points out, as terrible as this case is, it doesn't provide an answer of "nature" to the "nature vs. nurture" debate. Some people believe that a case like David's--or, for that matter, his brother's-- proves that gender is entirely a function of the genitalia one has at birth.  However, I think--based on my own experience and that of trans people I've known--that however we come to the way we identify ourselves--whether we're born with it or come to it in infancy, early childhood or whenever--no amount of behavior modification, pharmaceutical treatments or surgery will change it.  I identified as female, even when I didn't voice it, about as far back as I can remember.  And no attempt to "make me a man" could change it.

Here is an interview Colapinto gave on Canadian television:

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