In the 1970s, an experiment called the John/Joan Case took the world of gender psychology by storm. Eight-month-old Canadian twins Bruce and Brian Reimer had been taken in for routine circumcisions, but things went terribly wrong. Bruce had gone first, and there had been an accident; the doctor had essentially destroyed his penis with a cauterizing instrument.
Left with disfigured genitalia, the solution was for Bruce to become part of a gender reassignment experiment – nature versus nurture. He underwent surgical procedures to reassign his gender, and his parents renamed him Brenda. He would not find out about his true identity for the first 14 years of his life.
The study was later found to be extremely unethical, although at the time it was seen as breakthrough research. Left with deep emotional wounds, the rest of his life was a rollercoaster of ups and downs. In a 2000 interview, he said, "You can never escape the past... I had parts of my body cut away and thrown in a wastepaper basket. I've had my mind ripped away."
He may have endured a painful life both physically and mentally, but David Reimer gave the world valuable insight when it comes to the nature of gender identity and identification.
When he was eight months old, baby Bruce and his twin brother Brian went to the doctor to get circumcised. What should have been an ordinary and commonplace procedure somehow went completely wrong.
The doctor had opted for an electrocautery needle, considered an inappropriate choice for the procedure, rather than the traditional blade. In a horrifying accident, the doctor burned off the majority of Bruce's penis.
When he met Bruce and Brian in 1966, Dr. John Money was one of the world's leading psychologists, and an expert in gender identity. His belief was that children were, until around the age of two, "gender neutral."
Dr. Money recommended "sex reassignment" (as it was called) for Bruce from male to female, and insisted that it would be psychologically beneficial for Bruce to live as a girl. He was eager to prove his theory that gender was dependent on how a child was raised rather than what gender the child was born with. He was convinced that nurture would conquer nature.
The Reimers were devastated by the accident and were afraid that their son would grow up without a functioning sexual organ. One day, they happened to see a talk show featuring Dr. John Money, who at the time was working with patients born with ambiguous genitalia at Johns Hopkins University.
They had been told that "phallic reconstruction was a crude option that would never result in a fully functioning organ," so when Dr. Money suggested to them that creating a vagina would be the way to go, they agreed. Their only goal was to give their child a normal life with the possibility of a functional sex life as an adult.
Both Brian and Bruce/Brenda participated in Dr. Money's study, with yearly visits to add to his case notes. These visits became more traumatic for the twins as the years went by, with Dr. Money having them pose in different sexual positions together due to his belief that "'sex rehearsal' helps to solidify sexual identity."
The visits became so psychologically painful for them that the twins eventually begged their parents to stop taking them to Dr. Money, with Brenda even threatening to take her own life if she were forced to go back.