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.
Although told he was a girl from as far back as he could remember, David never felt in sync with his gender identity as Brenda. The LA Times reported in David's obituary that as "Brenda":
She [sic] 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. When she fought with her brother, it was clear that she was the stronger of the two.
Even Brian noted a disconnect involving Brenda's gender identity early on, saying "I recognized Brenda as my sister... but she never, ever acted the part."
Growing up, "Brenda" had a tough time fitting into his assigned gender role. He had much more of an interest in "masculine" things, had a masculine gait, and just generally acted more like a boy than a girl. Unfortunately, children are notoriously cruel, and Brenda was essentially ostracized from his peers as a result of his behavior.
He complained to his parents often that he felt like a boy rather than a girl, but because they had sworn to raise Brenda as a girl, they struggled to keep their silence and not tell him the truth.
When Brenda was 14, his father finally told him the truth about the accident when the twins were babies. Instead of feeling anger, there was only relief. As David recalled: "For the first time everything made sense... and I understood who and what I was."
The next obvious step was to surgically revert Brenda into a boy (he chose the name David for himself), which involved a number of surgical procedures and hormone treatments. Those included a double mastectomy, grafts, and implants to re-create his male genitalia, as well as testosterone injections.
Bruce and Brian were bore with a condition called phimosis, which their parents noticed when they were around six months old. It is a defect in the foreskin of the penis, with the main effect being difficultly urinating. The decision to get the boys circumcised was based on the discovery of this condition.
The boys' parents expressed deep levels of guilt for what had happened to Bruce, which may have been compounded by the fact that Brian's condition eventually cleared up on its own.