Nature and Nurture in the Gender Debate
I have been thinking about the influence of nature and culture on gender, and a bit of reading that I have done has come to mind. May I present, for your thinking pleasure, the sad and sordid case of David Reimer.
You may have heard of Reimer before. His name has become relatively well known. If you’ve heard the story before, forgive my repetition. David Reimer was born Bruce, twin of Brian. They were both perfectly healthy until a botched circumcision procedure burned Bruce’s penis and effectively destroyed it. The doctors suggested raising Bruce as a girl and referred the distraught parents to Dr. John Money at John Hopkins.
His name was Dr. Money. This probably should have been a sign.
Dr. Money enthusiastically endorsed raising Bruce as a girl, claiming that it had every chance of success. He failed to mention that his past experiences had been with intersex infants and that the castration, construction of female genitalia, and hormone treatment that he used was experimental and had not been performed on children born with discrete genitals. But with such a perfect opportunity—a child with an existing control in his twin—how could he risk rejection? Bruce was rapidly approaching what Money called the “gender identity gate,” which is the age at which a child locks into one gender identity or another. Convinced by Money’s urgency and enthusiasm, the parents consented.
Bruce was renamed Brenda. Brenda did not do well. She behaved in masculine ways and had numerous academic and disciplinary problems. She was held back in first grade. At her yearly visits to Money’s office, she and her brother were removed from the safety of their parents, questioned, and asked to engage in sex play. Brenda did not respond appropriately. Despite these failures, Money insisted that Brenda was merely going through a tomboyish phase. In December of 1972, Money trumpeted his successful experiment, claiming to have proved that environment, not biology, determines gender.
This was widely accepted and taught, while Brenda continued to struggle. She resisted taking estrogen pills and the second stage of her vaginal reconstruction surgery and, in 1978, she ran away from Dr. Money’s clinic and told her parents that if she were forced to return, she would commit suicide. Within two years, after her insistence that she did not want to be a girl, her parents told her what had happened to her as an infant.
Brenda was renamed David and quickly went about restoring his lost sexual identity. By 15, he was living socially as a male and in a year began the process of phalloplasty, completing it successfully by age 22. Within three years, he married a woman.
In his forties, he shot himself. Why remains unclear.
To me, this story emphasizes the importance of individual choice in regards to gender identity. People whose brain says one thing about their identity and whose genitalia say another, whether those genitalia are ambiguous or not, ought to have the ability to make peace between their bodies and their brains.