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David Reimer, 38; After Botched Surgery, He Was Raised as a Girl in Gender Experiment

May 13, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Money already was the darling of radical feminists such as Kate Millett, who in her bestselling "Sexual Politics" two years earlier had cited Money's writings from the 1950s as proof that "psychosexual personality is therefore postnatal and learned."

Now his "success" was written up in Time magazine, which, in reporting on his speech, wrote that Money's research provided "strong support for a major contention of women's liberationists: that conventional patterns of masculine and feminine behavior can be altered." In other words, nurture had trumped nature.

The Reimer case quickly was written into textbooks on pediatrics, psychiatry and sexuality as evidence that anatomy was not destiny, that sexual identity was far more malleable than anyone had thought possible. Money's claims provided powerful support for those seeking medical or social remedies for gender-based ills.

What went unreported until decades later, however, was that Money's experiment actually proved the opposite -- the immutability of one's inborn sense of gender.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 15, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Reimer obituary -- The obituary of David Reimer in Thursday's California section said the doctor who botched Reimer's circumcision was female. The doctor was male.

Money stopped commenting publicly on the case in 1980 and never acknowledged that the experiment was anything but a glowing success. Dr. Milton Diamond, a sexologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, had long been suspicious of Money's claims. He was finally able to locate Reimer through a Canadian psychiatrist who had seen Reimer as a patient.

In an article published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine in 1997, Diamond and the psychiatrist, Dr. H. Keith Sigmundson, showed how Brenda had steadily rejected her reassignment from male to female. In early adolescence, she refused to continue receiving the estrogen treatments that had helped her grow breasts. She stopped seeing Money. Finally, at 14, she refused to continue living as a girl.

When she confronted her father, he broke down in tears and told her what had happened shortly after her birth. Instead of being angry, Brenda was relieved. "For the first time everything made sense," the article by Diamond and Sigmundson quoted her as saying, "and I understood who and what I was."

She decided to reclaim the identity she was born with by taking male hormone shots and undergoing a double mastectomy and operations to build a penis with skin grafts. She changed her name to David, identifying with the Biblical David who fought Goliath. "It reminded me," David told Colapinto, "of courage."

David developed into a muscular, handsome young man. But the grueling surgeries spun him into periods of depression and twice caused him to attempt suicide. He spent months living alone in a cabin in the woods. At 22, he prayed to God for the first time in his life, begging for the chance to be a husband and father.

When he was 25, he married a woman and adopted her three children. Diamond reported that while the phallic reconstruction was only partially successful, David could have sexual intercourse and experience orgasm. He worked in a slaughterhouse and said he was happily adjusted to life as a man.

In interviews for Colapinto's book, however, he acknowledged a deep well of wrenching anger that would never go away.

"You can never escape the past," he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2000. "I had parts of my body cut away and thrown in a wastepaper basket. I've had my mind ripped away."

His life began to unravel with the suicide of his brother two years ago. Brian Reimer had been treated for schizophrenia and took his life by overdosing on drugs. David visited his brother's grave every day. He lost his job, separated from his wife and was deeply in debt after a failed investment.

He is survived by his wife, Jane; his parents, and his children.

Despite the hardships he experienced, he said he did not blame his parents for their decision to raise him as a girl. As he told Colapinto, "Mom and Dad wanted this to work so I'd be happy. That's every parent's dream for their child. But I couldn't be happy for my parents. I had to be happy for me. You can't be something that you're not. You have to be you."

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