Bruce Reimer and his twin brother Brian were born in Canada in the 1960s. At the age of seven months, the otherwise healthy boys were circumcised. But the doctors used a new method of circumcision, involving an electric cauterizing needle, on Bruce. An accident occurred, completely burning off the little boy’s penis.
His parents decided to take Bruce to Dr. John Money, a psychologist and sexologist at Johns Hopkins they had seen on T.V.
Dr. Money had a theory that aside from reproductive and urinary functions, gender was a social construct. Until the Reimer twins, he had largely worked with intersex cases – children born with ambiguous genitalia or abnormal sex chromosomes.
But the Reimer twins – otherwise healthy and biologically normative – were the perfect experiment on which to test his theory of gender fluidity. Brian would be raised as a boy, and Bruce would from now on be called Brenda, and raised as a girl.
The Reimers agreed, and insisted on girl’s clothes and socialization for Brenda throughout childhood. They never told the twins about the accident, or about Brenda’s biological sex.
The twins were brought in for a yearly observation with Dr. Money, who dubbed the case a wild success by the time the twins were nine years old.
“No-one else knows that she is the child whose case they read of in the news media at the time of the accident,” he wrote.
“Her behavior is so normally that of an active little girl, and so clearly different by contrast from the boyish ways of her twin brother, that it offers nothing to stimulate one’s conjectures.”
What the Doctor didn’t tell
The on-paper success of Brenda Reimer as a lovely and well-adjusted little girl did not match the lived reality of the child. Brenda Reimer was a rambunctious tomboy – shunned by the boys for wearing dresses, and by the girls for being too wild.
“She was very rebellious. She was very masculine, and I could not persuade her to do anything feminine. Brenda had almost no friends growing up. Everybody ridiculed her, called her cavewoman,” Brenda’s mother, Janet, recalled in an interview. But Brenda was a very lonely, lonely girl.
During the twins’ yearly checkup and observation, Dr. Money would force the twins to strip naked and engage in sexual play, posing in positions that affirmed their respective genders. On at least one occasion, this sex play was photographed.
By their teenage years, the twins were strongly opposed to going to their checkups with Dr. Money.
By age 13, Brenda was suicidal.
By 15, the Reimers stopped taking the twins to Dr. Money and revealed the truth to Brenda – he was biologically male. He fully embraced his male identity, chose the name David, and began hormone therapy and a surgical genital reconstruction. He dated and married a woman, whose children he adopted.
But the wounds of his traumatic childhood were deep for both David and his brother. Both suffered from depression. After 14 years, David’s wife divorced him. Then Brian died from a drug overdose. Not long after, in May 2004, David committed suicide. He was 38 years old.
Despite everything, Dr. Money never printed any retractions of his studies, or added any corrections. Because of this Dr. Money’s study is still frequently cited as a successful gender transition by the medical community at large.