The sex-switching saga of "Bruce-to-Brenda"

A failed attempt to "reassign" the gender of a Canadian boy after a clumsy circumcision has become a focal point in the debate over gender identity.

Published February 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

More than three decades ago, a baby boy born as Bruce in Winnipeg, Manitoba, lost his penis at the age of 8 months during a botched circumcision. His parents, Ron and Janet Reimer, made the excruciating decision to have their son castrated, transformed into a girl and renamed Brenda. The sexual "reassignment" surgery was performed by a renowned surgeon, Dr. John Money of Johns Hopkins University, who convinced them that gender roles are molded by cultural conditions, not biology.

"Sexuality is undifferentiated at birth," Money has written. "It becomes differentiated as masculine or feminine in the course of the various experiences of growing up."

The Frankensteinesque experiment was an abysmal failure, according to the recently published biography "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl" by John Colapinto.

Brenda's optimistic parents gave her dolls, garbed her in dresses and grew her hair long, but at age 7 she announced that she wanted a mustache, toy cars, guns and membership in the Cub Scouts. She also insisted on standing up when she urinated. Her persevering mother paraded around the house naked to portray the physical differences between boys and girls. Brenda's rebellion continued. When her breasts sprouted at puberty -- after she was forced to swallow estrogen pills -- Brenda began binge-eating to bury her breasts in fat.

"Brenda never fit in," her twin brother, Brian, said in a recent interview on the Canadian television show "5th Estate." "Brenda never had any friends; she never even looked like a girl."

When their confused, angry "daughter" was 14, the discouraged parents confessed to her for the first time that she had entered the world as a boy. Immediately, the determined teen changed his name to David so he could impersonate the Biblical hero who conquered a gargantuan obstacle. Testosterone injections followed. A penis constructed of skin and muscle tissue from his inner thigh was installed when he was 16. Acute embarrassment and confusion about his past led to three suicide attempts, but today David Reimer is happily married with adopted children and says he harbors no grudge against his parents for their miscalculation. "They did what they did out of kindness and love and desperation," he explained on the CBC show.

The initial switch from Bruce to Brenda was regarded as a success for decades in medical textbooks, where the case is referred to as "John-Joan." The truth wasn't widely known until 1997 when Dr. Milton Diamond of the University of Hawaii detailed Brenda's agony in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Today Money's monstrous theory is being sharply evaluated by critics such as Diamond, who believe that gender should be solely determined by the children themselves.

By Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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