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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 13, 2004

David Reimer, subject of 'sex reassignment,' dead at 38

Los Angeles Times

David Reimer, the Canadian man raised as a girl for the first 14 years of his life in a highly touted medical experiment, committed suicide May 4 in his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was 38.

David Reimer, who became the unwitting subject of "sex reassignment," at 8 months of age, later underwent a double mastectomy and eventually developed into a muscular, handsome young man.
Dr. Milton Diamond, a University of Hawai'i sexologist who helped expose the experiment for the failure it was and became a friend, called Reimer's death a tragedy.

"I hope people learn from it that you don't do something that dramatic to someone without their informed consent," said Diamond, a professor at the John A. Burns School of Medicine. "You also have to deal with people with honesty. He was lied to by physicians and parents, the two groups you want to trust the most."

At 8 months of age, Reimer became the unwitting subject of "sex reassignment," a treatment method embraced by his parents after his penis was all but obliterated during a botched circumcision. The American doctor whose advice they sought recommended that their son be castrated, given hormone treatments and raised as a girl. The physician, Dr. John Money, later wrote a paper declaring the success of the conversion.

But Money's experiment was a disaster for Reimer that created psychological scars he never overcame.

Reimer's story was told in the 2000 book "As Nature Made Him," by journalist John Colapinto. Reimer said he cooperated with Colapinto so other children might be spared the miseries he experienced.

Reimer was born Aug. 22, 1965, 12 minutes before his identical twin brother. His parents named him Bruce and his brother Brian.

After Bruce was maimed in the botched circumcision, the Reimers turned to Money, a Harvard-educated native of New Zealand who had established a reputation as one of the world's leading sex researchers. He told them that raising Bruce as a girl was the best course, and that they should never tell him about having been a boy.

About six weeks before his second birthday, Bruce became Brenda on an operating table at Johns Hopkins. After bringing the toddler home, the Reimers began dressing her like a girl and giving her dolls.

Brenda rebelled from the start. She tried to rip off the first dress 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.

Money insisted that continuing on the path to womanhood was the proper course for her.

Money already was the darling of radical feminists such as Kate Millett, who in her best-selling "Sexual Politics" had cited Money's writings as proof that "psychosexual personality is therefore postnatal and learned."

But Money's experiment proved the opposite — the immutability of one's inborn sense of gender. Money stopped commenting publicly on the case in 1980 and never acknowledged that the experiment was anything but a success.

Diamond had long been suspicious of Money's claims. He found Reimer through a Canadian psychiatrist who had treated Reimer.

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 rejected her reassignment from male to female, and, at 14, 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 take male hormone shots and undergo 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," he 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.

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.

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 is survived by his wife, Jane, his parents and stepchildren

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) You can't be something that you're not. You have to be you."

Advertiser staff writer Beverly Creamer contributed to this report.