TORONTO STAR, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Tuesday, 11 May 2004.

Sex, lies and a quest for identity
The boy raised as a girl suffered for social experiment
David Reimer's life says much about forces shaping us


David Reimer was the victim of an experiment gone totally awry — an experiment that suggested nurture could trump nature.

The 38-year-old Winnipeg man, who was born a boy but raised as a girl after a botched circumcision, took his own life last week.

But for some, his death and his life will not be in vain.

Reimer's tortured experience as a girl leaves a lasting legacy in the field of gender identity and the debate over what shapes a human being: nature or nurture.

"David was a hero," said Milton Diamond, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii, at the John A. Burns School of Medicine in Honolulu, who was involved in Reimer's case.

"David didn't give permission for what was done to him. Even though he didn't have a penis, he still knew he was male," Diamond said.

Thanks to Reimer, many psychiatrists and psychologists have had to rethink their theories on what determines sex, says Ken Zucker, psychologist-in-chief at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and a specialist in gender identity.

Reimer's life story was described in a 2000 book by New York-based writer John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. His story was also featured on Oprah.

In the early 1970s, one theory held that gender was flexible and a child could be taught to be a man or a woman. "The (Reimer) case has taught a lot of people in the field that things are a lot more complex when it comes to gender than people originally thought 30 years ago," said Zucker.

"Where we've really had a lot of advances is in recognizing biology has a predisposing influence on gender identity and gender roles.

"But the environment is also important."

After a botched circumcision led to the removal of his penis, Reimer was renamed Brenda and raised as a girl, later receiving female hormones.

His parents were following the advice of psychologist Dr. John Money of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Positive reports in medical journals suggested Reimer was adapting successfully to his new gender as a girl.

`Even though he didn't have a penis, he ... knew he was male'

Reimer felt responsible for his twin brother's suicide

Many, from feminists to learning theorists, embraced the case, using it as an example that gender could indeed be taught.

But nothing was further from the truth in this case, said Dr. Keith Sigmundson who was a supervising psychiatrist for Reimer from when he was 8 to 20 years old. Reimer didn't adjust well to being a girl at all and began having difficulties at school.

"By the time Reimer was 11, the whole experiment was falling apart," said Sigmundson, who was brought into the case by the Winnipeg school system. Reimer was eventually told when he was 13 that he had been born a boy. He rebelled and went back to being a boy.

"From that point on he sought out all the surgery," said Sigmundson.

"He totally changed how he was presenting himself and struggled with a number of operations. He eventually lived his life as a man."

Reimer got a job in a meat-packing plant in Winnipeg. He married and was a stepfather to three children.

Up until about a year ago, he was in "top form," said Sigmundson who remained in contact with him.

But Reimer felt responsible for the suicide of his twin brother two years ago, the psychiatrist said.

Then he slumped into even more of a depression after losing his job and separating from his wife.

His mother, Janet Reimer, told Canadian Press that she believes her son would still be alive had it not been for the devastating gender study. "I think he felt he had no options. It just kept building up and building up."

Many of the changes in the way social scientists, psychologists and psychiatrists think about gender has happened because of Reimer and the controversy surrounding his life.

"At the time, there was a major controversy in our society over whether an individual's personality and their adaptation of their gender was a result of how they were born versus how they were raised," explained Sigmundson. The only one thing that is clear today is gender is a combination of many factors, including biology and learning, he noted.

"There are certain immutable things that happen in your chromosomes and in utero that develop the gonads that have an impact on your brain which set the pattern for the rest of your life," he said. "That's essentially what we know now."

Sigmundson and Diamond were responsible for revealing publicly that Money's experiment had failed and all was not well with Reimer's new gender. They published a report in 1997 in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine that outlined Reimer's rejection of being a girl.

"His life was very difficult," said Diamond, crying as he spoke to a reporter. "And I think the legacy is the whole issue of how people identify and see themselves as male and female. It's not as simplistic as putting people into blue rooms and pink rooms. Certainly our environment makes a difference and how we're brought up makes a difference. But we come to the game with our own inherent natures and how those things interplay can't be predicted."

(File created 11 May 2004)