Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Misappropriation of the David Reimer Tragedy

It was inevitable. 

Following the airing of the Bruce Jenner interview on ABC News, the atmosphere was ripe a backlash of ugly, reactive commentary. And I suspected it would be used to buttress the non-fact-based campaign against Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum. What I had not expected was the ammunition would be would be the horrendous tragedy of David Reimer.

Gender Identity and John Money tells the story of David Reimer, born 1965, whose penis was irrevocably damaged in a botched circumcision, setting the stage for a life of torment and indignity, culminating with his suicide. The author of the blog post is Lou Iacobelli, a devout Catholic, parents rights advocate, and a retired teacher. In fact I took eleventh grade English with him nearly forty years ago.

On the essential facts of the case, I don't dispute what Mr Iacobelli posted:

Psychologist and sexologist John Money told young David's parents that he could give their child a new life as a female. Thus began the nightmare. Mr Reimer was subjected to an orchidectomy, injections of estrogen, gender conversion therapies, with later plans for a vaginoplasty. All of this occurred when Mr Reimer was pre-pubescent, and apparently carried out with the aid of surgeons and other practitioners at Johns Hopkins, who were following Dr Money's lead -- a theory gender identity is entirely driven by nurture. 

David was not the only one to suffer from this thinking. The basis of Dr Money's research was the treatment of intersex children. Mr Iacobellii alludes to Dr Money's study of hermaphroditism, a dated term which falls under the broader umbrella of Intersex Condition:
“Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.
Though we speak of intersex as an inborn condition, intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.
Source: Intersex Society of North America -- What is Intersex?
This became known as The Hopkins Model of treating intersex children. A brief description from Intersex Society of North America, emphasis mine:
In the 1950s, a team of medical specialists at Johns Hopkins University developed what has come to be called the “optimum gender of rearing” system for treating children with intersex. The notion was that the main thing you had to do in cases of intersex was to get the gender assignment settled early, so kids would grow up to be good (believable and straight) girls and boys.
Under the theoretic leadership of psychologist John Money, the Hopkins team believed that gender was all about nurture—that you could make any child into a “real” girl or boy if you made their bodies look right early (before about 18 months of age), and made them and their parents believe the gender assignment.
Though the Hopkins team wrote early on that children should be told the truth about their intersex histories in age-appropriate ways, in practice many medical care providers lied to patients or actively withheld medical history information from them. Medical textbooks frequently gave doctors advice about how to lie to patients with intersex.
And all of this misery was heaped upon a child who could neither comprehend nor consent  to what was happening. Consent, remember, is also a component of the new health curriculum. Children have the right to defend their boundaries and to say no.

The story gets darker with allegations by Mr Reimer's twin brother that the pair were made to act out sexual scenarios, in which David and brother Brian simulated female and male sex roles respectively, at the behest of Dr Money.

Everything about the Reimer case is horribly, horribly wrong. Every fibre of my being trembles with rage at the thought of this experiment.

Misappropriating The Reimer Tragedy

Equally disturbing to me, however, is the effort to employ the Reimer story as any kind of argument against the urgency of addressing gender dysphoria in children and taking very seriously the needs of a child who may be transgender. But that is precisely what Mr Iacobelli does in his entry. 

Why doesn't the Reimer case apply?

David Reimer never said, of his own volition, "I am a girl," or, "I am different." I have no idea what the prognosis would be for a child like Reimer who suffered the damage and loss of his penis. I can conjecture that he likely would have encountered great distress early in life, recognizing an observable physical difference between himself and his twin, as well as with others he might encounter later. Not an easy road, but certainly preferable and ethical, compared to tricking the child into thinking he was a girl.

Mr Reimer was surgically mutilated. This wasn't SRS, or gender affirmation surgery. 

Trans children are not given any such surgery. It is not an accepted practice until the child reaches the age of consent and proves to be a suitable candidate.

Mr Reimer was forced adopt behaviours of a girl -- heteronormative behaviours, coincidentally -- as defined by Dr Money. 

Practitioners who deny gender dysphoria today do precisely the same thing. They take away the Barbie doll from the trans or gender-nonconforming child identified as male at birth. Dr Money forced the Barbie doll into young David's hands. 

Mr Reimer was given estrogen. 

Trans children today are not prescribed HRT. Laverne Cox tells the story of being in grade three (still identified as male) more than thirty years ago when the school psychiatrist told her mom she needed testosterone injections, a practice at the time. Ms Cox had been sent for therapy because of her effeminate behaviour. During that therapy, she disclosed she didn't think there was a difference between boys and girls. Laverne's mother refused to give testosterone to an eight-year-old.

Trans children entering puberty, however, may be prescribed hormone blockers, which forestall secondary sex traits. 

Mr Reimer and his brother were assaulted.

According to accounts, Mr Reimer, along with his brother, was the victim of sexual assault. In forcing David Reimer to become a female, Dr Money also took it upon himself to make him a heterosexual female -- one who would be attracted to males. So the crime of imposing gender upon the child, was compounded by attempting to reorient his sexuality along heteronormative lines. Imposed gender conversion. Imposed sexual conversion.

Take away the premature surgeries performed without the Mr Reimer's informed consent; take away the sexual abuse. What happened to Mr Reimer looks very much like conversion therapies performed on trans children today.

"Six Genders"

Mr Iacobelli discusses flaws as he sees them in discussions of gender and sexuality in the curriculum:
The document claims that there six "genders" and numerous sexual orientations. These terms are defined and presented to students and teachers as something factual and societally agreed upon.
The document doesn't claim there are six genders. "Sex Genders" is a Charles McVetyism, which the evangelist has used in describing both a TDSB guide addressing homophobia and heterosexism, as well as the curriculum. In a recent CBC debate with Michael Coren, Mr McVety said the six genders were taught in the third grade. Mr Coren correctly placed the content in the eighth grade. Here's what the document says:
C1.5 demonstrate an understanding of gender identity (e.g., male, female, two-spirited, transgender, transsexual, intersex), gender expression, and sexual orientation (e.g., heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual), and identify factors that can help individuals of all identities and orientations develop a positive self-concept [PS] 
It doesn't say there are six genders -- it gives examples of six ways by which people might identify -- and there are many more terms, none of which negate anyone else's choice of terminology. Not all terms used to denote gender identity are scientific terms per se. (Intersex certainly has a medical/scientific application, as do transgender and cisgender.) I see them operating in much the same way that people use a range of terminology to describe themselves spiritually (Christian rather than Protestant or Catholic; Cultural Jew rather than Religious Jew); or ethno-culturally (African-Canadian rather than Black).

As for the sexual orientations -- heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other variations mentioned, like pansexual or fluid -- they're existence is agreed upon. Approval is not. There are people who object to some of them based, they claim, on religious principles. Many people of faith find no such struggle. Some people are just bigots.

I've underlined a key section. Some people call it social engineering. There are queer kids who come to school each day who fear they would not get support at home or in their communities. In many cases they're right. I've been in community meetings where people -- arguing against the curriculum and The Accepting Schools Act -- have said things like, 
We don't have gays, etc., in our community/culture/faith. We're good people. We're people of faith. We have good children. 
I've heard people say that out loud. Lots of times. When there were no television cameras about for the same people to say they're not homophobes. The curriculum isn't promoting a particular sexual or gender identity; it's promoting healthy self-image regardless of identity. Good. I support that. Queer and questioning kids feeling safe at school is a good thing. 

And it poses no risk to straight or cis kids. Nor to children of faith.


The naysayers have been accusing LGBTQI activists of saying two different things -- about gender identity and sexual orientation:

  1. Because sexual orientation is about whom one is attracted to. The term gender fluidity, contrary to popular belief, isn't even in the HPE curriculum. It just appears on protest signs at anti-sex-ed rallies.
  2. Conversion therapy for sexual orientation is torture that doesn't work and has not worked since the 1940s. Conversion therapies for trans people have been equally damaging, ineffective and unnecessary. In transition, boys don't become girls because people cannot change their sex. The can change the appearance of their bodies to align with their gender identity. Hence, the term sex change operation has fallen into disuse, in favour of SRS, or gender affirmation surgery. Not all transgender people seek or want surgery.

There's some astonishing brain research on gender identity. This article summarizes a ground breaking study out of Vienna. Neuroscience Proves What We've Known All Along: Gender Exists on a Spectrum:
Led by Georg S. Kanz of the University Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, the study was composed of 23 trans men, 21 trans women, 23 cis women and 22 cis men. Researchers used a type of MRI ("diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging" is the proper term, should you ever want to sound impressive during a dinner party) to measure diffusion of particles across brain matter. Cis women had the highest diffusivity -- which means (bear with me here) that particle movement in white matter brain regions was greatest for this group, followed by trans men. Trans women had lower movement than the former, with cis men having the least.
There is some early evidence, then, that science is catching up with something many of us already assume, and for good reason: Gender identity exists on a scale, rather than in narrow dichotomized groups. In essence, trans people had brain chemistry approaching the middle of the gender spectrum -- inherently different from their biological sex and closer to their identified gender. For example, a trans woman has significantly different brain movement than a cis man, despite having the same biological sex. Moreover, trans men and trans women were different from each other, implying that the brain shows a wide range of gender based differences, rather than simply male or female.
Here's the article from Medical University of Vienna, Networks of the brain reflect the individual gender identity.


  1. David Reimer's story has long been a compelling one for trans* people, because of the way in which he -- without having been told about his early surgical history -- still essentially knew who he was. This often resonates with trans* experiences, even if the circumstances were different.

    That said, Reimer's story has frequently been twisted to deny the existence of trans* people, by the likes of LSN, Gwen Landolt, etc. It probably originated with Paul McHugh (or, as National Post's Barbara Kay has been known to call him, "Dr. Hughes").

    Incidentally, even though there's a range of terminology, and sometimes discussions about whether there are 3, 5, 6, 7, or 56 genders, I believe Chuckles McVety's fixation on "six genders" stems from a mis-hearing of the word "cisgender," during a radio debate about Bill C-279's predecessor, C-389 (when he was just starting to pay attention to the issue of trans* human rights). I'm guessing that rather than admitting embarrassment and making an error, he instead decided to double-down on it and glom onto the phrase as a talking point. But I can only speculate on that.

    1. Thank you, Mercedes. I so appreciate your feedback. I approach writing about the trans* experience with a great deal of caution, not wanting to be seen as 'cisplaining.' It does seem to me, though, that when folks invoke Dr Money's treatments of Mr Reimer, the case they make seems to argue against conversion therapies, which to me mirror the Reimer experience.

      As for Mr McVey, it's possible, I'm sure that he misheard "cisgender." During his appalling performance debating Michael Coren, he railed against the theory of "gender dysphoria" in the health curriculum. Problem is, the phrase "gender dysphoria" appears nowhere in the curriculum.