In August , in the small Canadian town of Winnipeg, Janet Reimer gave birth to identical twin boys. When I was a little girl I used to dream about having twins. And I always thought I would never be lucky enough to have twins. I wasn't the lucky kind. And I had twins. Janet called her sons Bruce and Brian. We were so pleased and so proud and we settled right into our little one-room apartment.
But within eight months events would take a dramatic turn. The twins began having trouble urinating. To relieve the problem their doctor suggested circumcision. On the 27th of April, Janet left her twins at the local hospital in Winnipeg. Circumcision was a straightforward procedure and she expected to pick up her boys the next day.
But early the following morning she got a call from the hospital. When we first heard that there had been an accident we thought, "Well, what kind of accident could there be? Inexplicably, the physician treating her son Bruce had chosen an extremely unconventional method of circumcision.
Bruce's penis had been completely destroyed. The doctors knew of no way to undo the damage. But one American psychologist by the name of John Money advised the Reimers that they could best help their son by raising him as a daughter. It was a radical and untried course of treatment. It was high drama. It was a particularly dramatic case. Scientifically it looked beautiful because of the fact that there were twins involved.
This tragic situation made for a perfect case study. What does gender mean if one male twin can be raised as a boy, while the other male twin becomes a girl? But no one knew if this experiment would work. Scientific achievement is fueled by the simple desire to make things clear. This program is funded in part by the Northwestern Mutual Foundation. Some people already know Northwestern Mutual can help plan for your children's education.
Are you there yet? Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. In a quiet Manitoba suburb, the Reimer family was home trying to recover from a devastating accident. Just ten months earlier, their infant son's penis had been destroyed during circumcision. In shock, the Reimers shut themselves off from the rest of the world. With their own doctors bewildered by what to do, they had no where to turn. Then we saw this show on TV. We just happened to be watching TV.
On the screen was a young psychologist by the name of John Money, talking about the dramatic new field of sex change surgery. Money was on there and he was very charismatic. And what he was saying was that a boy whose gender was changed could be raised as a girl, that it was nurture not nature that made the child.
For Janet Reimer, John Money's words offered hope, despite their shocking implications. I think she was faced with an extreme situation, that there were no resources available to her to figure out what would be the best thing to do. And so to have a well-known authority say, "I have a solution for you," must have been incredibly tempting. Once there, she was told by Money's team that Bruce could be made into a girl.
Surgery, it was explained, would transform his body, and careful reinforcement of his new female identity would transform his mind. Money felt that it was going to be helpful to change Bruce into a female because he knew of the heartbreak and horror Bruce would have to go through living as a male when at that time there was no possibility of enhancement surgery for men.
John Money and the team at Johns Hopkins first developed their controversial ideas in the s. They did so by studying a group of individuals once associated with side shows and carnival acts. Known as hermaphrodites, this remarkable test group offered the researchers a unique opportunity to study how gender is formed. I think it's important to understand that John Money, here at Johns Hopkins, was a pioneer in this field, and one of the very few Each year, thousands of children are born with genitals that fail to develop normally.
This intersex condition, as it is now called, is more common than cystic fibrosis and Down's syndrome combined. And the causes are many. All embryos start life the same. But from six weeks, if the baby is to be a boy, the genes on the Y chromosome cause the fetus to develop testicles, which then produce the male hormone testosterone.
It's this testosterone that makes the male organs grow. Without it, the child develops into a female. If, however, something goes wrong with the delicate balance of hormones in the womb, the genitals can appear ambiguous. This baby girl was exposed to too much testosterone, causing her genitals to appear masculine. And infant boys who aren't exposed to enough testosterone because of a genetic defect can be born like this, with genitals that look almost feminine. Since these malformed genitals were easy to misidentify, babies like this were often raised as the opposite sex.
Through his research, John Money came upon many cases of children who'd been born one sex, but raised, by mistake, as another. And I mean a regular-type little boy's penis. Money found girls with external male genitals who were raised as boys. Astonishingly, they accepted themselves as boys, even though they were genetically female. Likewise, a genetic male born with a tiny penis could be raised successfully as a girl.
With research results like this, John Money came to believe that gender was susceptible to change, and that upbringing played a significant role in developing a female or male identity.
The team at Johns Hopkins expanded their theory to include the notion that gender was malleable in all children, not just intersex children. And eventually they came to understand there was a critical period during the first two years of life when this could happen. The theory that had emerged at You were neither male or female. To put in a nutshell what Money was saying at that early time, was that, yes, there are a lot of biological factors to be considered, but when all is said and done, the most important one is how the individual is reared.
So to make it simplistic, if you put a child in a blue room, it'll become a boy, and if you put it in a pink room, it'll be a girl. In the s, this notion of gender neutrality at birth was not a particularly radical idea.
The power of nurture was already well understood, especially among mothers. Child behavior specialists like Dr. Spock convinced parents that they held the key to their child's future happiness. So when John Money suggested that an infant's gender could be changed through upbringing people listened and believed.
Money's ideas dovetailed with a lot of ideas that were being produced in the period. So in the context of the s, his ideas were not crackers, they were not insane. They were pretty good scientific ideas. Many doctors also embraced John Money's ideas because they offered solutions. Physicians treating intersex boys could now feel more confident changing them into girls. It allowed me, as a surgeon, to be able to deal with parents of a child who was a genetic male but had no penis, and feel comfortable in saying, "We have a surgical solution, because we have a psychological solution, and that surgical solution is going to coincide with the psychological solution.
We can rear the child as a female. We can construct the child as a female and your child will grow up and be a successful, happy girl or woman.
Boys born with small or ambiguous genitals were often surgically changed into girls. In this field, sex assignment as a girl has been deemed necessary if the penis was below a certain critical size.
The argument was that the penis had to be large enough for a little boy to pee standing up. And if it wasn't, then the recommendation was to assign the child as a female: By the mids, surgeries like this had been performed on intersex infants. But this procedure had never been attempted on a child born with normal genitalia. This was not clear to Janet Reimer when she brought her infant son in to meet with John Money.
I asked him at the time if this had been done before. And he said, "Yes it had been successful. We were not told that it was the first one. On July 3rd , Bruce Reimer had his testicles removed and the beginnings of a vagina surgically created. He was almost two years old. From now on, Bruce would be Brenda. She would be raised as a girl, treated as a girl, encouraged to behave as a girl.