Involuntary sexual reassignment of infants: Creating transgender persons via surgery
As noted elsewhere in this web site, a transgender individual is frequently defined as a person whose gender as identified at birth is different from their gender that they perceive themselves to be. Some describe themselves as a woman trapped in a man's body, or vice versa. Others view themselves as having a male brain in a female body, or vice versa. Still others view themselves as being neither a male or female, or of both genders, or above the concept of gender. Many suffer severe emotional distress called gender dysphoria.
In our section on intersexuality, we describe intersexual infants as being born with genitals that do not match either the classical male or female designs. Alternately, they have sex chromosomes in their DNA that do not match the classical XX or XY form.
This essay describes a tragedy resulting from involuntary sexual reassignment surgery performed on an infant. It underscores the importance of waiting until a person is sufficiently mature to make
an informed decision, and of carefully assessing their stability before proceeding with what is usually an irreversible surgery.
About Dr. John Money:
John William Money (1921-2006) was born and raised in an evangelical
Christian home in New Zealand. At the age of eight, his father died, and he was
raised by his mother and single aunts. He lost his religious faith in early
adulthood. According to journalist John Colapinto:
"Money increasingly reacted against what he saw as the repressive religious
strictures of his upbringing and, in particular, the anti-masturbatory,
anti-sexual fervor that went with them. The academic study of sexuality, which
removed even the most outlandish practices from moral considerations and placed
them in the 'pure' realm of scientific inquiry, was for Money an emancipation.
From now on, he would be a fierce proselytizer for sexual exploration."
He became a psychologist and sexologist at Johns
Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, heading up the Psychohormonal Research
According to Wikipedia, he became:
"... well-known for his research into sexual identity and biology of
gender. Money identified several influential concepts
and terms during his
career, including gender identity, gender role, gender-identity/role, and lovemap." 1
He was very highly regarded as a world-class expert in his field. He received
many international awards. One of his early specialties was intersexuality. On
the basis of this work he believed that a
person's gender is not simply defined by their genitalia, but also by the person's
self-awareness and social assignment. According to Wikipedia:
"Money was a prominent proponent of the theory that gender identity was
relatively plastic in infancy and developed primarily as a result of social
learning from early childhood; some academics in the late 1960s believed that
all psychological and behavioral differences between males and females were
This belief was particularly popular among some feminists at the time.
Dr. Money believed that a little after two years of age, a person's perceived gender
starts to become established and later becomes essentially unchangeable. He applied this concept to one of
his child patients, Bruce Thiessen (a.k.a. Brenda Thiessen, and David Reimer), with disastrous results.
About the Reimer twins:
Bruce and Brian Thiessen were born in Winnipeg, MB, Canada in 1965-AUG.
They were diagnosed at the age of six months with phimosis -- a fairly common condition where
the foreskin cannot be fully retracted from the head of the penis. They were
circumcised at the age of eight months to relieve the condition. Brian's procedure was uneventful, but
Bruce's penis was accidentally burned beyond any possibility of repair during
the surgery. It later fell off in chunks. Surgical
techniques that were available at the time were inadequate to the task of
reconstructing a fully functioning penis.
His parents took him to see Dr. Money at Johns Hopkins
Medical Center in Baltimore, MD. After meeting with Dr. Money and other physicians working with
intersexed children, Bruce's parents accepted their recommendation that their
son have his testicles and the remains of his penis removed, and that he be raised
as a female. They renamed him "Brenda."
Brenda and Brian represented a great opportunity for Money's gender
They were identical twins and shared the same DNA.
They had the same genetic gender -- male.
They both developed as fetuses in the same womb subject to the
same hormonal environment.
They were both born with normal genitals.
They were being raised as different genders in the same family.
They were the ideal test subjects:
To study the plasticity of gender in early childhood, and
To attempt to separate the influences of environment and
heredity on gender identity.
The twins saw Dr. Money frequently during their childhood.
A Wikipedia essay states:
"Money often took pictures of them both in the nude, claiming it was for
scientific comparison, but Reimer claimed that Money sexually abused both
twins and took far too many photos for their shoots to be deemed innocent.
This was a large factor contributing to his fear of Money and desire to never
go back for his help. (This was said in a 20/20 [TV] interview.)"
"For several years, Money reported on Brenda's progress as the 'John/Joan
case', describing apparently successful female gender development, and using
this case to support the feasibility of sex reassignment and surgical
reconstruction even in non-intersex cases. Money wrote:
'The child's behavior
is so clearly that of an active little girl and so different from the boyish
ways of her twin brother.'
Estrogen was given to Brenda when she reached
adolescence to induce breast development. However, Brenda had experienced the
visits to Baltimore as traumatic rather than therapeutic and when Dr. Money
started pressuring the family to bring 'her' in for surgery, in which a vagina
would be created, the family discontinued the follow-up visits. John Money
published nothing further about the case to suggest that the reassignment had
not been successful." 2
But reality in the Reimer household did not match Dr. Money's version. Brenda
was "ostracized and bullied" by her peers for being a tomboy. She never felt female. At the age of
13 Brenda's parents told her the details of her surgical procedure. She
immediately assumed a male gender identity and adopted the name David Reimer. By the age of
15 he was suicidally depressed and threatened to commit suicide if his parents
forced him to visit Dr. Money again.
Later in life, David underwent gender reassignment surgery. He was given hormone
injections, underwent a double mastectomy to have his breasts downsized, and
underwent two phalloplasty operations to create a penis, imitation testicles, and
A firestorm of controversy:
In 1997, Milton Diamond, a biologist at the University of Hawaii, and
Keith Sigmundson, a psychiatrist from Victoria, BC, Canada wrote an expose of
the failure of Dr. Money's experiment. 5 This blew the lid of
of the John and Joan case. A firestorm of controversy erupted. A
three-decade-long rivalry between the two world-class human sexuality researchers was
exposed. Researchers and the public began to ask why it took two decades for the
truth to come out.
Later in 1997, David Reimer collaborated with journalist John Colapinto who wrote an
article about David's experiences in the Rolling Stone magazine. This
intensified the already intense public debate about childhood gender
reassignments. Colapinto wrote that the story reporting the twins:
"... to have grown into happy, well-adjusted
children of opposite sex seemed unassailable proof of the primacy of rearing
over biology in the differentiation of the sexes and was the basis for the
rewriting of textbooks in a wide range of medical disciplines. Most seriously,
the case set a precedent for sex reassignment as the standard treatment for
thousands of newborns with similarly injured, or irregular, genitals. It also
became a touchstone for the feminist movement in the 1970s, when it was cited
as living proof that the gender gap is purely a result of cultural
conditioning, not biology. For Dr John Money, the medical psychologist who was
the architect of the experiment, this case was to be the most publicly
celebrated triumph of a 40-year career that recently earned him the accolade
as one of the greatest sex researchers of the century. 3
childhood experiences, David said:
"It was like brainwashing. I'd give just about anything to go to a
hypnotist to black out my whole past. Because it's torture. What they did to
you in the body is sometimes not near as bad as what they did to you in the
mind -- with the psychological warfare in your head. 3
Colapinto later expanded the article into a book "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a
Girl," published in 2001 and revised in 2006. 4
The outcomes of the John/Joan case:
David married a woman and became stepfather to her three children. Financial
pressures and a request by his wife for a separation led to his suicide at the
age of 38.
His brother Brian had predeceased him as a result of a drug overdose.
Dr. John William Money suffered from Parkinson's and died in 2006, leaving a
trail of devastation behind.
The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) was founded in 1993:
to end shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgeries for people born with an
anatomy that someone decided is not standard for male or female."
significant progress in changing attitudes concerning intersexed people, but
were never able to form a cooperative relation with the medical community. They
founded Accord Alliance in 2008-MAR. ISNA has since disbanded, although
their web site remains online "as a historical artifact." 6
In 1995, over four decades after the first sex reassignment surgeries, Johns
Hopkins medical center finally got around to performing a long-term follow up of
infant patients subjected to the procedures. The study included six genetic males who,
similar to Bruce/Brenda/David, were born without penises, were castrated in infancy,
and raised as girls. John Colapinto reported that:
"... all six are closer to males than to females in attitudes and behavior.
Two have spontaneously (without being told of their XY male chromosome status)
switched back to being boys." 3
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.