May 5th commemorates the tragic death in 2004, of David Reimer. For those familiar with his story, his courage in speaking out in spite of the anguish and abuse he suffered seems an enormous accomplishment. Indeed, his life, though too short, and his work, contributed tremendously to the struggles for the human and civil rights of children and adults with intersex conditions and DSD everywhere.
Born in 1965, in semi-rural Manitoba, Canada, to working class parents who both grew up on farms, David was 8 months old when doctors injured his genitals beyond the possibility of repair during a routine circumcision gone terribly wrong. As a consequence, David’s parents were referred to the late Dr. Money at John Hopkins University, who in the wake of David’s death and the death of his twin brother in 2002 (both by suicide) became infamous for the case. To enable David to be able to experience heterosexual sex and have a “normal” life, Dr. Money persuaded the Reimers that David should undergo sex reassignment surgery, hormone therapy and become “Brenda”. David’s surgery marked the first time that sex reassignment surgery was performed on an infant without an intersex or DSD condition. Dr. Money had pioneered the procedure for intersex infants and planned to use the success of David’s surgery and his consequential gender re-socialization as an experiment to provide additional proof of the benefit of such surgeries for infants with intersex conditions or genital injury.
For years Dr. Money touted David’s case as a success despite David’s increasing despair, anger and confusion going back to when he was two years old and tore off his dresses. His mother (who also attempted suicide, in part due to the overwhelming guilt she felt for the plight of her son), reported to John Colapinto in his book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl about David’s life that in elementary school David was so bullied that children would not allow him to use either the boys or girls bathroom so he was forced to relieve himself outside in an alley. When David was 14, as an urgent intervention to suicide, a local psychiatrist urged the Reimers’ to reject Dr. Money’s approach of complete concealment and tell David the truth about his body and past.
According to his 2004 article in Slate online, Colapinto says, “David later said about the revelation: “Suddenly it all made sense why I felt the way I did. I wasn’t some sort of weirdo. I wasn’t crazy.”
Once the truth was finally revealed, David began to live again as male, and went through multiple surgeries to undo the changes to his body caused by the estrogen therapy urged by Dr. Money.
David met Dr. Milton Diamond in the late 90’s and learned from him that the supposed success of his case was being used to justify similar surgeries on infants with intersex conditions, DSD, and genital injury. Outraged, he participated in a follow-up study in an effort to shatter the myths associated with his life and prevent them from being used to perpetuate such suffering and abuse onto other infants and children. The resulting study co-authored by Dr. Diamond and Dr. Keith Sigmundson in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine made international news and opened up a debate still very much alive and impacting the lives of intersex children, adults, and their families.
David later agreed to a series of articles and than the above mentioned book. He even risked public ridicule and appeared on Oprah Winfrey to tell his story with the intent of protecting others and helping to uphold their basic human rights. You can view a brief Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) report from shortly after his death here. (Please note, it is sad and disturbing, but overall respectfully done).
Despite his dedication to advocacy and the positive impact he achieved, David continued to be haunted by the trauma of his youth. After his brother Brian committed suicide, David, who had struggled with lifelong depression became more deeply depressed. Not long after his brother’s death, David lost his job. Then his wife of 14 years requested a separation. On May 5th, 2004, he took his own life. Even with all of the profound difficulty he faced, David Reimer contributed vastly and admirably to the struggle for the human rights of intersex and DSD people. Today, let’s honor not just his tragedy, but the enormous gifts he offered the world.