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Memorable Manitobans: David Peter Reimer (1965-2004)

Medical subject.

Born at Winnipeg on 22 August 1965, the elder of identical twin boys born to Janet Schultz and Ronald Reimer, he was originally named Bruce and his twin was named Brian. At the age of six months, both boys were diagnosed with phimosis and referred for circumcision. However, David’s penis was badly burned by a procedure called electrocauterization, resulting in Brian’s surgery being cancelled. The parents, concerned about their son’s prospects for future happiness and sexual function, took him to see John Money at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in early 1967 after seeing a program on television about Money’s theories about gender identity.

Money’s claim was that Reimer would be more likely to achieve successful, functional sexual maturation as a girl than as a boy. For Money, a case involving identical twin boys, where one could be raised as a girl, provided a perfect test of his theories, and he and a Johns Hopkins team persuaded the baby’s parents that sex reassignment surgery would be in Reimer’s best interest. Reimer was renamed “Brenda” and gender reassignment surgeries began at Johns Hopkins, which also provided psychological support, with Money meeting with Reimer annually.

In his early teens, “Brenda” received hormone treatments to further his development as a female. Reimer attended Glenwood School, then R. B. Russell Vocational High School, from the age of 14. He eventually ceased attending school and was tutored privately. By the age of 13 years, he was experiencing suicidal depression. On 14 March 1980, when he was 14 years old, his parents told him the truth about his gender reassignment. He decided to assume a male gender identity, calling himself David, and underwent treatment and surgery to reverse the reassignment.

Reimer worked doing odd jobs and, on 22 September 1990, he married Jane Fontane, whose three children he adopted. His hobbies included camping, fishing, antiques, and coin collecting. His case came to international attention in 1997 when he told his story to Milton Diamond, an academic sexologist who persuaded Reimer to allow him to report the outcome in order to dissuade physicians from treating other infants similarly. Soon after, Reimer went public with his story, and John Colapinto published a widely disseminated account in Rolling Stone magazine in December 1997. The article won the National Magazine Award for Reporting.

Several interviews, articles, and investigative stories followed in various media, even after Reimer’s death. His case was also the inspiration for artistic renderings through television dramas, a play called Boy (2016), and a song released by Winnipeg’s indie-rock band, the Weakerthans. In 2000, The New York Times released a biography called As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl (Harper Perennial), in which Colapinto described how, contrary to Money’s reports, Reimer did not identify as a girl when living as “Brenda,” and how he was ostracized and bullied by his peers. The publication of the biography, which became a best-seller, influenced the general understanding of the biology of gender and related medical practices, leading to the decline of sex reassignment and surgery for unambiguous XY infants with micropenis, various other rare congenital malformations, or penile loss in infancy.

In addition to his difficult lifelong relationship with his parents, Reimer struggled to deal with unemployment, the death of his brother Brian from an overdose of antidepressants in 2002, and the collapse of his marriage. On 4 May 2004 at Winnipeg, he took his own life and was buried in the St. Vital Cemetery.

Sources:

David Reimer”, Wikipedia.

This page was prepared by Lois Braun.

Page revised: 9 January 2021

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