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old, both of the twins began to have trouble urinating. Each time one
of them peed, he cried out in pain. Janet made certain it had nothing
to do with their diapers, and then she examined both boys carefully. It
appeared to her that the boys’ foreskins were stuck closed. So she took
both of them to see their pediatrician. When the doctor examined the
twins, he explained it was nothing to worry about. Both boys suffered
from phimosis, a condition that makes it difficult for boys to retract
their foreskins. The doctor told the Reimers that circumcision was the
cure, and after some discussion, Janet and Ron made arrangements for
the boys to have the surgery. 1
The operations took place at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg, a
teaching hospital with an excellent reputation. Since Ron Reimer had
agreed to work a late shift at the slaughterhouse, the Reimers dropped
the boys off at the hospital the night before the surgery.
No one imagined that anything could go wrong. But what happened at St. Boniface the next morning was horrendous. Experienced
pediatricians nearly always performed the circumcisions at St. Boniface.
But the morning of April 27, none was available. So the job fell to Dr.
Jean-Marie Huot, a general practitioner. With the toss of a coin, the
nurse lifted Bruce from his crib and prepped him for the first surgery.
Electrocautery was Dr. Huot’s method of choice. Electrocautery is a
technique that uses an electrically heated instrument to simultaneously
remove the foreskin and seal the severed blood vessels.
When Dr. Huot first touched the electrocautery needle to Bruce’s
foreskin, nothing happened. The doctor assumed the instrument wasn’t
generating enough electricity to do the job, so he asked the nurse to
turn up the power on the machine. She did, and Dr. Huot tried again.
Once again someone turned up the power to the electrocautery
instrument. This time, when Dr. Huot brought the needle to Bruce’s
foreskin, there was “a sound just like a steak being seared.” Someone
immediately turned off the machine and sent for a urologist. The urolo- Outcomes 129 gist installed a catheter so urine could flow from Bruce’s bladder, but it
was too late to save any of Bruce’s burnt penis.
Once a full assessment of the situation revealed to everyone the
seriousness of the gaffe, the hospital called the Reimers and told them
“there had been a slight accident and they needed to see [the Reimers]
For the next ten months, the Reimers and Bruce’s physician agonized over what they should do for the boy. In desperation, Janet finally
contacted Dr. John Money at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Dr.
Money was very clear about how much good they could do for Bruce at
Johns Hopkins. Janet felt like someone was finally listening. Dr. Money
was certain that the only path left to them was to make Bruce into Brenda.
So, at twenty-one months of age, the doctors removed Bruce’s testicles
along with the very last remnants of his penis and begin his feminization—including crafting a vagina from a piece of intestine and beginning
a lifelong course of female hormones. From then on, Brenda dressed as a
girl and eventually, thanks to the hormones, developed breasts.
Throughout, Brenda’s parents made every effort to raise her as a girl,
which couldn’t have been easy after nearly two years of treating Bruce
as a boy, not to mention the constant presence of Brenda’s identical twin
Brenda was described as “having many tomboyish traits such as
abundant physical energy, a high level of activity, and often being the
dominant one in a girls’ group.” Still, the doctors were convinced that
she was developing as a normal girl. “Her behavior is so normally that
of an active little girl and so clearly different by contrast from the boyish
ways of her twin brother, that it offers nothing to stimulate one’s conjecture.” As a result, these authors, especially Dr. John Money, concluded
that “gender identity is sufficiently incompletely differentiated at birth
to permit successful assignment of a genetic male as a girl.”3
But when interviewed at age thirty, David (born Bruce, then Brenda)
claimed that none of that was accurate. He said he had never felt comfortable as a girl. And when they were interviewed, his brother, father,
and mother said they had sensed the same thing all along.4
Finally, at age fourteen, Brenda could stand it no longer. 130 Between XX and XY “I[’ve] suspected I was a boy since the second grade,” she told her
After her declaration, Brenda had a mastectomy to remove her hormoneinduced breasts, changed her name to David, and began testosterone
therapy. At age fifteen and sixteen David underwent surgeries to reconstruct his ruined penis. And at age twenty-five he married a woman
named Jane and adopted her children.5
David’s experiences are among the most widely known and quoted
of all the travails of children with assigned sexes. At the outset, perhaps
because of the lack of hard facts, the broader implicati...
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- Spring '14