When I first heard the story of David Reimer, I was stunned by the way it was delivered and received. Born in 1965 as a biological male, he was raised as a girl for the first fifteen years of life after his penis was accidentally destroyed during circumcision.
Are you shocked? Horrified? That’s typically the reaction, and I must admit, the story is not a happy one.
David’s parents were concerned about what his future as a man would look like without functioning genitalia, so they took the advice of psychologist John Money, who theorized that gender was entirely learned during childhood, to construct a vagina and raise David as a girl in the hopes that his sexual maturation would be more successful that way. Unfortunately, Money’s theory was only half right and since David still identified as a boy, his childhood experience was one wrought with confusion, discomfort, and suffering. Years later, he committed suicide. His story received a lot of media attention, and it is almost always portrayed in the same way: as a horrific tragedy.
Circumcision accident aside, David Reimer’s experience was only a little bit different from the typical transgender experience. Ironically, what he was experiencing as a child was a sort of manufactured version of gender dysphoria.
Whenever there is a state of confusion or dissonance between biological sex and gender identity, it is known as gender dysphoria. Since babies who are born biologically male are automatically raised with the expectation of being boys and biological females with the expectation of being girls, gender dysphoria often becomes recognizable when children express traits, interests, or preferences thought to be characteristic of the opposite sex. When this happens, lot of pressure is put on parents to try to squelch the behavior right away before it escalates, especially with boys.
Thankfully, more parents are beginning to realize the harm in this way of thinking. For instance, parents over at Raising My Rainbow and Pink Is For Boys prefer to encourage their young sons to express themselves in any way they choose, and take the job of raising gender-non-conforming children very seriously, all the while not labeling their child or limiting his experience to one tiny box. Parents like these understand that gender dysphoria is not an inherently tragic malfunction or a psychological disorder, but rather a fact of life made extremely difficult by our culture’s expectations. They realize that identity is always something to be accepted and celebrated.
But unfortunately, these parents are in the minority.This, of course, is not because of malice or neglect, but because of ignorant good intentions. The mythology of gender contributes to a widespread misunderstanding of what is normal, healthy, and right.
Parents with gender-non-conforming or transgender children have never been punished for initially raising the child according to its biology. Rather, they are understood and pitied for their unfortunate situation. But what happens when parents decide to raise a biological male as a girl? Public outrage.
David Reimer’s story is considered tragic because his gender identity and his original biological sex happened to be the same. He was born “normal,” so the fault fell on the parents, the doctors, and the psychologists when he suffered later in life. His emotional experience of feeling trapped in his own skin because of the body parts that felt wrong, and pressured by his surroundings to act and be a certain way, is the same as the experience of someone who is naturally born with opposite sexual and gender identities.
I am not suggesting that David’s story is not the tragedy people say it is. I am just as saddened by it as most people are. But I am also angered by the comparatively striking lack of empathy shown towards transgender people, who are experiencing the same pain and discomfort.
Transphobia is widespread, even more so than homophobia, because while gays and lesbians are beginning to get more positive and informative media coverage, the transgender community is still mostly in the shadows and widely neglected.
But the reaction to David Reimer’s story proves that people can feel empathy for gender dysphoria. When shown in the right light, they can understand how it must feel. When they hear his story they cringe and sob and feel sorrow as though it were happening to them. Poor David. So innocent and unassuming. How could his parents do such a thing? Why would the doctors ever take such a chance? The title of John Colapinto’s book “As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl,” reeks of this attitude. His biology was turned against him, so everybody feels his pain.
On the other hand, transgender people are always given the responsibility for their own experience. Because they are apparently rejecting their biology, if anyone’s to blame, it must be them.
But gender dysphoria is not the fault of the transgendered—it’s not a choice, not a misfiring of neurons, not a psychological weakness. And if everyone could understand that, the transgender community would gain the respect and sympathy they deserve.
Today my school is celebrating Transgender Remembrance Day, a day we honor and remember people who have suffered from hate crimes and violence for being transgender. Let’s use this time to keep those people in our thoughts and feel for them the same sorrow we feel for David Reimer, because everybody’s identity deserves to be accepted and celebrated, regardless of biology.
Watch David Reimer’s story on YouTube.