Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gender Neutral Nonsense? Lessons from Professor Money

The two Canadian parents raising the gender-neutral child.  Surely you've read the story about Storm and the swirling controversy as it's even reached my bachelor brother.

Now that there's been time to digest both the seeming lunacy of keeping secret the sex of a young child and all the subsequent media coverage this decision inspired, I still can't forget the deeply tragic and obviously flawed theory of John Money, the gender guru who preached children could transcend their chromosomal destiny.  Boys could be girls and girls, boys.  

From his professorial perch at Johns Hopkins the sexpert oversaw his most famous case, a baby boy who after a botched circumcision would be "sexually reassigned" - living life as a girl.  The parents agreed to rename him "Brenda," dress him in pink and oh yeah, cut off his testes. 

So I remember this case vividly from my undergraduate psych courses, an example of the fluidity of gender and sexual identity.  Of couse real life in the 1970s was much bleaker for David Reimer, the victim of Money's theories and supposed perverse inclinations.  He wasn't exactly identifying with Marsha or Cindy Brady.  According to a piece in Slate by John Colapinto, "Brenda" and her family weren't exactly the Brady Bunch:
The reality was far more complicated. At age 2, Brenda angrily tore off her dresses. She refused to play with dolls and would beat up her brother and seize his toy cars and guns. In school, she was relentlessly teased for her masculine gait, tastes, and behaviors. She complained to her parents and teachers that she felt like a boy; the adults—on Dr. Money's strict orders of secrecy—insisted that she was only going through a phase. Meanwhile, Brenda's guilt-ridden mother attempted suicide; her father lapsed into mute alcoholism; the neglected Brian eventually descended into drug use, pretty crime, and clinical depression. John Colapinto, from Slate Magazine. 


So the true nature of David's despair didn't come out until much later:

As for Reimer, when he finally reached the age to make his own medical decisions, he was so distressed by Money's demand for further surgery to complete his "female" genitals that his parents decided to reveal his medical history to him. He immediately re-transitioned to a male gender role and later underwent genital reassignment surgery again, in order to complete his male gender identity with male genitalia. He underwent four rounds of reconstructive surgery to facilitate his reappropriation of the male sex. Towards the end of his life he lost his job, was separated from his wife, fell victim to an unscrupulous financial investment, and mourned the death of his twin brother Brian, who died in a drug overdose. He committed suicide on May 5, 2004. John Colapinto, who publicised Reimer's story in a Rolling Stone article...and the book As Nature Made Him...speculated that Reimer never psychologically recovered from his childhood trauma...
Reimer said Money sexually abused him and his brother during superfluous photo shoots. This added stress was harmful to Reimer and instilled in him a fear of Money and his medical "expertise." A 20/20 interview (A Different Sex, April 19, 2002) contains this primary source.  Thank you, Wikipedia.
His medical expertise!  That's one name for it, the FBI might call it something else.  By the way, Money had no children of his own.  Thank goodness or he might have experimented further.  The pathetic part in all of this medical misinformation and mayhem, though, is that as David Reimer struggled through his short life the textbooks and one would imagine the professional community regarded him as a successful example of the mutability of gender identity.

Would I like my children to transcend the barriers of their gender?  Absolutely.  I spent my prime childbearing years in The Social Perception Lab where we couldn't stop talking and writing about the pernicious effects of discrimination and stereotypes based on gender and race and sexual orientation and every other category we could quantify. 

But that Canadian couple is forcing the non-existent category of "no gender" on a young child in a male/female/ transgendered world.  Even in an unschooling, co-sleeping, nomadic existence, it might be unnerving to be singled out to such a degree.  The kid's brothers have been free to explore their gender orientations without any secrets.  At some point this secret will come out as the kid's sex and gender become clear but the freak factor may never end.  Not a chance. 

By the way, I remember a study a few years back finding that young kids who really get into gender roles (i.e. girls dressing as princesses, boys wielding pirate swords) actually end up engaging in less stereotypical behavior later on.  Can't dredge it up from the research files but it stuck in mind at a time soon after my own girls clamored over plastic heels and bright pink - and it suggests learning how to be really, really girlie or boyish may have its advantages.  Anyone know this study?

So, it's only a matter of time before the two gender-bending crusaders up north sign a book deal or worse yet, start taping their own reality show.

FYI: Nova featured the Reimer story back in 2001.  It's still a fascinating discussion ten years later.  The interview featured David Reimer's mother and Milton Diamond, the biologist who questioned the success of the sex change. You can read the transcript.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Indeed Milton Diamond does disagree with the "gender neutral" theories of John Money, but he does not disagree with "gender benders". Here are his views on gender noncomformity in children:

http://www.hawaii.edu/PCSS/biblio/articles/2005to2009/2006-biased-interaction.html

http://www.hawaii.edu/PCSS/biblio/articles/2005to2009/2005-ethical-concerns.html

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Anony! Milton Diamond is another fascinating part of this saga. Will look at the links.