RON AND JANET REIMER made their first trip to Johns Hopkins in early 1967, shortly after seeing Dr. Money on TV. The young couple—aged twenty and twenty-one respectively—were awestruck by the vast domed medical center dominating the top of a rise on Baltimore’s Monument Street. Dr. Money’s Psychohormonal Research Unit was located in the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, a gloomy Victorian building tucked away off a back courtyard. The unit’s offices, located on the fourth floor, were reached by way of a rickety turn-of-the-century elevator. Money’s own inner sanctum (where most of his meetings with the Reimers would take place over the next eleven years) reflected the psychologist’s eccentric tastes in interior decoration. Furnished with a couch, Oriental rugs, and a profusion of potted plants, the room also featured brightly colored afghans thrown over the backs of armchairs, a collection of carved aboriginal sculptures of erect phalluses, vaginas, and breasts on a mantel, and a collection of primitive blowguns, darts, and masks hanging on the walls. The Reimers had certainly never seen anything like this before, but Dr. Money, with his smoothly confident, professional manner—not to mention the diplomas on his wall—made the Reimers feel that they were, finally, in the best possible hands. “I looked up to him like a god,” says Janet. “I accepted whatever he said.” And what Dr. Money had to say was exactly what the Reimers ached to hear.
In his many published versions of this first interview, Money has recounted how he spelled out to the young couple the advantages of sex reassignment for their baby—“using nontechnical words, diagrams, and photographs of children who had been reassigned.” He explained to Ron and Janet that their baby could be given a perfectly functional vagina—“adequate for sexual intercourse and for sexual pleasure, including orgasm.” He also explained to them that although their child would not, if changed into a girl, be able to bear children, she would develop psychologically as a woman and would find her erotic attraction to men. As a married woman she would be perfectly capable of adopting children of her own.
What is not clear from Money’s written accounts of this meeting is whether Janet and Ron, whose education at the time did not go beyond ninth and seventh grades, respectively, understood that such a procedure was in fact purely experimental—that while Money and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins had performed sex reassignments on hermaphrodite children, no such infant sex change had ever been attempted on a child born, like their Bruce, with normal genitals and nervous system. Today Ron and Janet say that this was a distinction they did not fully grasp until many years later. The crucial point they gleaned from Dr. Money was his conviction that the procedure had every chance for success. “I see no reason,” Janet recalls him saying, “that it shouldn’t work.”
Money’s eagerness to begin seemed evident in his recounting of the interview almost ten years later. “If the parents stood by their decision to reassign the child as a girl,” he wrote in Sexual Signatures, “surgeons could remove the testicles and construct feminine external genitals immediately. When she was eleven or twelve years old, she could be given the female hormones.”
If Dr. Money seemed to be in a hurry, he was. He explained to Ron and Janet that they would have to make up their minds quickly. For according to one of the finer points of his theory, the gender identity gate—Money’s term for that point after which a child has locked into an identity as male or female—comes at two and a half to three years of age. Bruce was now nineteen months. “The child was still young enough so that whichever assignment was made, erotic interest would almost certainly direct itself toward the opposite sex later on,” Money wrote, “but the time for reaching a final decision was already short.”
Ron and Janet, however, were not prepared to have Bruce immediately admitted to the hospital. They needed time to decide on something as momentous as having their child undergo a surgical sex change. They told Dr. Money that they would have to go home and think about it. Janet says that he made no secret of his impatience with the delay. Upon their return to Winnipeg, the couple received letters from him urging them to reach a final decision. “He wrote in a letter that we were ‘procrastinating,’” Janet recalls, “but we wanted to move slow because we had never heard of anything like this.”
Back home, Ron and Janet canvassed opinions. Their pediatrician recommended against such drastic treatment and stuck by his earlier advice that Ron and Janet wait until the child was of preschool age before beginning the long process of phalloplasty. Janet’s mother, Betty, was inclined to trust the expert from Baltimore but had no real opinion of her own. Ron decided not even to bring it up to his parents since he felt sure they would be against it.
Finally Ron and Janet realized that only they could decide the fate of their child. They alone were the ones living with the reminder, at each diaper change, of his terrible injury. Janet saw the benefits of changing their son into a daughter. “I didn’t know much back then,” she says, “and I thought women were the gentler sex. Mistakenly. I have since learned that women are the hard-core knockabout tough guys. Men are the gentler sex, by far, from my experience. But I thought, with his injury, it would be easier for Bruce to be raised as a girl—to be raised gently. He wouldn’t have to prove anything like a man had to.”
Ron, too, could see the benefits of changing Bruce’s sex. “You know how little boys are,” Ron says. “Who can pee the furthest? Whip out the wiener and whiz against the fence. Bruce wouldn’t be able to do that, and the other kids would wonder why.” And then, of course, there was the entire question of Bruce’s sex life. Ron could not even imagine the humiliations and frustrations that would entail. As a girl and woman, though, Bruce wouldn’t face all that, Ron reasoned. If what Dr. Money told them was true, she could live a normal life, she could get married, she could be happy.
Within days of their return from Baltimore, Ron and Janet stopped cutting the baby’s hair, allowing the soft, light brown locks to curl down past the ears. Janet used her sewing machine to turn his pajamas into girlish granny gowns. Their son had become, for Ron and Janet, their daughter. Dr. Money had counseled them, when deciding what to call their new daughter, to select a name beginning with the same letter as her former name and to avoid calling her after any female family members with whom her identity could become confused. Janet, following Dr. Money’s instructions, called her new baby daughter Brenda Lee.
There was, of course, still one more step to take. That summer, Ron and Janet left Brenda’s twin brother, Brian, with an aunt and uncle, then flew back to Baltimore with their daughter. Now twenty-two months old, she was still within the window that Money had established as safe for infant sex change. On Monday, 3 July 1967, Brenda underwent surgical castration in a gynecologic operating room at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The surgeon was Money’s Gender Identity Clinic cofounder, Dr. Howard Jones. Today Jones says he can recall few specifics about the case. He says that all decisions regarding reassignment of sex were the responsibility of Money and pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Blizzard.
“My chief interest was the physical situation and the surgical potential,” Jones says. “Was the patient healthy and able to withstand the operation?—all that kind of stuff. The case was pretty well worked up before I ever got involved.” For Jones, the surgery on Brenda Reimer was like the routine castrations he had been performing on hermaphrodite babies over the previous twelve years—and apparently Johns Hopkins Hospital viewed the operation the same way. Officials of the hospital have declined all comment on the case, but a Johns Hopkins public relations person, JoAnne Rodgers, told me in the winter of 1998, “In all surgeries that were considered, in the sixties, to be experimental, there were protocols in place to have those approved by appropriate committees and boards.” Dr. Jones cannot recall that the hospital convened any special committee or board in the case of Bruce Reimer’s historic conversion to girlhood.