TW Viewpoint | The Origins of Gender Identity?

October 24, 2018 | Jonathan Riley

In May 2017 the Canadian Human Rights Commission amended the Human Rights Act to incorporate 'gender identity and gender expression 'under the list of terms which are protected from discrimination. What are the origins of gender identity and where did the concept of gender begin to stray from early dictionary definitions?


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In the 1950's a psychologist and sexologist, Dr. John William Money, began applying the word gender when describing someone's sexual identity. His concept and use of the word was not widely adopted until much later but Dr. Money is seen as a pioneer on the psychology of gender fluidity, identity and expression. He believed that an individual's gender was a social construct that was determined by their upbringing and subsequent exposure to what society deems to be masculine or feminine. His argument was that "Nurture overrides nature."

In the summer of 1965, in the city of Winnipeg, a mother gave birth to two twin boys. These two children would become the perfect test environment for Dr. Money to prove his gender theory of nurture over nature.

The twin boys, named Brian and Bruce Reimer, had difficulty urinating when they were only a few months old. Doctor's recommended circumcision, however the method of circumcision was not told to the boy's parents who later found out, that an electrical cauterizing machine had malfunctioned and burnt off Bruce's genitalia.

Months later, the parents of the twin boys were watching television when they came across the charismatic Doctor John Money describing his work with transgenderism. After contacting Dr. Money and describing their situation, he agreed to help. Bruce, he decided, was to be raised as Brenda. The case of the twin boys became an unethical and tragic experiment as Dr. Money's research ultimately ruined the lives of the Reimer family and caused the premature death of both twins.

A few months later Brenda underwent surgery to remove the rest of his reproductive organs. Under the strict understanding that the parents must never inform Brenda of his true identity, the parents raised him as a girl. The twins were to meet annually with Dr. Money where he would sit privately with them and examine how they were developing. The twins later described how Dr. Money would force them, at a young age, to undress and perform dominant and submissive positions in front of him, while he allegedly photographed them.

The BBC produced Horizon documentary interviewed Janet Reimer, the mother of the twins. "I could see that Brenda wasn't happy as a girl. She was very rebellious. She was very masculine, and I could not persuade her to do anything feminine. Brenda had almost no friends growing up. Everybody ridiculed her, called her cavewoman. She was a very lonely, lonely girl. "

Dr. Money, for years, continued to write about his successful experiment on the Reimer twins despite the fact that Brenda later transitioned back to being identified as a male. Brenda became known as David and eventually married. However, the traumatic upbringing of the twins ultimately led to both boys committing suicide.

Psychologists and sexologists today still consider Dr. Money to have been a brilliant scientist which has resulted in wide acceptance of his gender theory. No longer determined by chromosomes and reproductive organs, the concepts of gender identity and gender expression have been adopted into Canadian law and school curriculums across the country.

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