Biology is Fate ~ The David Reimer Case   2 comments


As nature made him: the boy who was raised as a girl

Three influences on David/Brenda’s Reimer‘s gender identity development: Innate influences, The psychiatric field and The medical field.

Gender Essentialism

Before clarifying what gender essentialism is, I would like to explain what essence means. It is, “taken to be hidden, identity-determining aspect of an organism that remains unchanged over growth…[1]” Gender is seen as a part of nature or essence of one’s biological makeup. This theory was described in our lecture as the, “approaches that investigate biological factors influencing gender differentiation, including those which are pre-natal and environmentally caused.”[2]  This notion referred to all members of a particular gender group sharing common characteristics and behaviors. Their essence is different as women are naturally dissimilar from men in character and personality. Goldberg (1993) discussed the sex differences stating that, “… male hormones such as testosterone are a major source of sex differences in motivation, ambition and behavior” (Crompton, & Lyonette, 2005, 604).

Unfortunately, the repercussions of this concept are that society sustains gender inequalities while generalizations and assumptions are made stereotyping an entire gender group leading to prejudice and discrimination. According to Smiler, & Gelman (2008), “Essentialism is important because of its implications for human reasoning, both positive (encouraging one to extend knowledge in new ways, by making inferences from one category member to another) and negative (e.g. encouraging stereotyping of social categories…)”(p.864). Gender stereotyping and the set beliefs about characteristics may, for example, limit the expression of the individual’s aptitudes and interests but, define culturally agreed notions of what are gender appropriate behaviors. (para. Golombok & Fivush, 19). Traditional gender roles are based on an underlying biological determinism, as Golombok & Fivush (1994) commented, “…gender-related behavior is complexly influenced by many factors, including biologically based differences between females and males, children’s developing conceptualizations about gender, and adults gender-related beliefs and expectations” (p.23).

One example that demonstrates the power of the gender essentialism theory regarding Brenda/David’s development of gender identity was when she entered kindergarten and proceeded to go to the bathroom in a way that was innate, by standing up. A little girl asked, “How come Brenda stands up when she goes to the bathroom?”[1] Dr. Money had responded that, “…Benda’s continuing unorthodoxies in the bathroom resulted solely from the condition of her uncompleted vaginal surgery” (Colapinto, 2000, p.93).  She fought to get over the social stigmatism of being reared as a girl while on hormone replacement therapy. Brenda/David’s life had been a struggle to conform to what society thought he/she should be. But his mind did not match his body, it was not natural for him to wear lipstick and cross his legs. According to Golombok & Fivush (1994), “As a teenager, she experienced identity problems, including concern about her masculine appearance and preference for a masculine occupation” (p.45)

[1] Colapinto, J. (2001). As nature made him: the boy who was raised as a girl. (p. 61).

A second example is the week after his fifteenth birthday; he declared to the world that he was in fact a boy. He used tape to flatten his breasts and dressed as a young man in a suit and tie.  His gender differentiation was influenced by his biological makeup confirming gender essentialism. This example demonstrates the power of the theory. According to King (1993) who discussed, “…an ongoing debate regarding the etiology of transgenderism has been over whether there is a biological essentialism of male and female that is transhistorical, transcultural, “natural,” and “essential” that exists “independent of our knowledge” (Istar, 2004, 114). Biology is fate. The causes and consequences of gender difference and inequality are pronounced.

Gender Environmentalism

Gender environmentalism gives emphasis to the part of societal practices in creating and preserving gender distinction. Researchers have proven that strong gender differentiation happens in environments in which gender is emphasized functionally or linguistically.[1] Fagot and Leinbach (1989) for example, “…reported that pre-school children whose parents were more attentive to sex-typed toy play showed earlier labeling of gender and increased levels of sex-typed play than did children whose parents were less attentive to such play” (Liben, L. S. & Bigler, R.S. & Ruble, D. N. & Martin, C. L. & Powlishta, K. K., 2002, p.9). Janet and Ron stressed that she play with dolls, a toy oven (which she took apart), that the language and pronouns were correct and she dress like a girl with long flowing hair to induce female attributes.           

They followed the concept of what was masculine and feminine and clearly defined it in the home environment as gender identity development begins in the home. The societal terms of normalcy and practice were apparent in the clothing as girls wore pink dresses, played will dolls and learned to be lady like whereas, boys wore blue t-shirts, played with trucks and enjoyed getting dirty. She/he tried to conform as part of a societal practice in learning to walk like a girl by requesting Janet’s help for her to lose her boyish stride as the need to fit in was strong. This resulted in placing a book on her head which felt unnatural.

One example that demonstrates the power of the gender environmentalism theory regarding Brenda/David’s development of gender identity was when she entered kindergarten and proceeded to go to the bathroom standing up. Part of societal practices is for a girl to sit when going to the bathroom. Because this was impossible for her/him to do, it resulted in her/him being barred from the girls bathroom and threatened by the boys as Colapinto stated, “Brenda was reduced to sneaking out to a back alley near the school to urinate” (p.166).

This theory demonstrated the limitations regarding Brenda/David’s gender identity development. The child was limited through expression, thoughts, and appearance while rebelling against the gender environmentalism concept created for a girl. He was born a boy, just couldn’t prove it.  Dr. Money pushed the nurture and environmentalism concept and reported, “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…” (Colapinto, 2001, 104).


Gender Constructivism

Gender Constructivism was explained in our lecture as, “…approaches which work from the premise that “children are” active agents who develop the schemata that underlie their gender beliefs and behaviors, and then apply these schemata generatively for further processing” (p.8). It is this theory that gender identity development is constructed through social structure such as, interactions with people or their environments. It began with a child’s belief system about individuals which gave them the information they needed to absorb the cultural norms which in turn, reflects their own identity. Lightfoot & Cole & Cole, (2009) discussed the gender schemata which are, “…associated with the cognitive developmental theory as children form concepts about their gender schemata, which they use to process gender relevant information. Incorporated in this theory was the social value of imitating a role and getting responses to behavior.

In Brenda/David’s case, the child was given hormones during his/her gender development which counteracted the schemata as social interactions were negative in tone. Society’s structure for the binary system placed Brenda/David in the middle of two worlds and the observations of gender were not mimicked.  Liben, & Bigler & Ruble & Martin & Powlishta, (2002) remarked, “Social learning theorists have argued that observational learning is a primary means through which children learn “appropriate” gender role behaviors.”

One example that demonstrates the limits of the gender constructivism theory regarding Brenda/David’s development of gender identity was when she entered kindergarten and stood up to go to the bathroom which was considered gender inappropriate. If gender identity development is constructed through social structure where behavior is predicted, then Brenda/David did not live up to the gender expectations within the cultural norm as girls are more likely to model behaviors of their own sex as Golombok & Fivush (1994) mentioned, Just because a child knows the cultural stereotypes about gender does not guarantee that she will want to conform to that stereotype” (p.109).

In conclusion, after discussing the three theories, in my opinion, the gender essentialism had the most power. The concept was based on men and women being born a certain way due to their biological makeup which incorporated hormones and their brains being naturally wired differently. It comes down to one thing, it the simple facts of biology that make an individual who they are in terms of their gender identity development whether male, female, transgender, intersexed, etc. David had apparently never been a girl – not in his mind, where it counts. (Colapinto, 2001, 216).


Colapinto, J. (2001). As nature made him: the boy who was raised as a girl. New York:             HarperCollins Publishers.

Cole, M. & Cole, S. R. (2009). The Development of Children. Retrieved February 24, 2011 from            gKBa&sig=Qg6wc2HQBrk4RPknQIKJpASwh0g&hl=en&ei=UKZqTcPdOoeugQe2g7DMCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAzgK#v=onepag            e&q=gender%20identity&f=false

Crompton, R. & Lyonette, C.  (2005). The new gender essentialism: domestic and family             ‘choices’ and their relation to attitudes. The British Journal of Sociology, 56(4), 601-620.  Retrieved February 17, 2011, from

Golombok, S. & Fivush, R. (1994). Gender Development. New York: Cambridge Universit             Press.

Istar, A. (2004). Transgender emergence: therapeutic guidelines for working with gender variant people and their families Binghamton: The Hawthorn Press. Retrieved February 22,   2011, from            dwSwRefNrQiolH0&hl=en&ei=oZRjTeCSJZSXtweAh8SwDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CEAQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=essentialism%20&f=false

Liben, L. S. & Bigler, R.S. & Ruble, D. N. & Martin, C. L. & Powlishta, K. K. (2002). The             developmental course on gender differentiation: Conceptuality, measuring and evaluating       constructs and pathways.  Boston: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing. Retrieved February 20, 2011, from

Pearson, C. & VanHorn, S. B. (2004). Communication and gender . Identity: a retrospective analysis. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from 1G1-124642768/communication-and-gender-identity-retrospective-analysis

Smiler, A. P. & Gelman, S. A. Determinants of Gender Essentialism in College Students. Sex      Roles, 58(11-12), 864-875. Retrieved February 27, 2011, from   =1&sid=1&Fmt=6&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1298786816&clientId=63430

[1] Liben, L. S. & Bigler, R.S. & Ruble, D. N. & Martin, C. L. & Powlishta, K. K. (2002).

[1] Gelman, S. A. & Hirschfeld. How Biological is essentialism?. (p. 404). Retrieved February 22, 2011, from

[2] Introducing Gender Identity Development: mini lecture. (p. 8).Retrieved February 18,2011, from

2 responses to “Biology is Fate ~ The David Reimer Case

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