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Sex: Unknown. (television review) (Scary movie: in a compelling documentary, the story of one boy's involuntary sex change underscores the mysterious persistence of gender identity).

Sex: Unknown * Produced by Stephen Sweigart and Andrew Cohen * PBS's Nova * Premieres October 30, 8 P.M. Eastern (check local listings)

He was born a healthy boy named Bruce, underwent so-called sex-reassignment surgery at age 2 because a botched circumcision had destroyed his penis, and had a miserable childhood as a girl called Brenda. Told at age 14 of his birth gender, he immediately decided to live as a male, naming himself David; he now lives with his wife and her three children.

It's a true story--detailed previously in John Colapinto's 2000 book, As Nature Made Him--but it's a cautionary tale that can't be told too often. And this time, on Nova's Sex: Unknown, you get to meet David face-to-face.

He's still pissed off, and so will you be after this unnerving one-hour documentary. What happened to David was a crime of bad science, championed by a respected Johns Hopkins sex researcher named John Money. In the 1960s and '70s, Money published countless scientific papers on "Brenda's" involuntary sex change to prove his theory that children are all born "gender-neutral" and take on traditionally masculine or feminine traits strictly through socialization. He suppressed information about the utter failure of David's sex change for nearly 20 years, during which time his cruelly flawed thinking became medical gospel.

Even today, many children born with healthy but ambiguous genitalia--that is, intersexual--are subjected to unnecessary genital surgery as infants, meant to impose a certain gender upon them. Sex: Unknown interviews one surgeon who is captured mid-mutilation of a newborn boy whose penis is so small, the surgeon is lopping it off to make him a girl. There are no studies at all proving that this costly, invasive therapy has any good effect, but that doesn't bother surgeon Philip Ransley: His work, he says, is "a mixture of science and art."

Money declined to speak to Nova, but he's still around and, shockingly, still thinks he's right. He has even published a paper blaming David's miserable childhood on a laundry list of other factors, including the boy's mother. In fact, mom Janet Reimer, interviewed at length, seems more of a wreck than her adult child, having realized that her decision to follow Money's awful advice for more than 10 years effectively ruined a critical period of her son's life.

Sex: Unknown uses the Reimer family's tragedy to explore the origins of gender identity. With admirably calm, persuasive commentary throughout from lesbian gender researcher Anne Fausto-Sterling and cameos by that pesky hypothalamus, dissected rat brains, and one distinguished male-to-female transsexual named Emma, the program comes down firmly on the side of biological determination. Not, mind you, that genitalia equals gender; rather, that gender identity is somehow imprinted in the brain before birth.

As David himself says, "You don't wake up one morning and say, `Oh, I'm a boy today.' You know. It's in you. Nobody has to tell you who you are." The Nova program does not even mention sexual orientation--that's another kettle of lab rats, so to speak--but the parallel will be obvious to gays and lesbians who have wondered if they can change their sexuality through willpower and voodoo psychology.

Not bloody likely.

"Eventually," David says, "you wind up being who you are."

Find more about Sex: Unknown and the book As Nature Made Him at www.advocate.com
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Steele, Bruce C.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Nov 6, 2001
Words:555
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