Three decades ago it seemed a sensible thing to do: After a botched operation destroyed a baby’s genitals, his parents accepted doctors’ advice to turn little “John” into little “Joan.” The baby was given sex-reassignment surgery and hormone treatments. The parents were reassured that the child would adjust to a new identity as a female.
But it turns out the doctors were dead wrong.
Over the years, the case of little Joan was hailed as proof that babies are born “gender neutral”—that major gender differences are assigned, not by our genes, but by our environment. Recently, however, doctors did a follow-up study—and discovered that the sex reassignment had been a complete failure.
Joan’s tragic story is told by sexologist Milton Diamond and psychiatrist Keith Sigmundson in a recent issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. The doctors report that from the very beginning, Joan rejected her new identity. When dressed in frilly clothes as a toddler, Joan yanked them off. As she grew older, Joan preferred playing with toy trucks and guns. She even tried to go to the bathroom standing up.
By the time she hit adolescence, a confused Joan threatened suicide. It was only then that her father told Joan the shocking truth: She had been born a boy.