When David Peter Reimer died in 2004, it marked the tragic end of one of the most cruelly misguided medical experiments in the history of gender science. Born a cis-gender male in 1965, Reimer endured a horrifically botched circumcision as an infant. The baby's penis was wholly destroyed.
Reimer's parents turned to Dr. John Money, then viewed as one of the world's leading pioneers in gender identity and intersex children. Money told Reimer's parents to raise their child as a girl, to keep the truth of his birth a secret and to subject him to multiple surgeries and hormone treatments designed to feminize him. It didn't work.
David Reimer rebelled early on, as detailed in As Nature Made HimThe Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl." At 15, he started presenting as male, and speaking out against "treatments" such as the ones he'd endured. At 38after years of struggling with depressionReimer killed himself.
Yet the story of David Reimer is not wholly grim. Thanks in part to Reimer's outspoken criticism of Money and willingness to tell his own story, many of the doctor's methods have been discredited. And Reimer's story led playwright Anna Ziegler to Boy, a gender-transcending love story running through March 18 at TimeLine Theatre.
Ziegler and TimeLine dramaturg Josephine Kearns stress that Boy does not tell the David Reimer story. But there are similarities. In the character of Adamraised for years as a girl after a circumcision gone awryZiegler spins a narrative where Adam's own empowerment ultimately triumphs over his dysphoric certainty that he's an imposter in his own body.
"I'd been fascinated by the whole nature-versus-nurture question, and I knew I wanted to write about science," said Ziegler. "With I found Reimer's story I was so shocked and saddened. 'Boy' is very different in some respects, but at the core, I wanted to dig into the mistakes that people make even when they're coming from a place of love and desperately trying to do the right thing. "
With a cast and crew that includes half a dozen gender non-conforming artists, TimeLine's "Boy" marks the first time the play will be produced with a trans actor ( Theo Germaine ) in the role of Adam.
"It never occurred to me before TimeLine that the play could hold a trans actor in the lead, because the play isn't about a trans person," Ziegler said, "It's about a person who was born a boy and always was that boy despite being told otherwise. I'm thrilled with this casting. There is something so very powerful about seeing someone onstage who has dealt with the very things Adam has dealt with; it adds so many layers."
Kearns transitioned about three years ago, with TimeLine bearing witness to her metamorphosis; "Boy" is the 28th production Kearns has worked on with the company. She was a driving force behind casting a non-binary actor as Adam and making sure the entire creative process included as many non-gender conforming artists as possible.
"TimeLine has given all of us non-binary folks an enormous voice in this show," Kearns said, "There's at least six of us. And every time there's been a decision made, there's been multiple gender non-conforming people in the room to make sure that decision is right. All of the cis-folkx have been hyper aware of how much they need to listen."
"Casting a trans or a non-binary actor as Adam, I felt that was important from the start," Kearns added, "Even though Adam is really a cis-male, there are similarities between what he goes through and what trans people go through. Adam has the experience of growing up in an identity that doesn't fit him.
"That's a crucial part of this storywhat it's like to be assigned a gender that isn't yours. To have that forced upon you, whether it means having to wear dresses or being subjected to surgery before you can speak up for yourself.
"One thing I discovered when I was transitioning is that it just isn't fully possible to articulate what it's like to somebody who hasn't gone through it. It's kind of the same way that it's not possible for me as a white person to ever really comprehend what it would be like to be black in this country," Kearns concluded, "I will never understand that, obviously. Having someone non-binary play Adam beings an authenticity to the role that you can't achieve with a cis actor."
That's true, said director Damon Kiely , but nobody should make the mistake of thinking Germaine ( whose pronouns are they, their and them ) was cast solely because they are gender non-conforming. "I want to be very clear," says Kiely , "We cast Theo because they're extraordinarily talented. They're not a trans actor. They are an amazing actor who is trans."
Kiely who is a cis, hetero malebrought Boy to TimeLine after reading it in one sitting about four years ago. Ziegler acknowledges Kiely in the title pages as someone who championed the piece in its earliest stages.
"As a cis male, I have no qualms about directing this," Kiely said, "It's not the same as me directing an August Wilson playwhich I would never do. I've said from the start that it's a love story. It's the story of a young man who falls in love. It's also the story of parents trying to do the right thing by the child they love."
Still, Kiely said there's when it comes to gender identity and expression, there's been a learning curve involved with directing Boy. The learning process isn't relegated solely to Kiely . TimeLine staffers have all been enrolled in Gender 101, a 90-minute workshop on gender issues.
The workshop was created in partnership with Lurie Children's Hospital, where Kearns is the program coordinator for the Gender Development Program. With Lurie's Gender Development Program Manager Jennifer Leininger, Kearns crafted Gender 101 as a crash course in gender-related issues.
"The program helped teach our box office staff how to talk about the show, how we teach the show to students and how we do talk backs after the show," said Kearns. Also designed to help TimeLine market Boy, Gender 101 deals with everything from language and pronoun use to "how to deal with tough situations" that might come up. Those touchy situations sometimes feature intrusive, abusive or just plain rude questions, Kearns said.
"Trans and non-binary people, we get asked a lot of awkward things," said Kearns, "You get asked about your genitals. Your sex life. People ask all kinds of inappropriate thingssometimes people you don't even know."
Another issue: The often negative way pop culture depicts with non-binary people. From Dressed to Kill to Zoolander to Nip/Tuck, trans tropes turn people into punchlines or dysfunctional misfits.
"Being trans doesn't mean your entire life is angst," said Kearns, "To have a character like Adam, who falls in love and is finally able to live his truth? I love seeing that on stage."
"One of the big things I hope people walk away talking about is what gender identity means," said Kearns, "And how our society's enforcement of it affects people. I hope they also leave talking about why we can get so obsessed with bodies being quote normal unquote, and the damaging lengths we go to make people fit into what is supposedly normal."
While the education curve surrounding non-binary issues is steep, the world at large seems to be making steps toward the ascent. Laverne Cox on the cover of Time, the runaway success of Jill Soloway's Transparent, RuPaul's Drag Race excising the word "she-male" from the script all point to an evolving world, albeit one evolving at a pace that some view as glacial.
"We've come a long way," said Kearns, "But we still have a long way to go."
TimeLine's lobby display for Boy includes an art installation of eight photos ( and accompanying audio ) that explore the experiences of intersex, trans and gender non-conforming Chicagoans. In the piece curated for the People Artists Collective by Jireh L. Drake, and K. Rodriguez, participants talk about how they navigate a world where an oppressive gender binary insists everybody identify as either male or female, depending on their assigned gender at birth. The installation also forces its viewers to confront their own participation in the oppression of intersex and trans or non-conforming people. People can download the audio reflections via TimeLine's mobile app here: services.instantencore.com/Util/Share/DownloadApp/5183616/TimeLine.
Boy runs through March 18 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Tickets are $40-$54 each; visit TimelineTheatre.com .