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J O H N / JOAN

By John Colapinto
The Rolling Stone, December 11, 1997. Pages 54-97

Self-Portrait, 1980

In 1967, an anonymous baby boy was turned into a girl by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. For 25 years, the case of John/Joan was called a medical triumph — proof that a child's gender identity could be changed — and thousands of "sex reassignments" were performed based on this example. But the case was a failure, the truth never reported. Now the man who grew up as a girl tells the story of his life, and a medical controversy erupts.

In late June 1997, I arrive at an address in a working-class suburb in the North American Midwest. On the front lawn, a child's bicycle lies on its side; an eight-year-old secondhand Toyota is parked at the curb. Inside the house, a handmade wooden cabinet in the corner of the living room holds the standard emblems of family life: wedding photos and school portraits, china figurines and souvenirs from family trips. There is a knockoff-antique coffee table, a well-worn easy chair and a sofa - which is where my host, a wiry young man dressed in a jean jacket and scuffed work boots, seats himself. He is 31 years old but could pass for a decade younger. Partly it's the sparseness of his beard - just a few blond wisps that sprout from his jaw line; partly it's a certain delicacy to his prominent cheekbones and tapering chin. Otherwise he looks, and sounds, exactly like what he is: a blue-collar factory worker, a man of high school education whose fondest pleasures are to do a little weekend fishing with his dad in the local river and to have a backyard barbecue with his wife and kids.Ordinarily a rough-edged and affable young man, he stops smiling when conversation turns to his childhood. Then his voice - a burred baritone - takes on a tone of aggrievement and anger, or the pleading edge of someone desperate to communicate emotions that he knows his listener can only dimly understand. How well even he understands these emotions is not clear: When describing events that occurred prior to his 15th birthday, he tends to drop the pronoun I from his speech, replacing it with the distancing you - almost as if he were speaking about someone else altogether. Which, in a sense, he is.

"It was like brainwashing," he is saying now as he lights a cigarette. "I'd give just about anything to go to a hypnotist to black out my whole past. Because it's torture. What they did to you in the body is sometimes not near as bad as what they did to you in the mind - with the psychological warfare in your head."

Joan, age 2, at a relative's farm, within a year of sex reassignmentHe is referring to the extraordinary medical treatment he received after suffering the complete loss of his penis to a botched circumcision when he was 8 months old. On the advice of experts at the renowned Johns Hopkins medical center, in Baltimore, a sex-change operation was performed on him, a process that involved clinical castration and other genital surgery when he was a baby, followed by a 12-year program of social, mental and hormonal conditioning to make the transformation take hold in his psyche. The case was reported as an unqualified success, and he became one of the most famous (though unnamed) patients in the annals of modern medicine.