I recently finished reading the book, When Harry Became Sally, by Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation. This is a really well written book that examines the “transgender moment” our country has been in. Though I’m not thrilled about the title to this book as it could lead some readers to think the author doesn’t take these issues seriously, in fact the author takes this subject very seriously, and this is one of the best books I’ve read in my life. I cannot recommend this book enough! Please read it!
It is not written from a specifically Christian perspective, but from the perspective of someone who cares deeply about the scientific facts and studies related to these issues, and the law and policy debates around gender issues. This book was a breath of fresh air. I see Anderson as the kid in the children’s story, The Emperor’s New Clothes, who finally had the courage point out that the emperor is naked. Anderson is willing to against the political correctness pressure of our culture and point out that transgender ideology does not make sense. Here is something like a thesis statement near the beginning of the book. I agree completely:
The best biology, psychology, and philosophy all support an understanding of sex as a bodily reality, and of gender as a social manifestation of bodily sex. Biology isn’t bigotry.
Before I write glowing praise about the book, let me give a couple caveats about some weaknesses of the book:
1. Anderson has a bias, and it is the same as mine. This might have led him to pay much more attention to studies and leaders that support his own preconceived view. I have this problem sometimes, so I try to regularly read articles and books even by people who don’t agree with me on these issues of sex/gender. Anderson could have done more to engage with studies and thinkers who differ widely from his own views.
2. While Anderson did well to share the real stories of detransitioners, it seems he has largely ignored the stories of those who transitioned and have not detransitioned. Whether it’s true or not, the book at least gives the appearance that Anderson does not know any transsexuals and has not read them or interviewed them while doing research for this book. That is a big weakness of the book. In our culture today, especially among the youth, I fear his book will not get as wide a hearing as it deserves because of this gap. Today, it is the personal element, listening to people’s stories, that builds credibility. Perhaps he did interview transsexuals and hear their stories but it did not come out in the book.
Those caveats aside, this is still an incredibly important and helpful book. Anderson looks at the recent history of our country in regards to the broadening exposure of transgender people and transgender issues, especially in the media. In doing so, he looks at the terrible amount of pressure being put on people from trans activists and the culture in general. He examines how those who disagree with the prevailing popular notions about transgenderism are shamed or called hateful bigots, or even boycotted or fired from jobs in some cases. Some may call this a fear-mongering book, but the things he writes about are actually happening. He is not trying to cause people to be afraid for no reason. We should be afraid. Our culture is changing, our country is changing, and they are changing in scary ways. We need to do something to resist these changes.
One of the things I really appreciated in the book was his picking apart of transgender ideology and arguments, much the same way as I have done on this website many times. I will quote a few poignant paragraphs to peak your interest in reading more. From my own research, reading, and experience in debating with people, I agree with his points:
Three realities about transgender activists will become clear. First, they are always changing their creed and expanding their demands: yesterday’s mandatory vocabulary will become tomorrow’s epithets; yesterday’s enlightenment will be tomorrow’s benighted bigotry; yesterday’s requirements of Science and Medicine and Justice are tomorrow’s suicide-inducing oppression. Second, even as their own position shifts, the activists are absolutely closed off to contrary evidence: they call for the censure of honest researchers; they refuse to give any consideration to competing interests of privacy or safety; they reject alternative therapies that may be favored by parents or doctors. Third, because the transgender movement is so close-minded, it inclines toward coercion. All of this suggests a posture of defensiveness—that activists know their claims can’t stand up to scrutiny.
But transgender activists do. Regardless of whether they identify as “cisgender” or “transgender,” the activists promote a highly subjective and incoherent worldview. On the one hand, they claim that the real self is something other than the physical body, in a new form of Gnostic dualism, yet at the same time they embrace a materialist philosophy in which only the material world exists. They say that gender is purely a social construct, while asserting that a person can be “trapped” in the wrong body. They say there are no meaningful differences between man and woman, yet they rely on rigid sex stereotypes to argue that “gender identity” is real while human embodiment is not. They claim that truth is whatever a person says it is, yet they believe there’s a real self to be discovered inside that person. They promote a radical expressive individualism in which people are free to do whatever they want and define the truth however they wish, yet they try to enforce acceptance of transgender ideology in a paternalistic way.
If gender is a social construct, how can gender identity be innate and immutable? How can one’s identity with respect to a social construct be determined by biology in the womb? How can one’s identity be unchangeable (be immutable) with respect to an ever-changing social construct? And if gender identity is innate, how can it be “fluid”? The challenge for activists is to offer a plausible definition of gender and gender identity that is independent of bodily sex. Is there a gender binary or not? Somehow, it both does and does not exist, according to transgender activists. If the categories of “man” and “woman” are objective enough that people can identify as, and be, men and women, how can gender also be a spectrum, where people can identify as, and be, both or neither or somewhere in between? What does it even mean to have an internal sense of gender? What does gender feel like? What meaning can we give to the concept of sex or gender, and thus what internal “sense” can we have of gender, apart from having a body of a particular sex? Apart from having a male body, what does it “feel like” to be a man? Apart from having a female body, what does it “feel like” to be a woman? What does it feel like to be both a man and a woman, or to be neither? The challenge for the transgender activist is to explain what these feelings are like, and how someone could know if he or she “feels like” the opposite sex, or neither, or both.
One of the chief functions of the brain is to perceive physical reality. Thoughts that are in accordance with physical reality are normal. Thoughts that deviate from physical reality are abnormal—as well as potentially harmful to the individual or to others. This is true whether or not the individual who possesses the abnormal thoughts feels distress. A person’s belief that he is something or someone he is not is, at best, a sign of confused thinking; at worst, it is a delusion. Just because a person thinks or feels something does not make it so.86
Later in the book, Anderson discusses the issue of being people born with intersex conditions and he does a great job of explaining how this phenomenon does not bolster transgender arguments. He also analyzes the transitioning of young children today, and the problems caused by putting them on puberty blockers.
An important part of the book is when Anderson examines how some transsexuals detransition back to their real sex. Through hearing their stories, we learn that many people who transitioned thought that that was their only choice. They received no help in determining why they had the feelings that they had, or how to work through those feelings other than to pursue changing their bodies. These stories also revealed the pain people experienced when they realized the gender surgeries and hormones could not actually resolve their underlying conflicts and feelings. They never got the freedom they craved. Some of these detransitioners finally realized that it wasn’t them who had a problem, but rather the culture. It was the gender stereotypes in the culture that made them feel pressured to transition instead of being themselves.
I like this statement from Anderson on gender stereotypes:
We need to avoid the extremes of forced androgyny on the one hand, and inflexible stereotypes on the other. In play and in other respects, we need to allow boys and girls to express their sex-based differences and their individuality.
Anderson talks about brain studies and their inconclusive results. He talks briefly about the autogynephilia theory.
For me personally, the best part of the book was his examination of the differences between males and females, boys and girls, and men and women. Though what he wrote should be common sense, reading it helped me to undo a lot of the false thinking in my mind, the lies I was taught about sex/gender in school growing up. It was a wonderful section. He talked about scientific studies which prove general differences between men and women, but at the same time he left room for people having individual personalities and differences. This was the best book I’ve ever read about the differences between men and women. It goes along exactly with what I have been thinking myself over the last years, but he formulated in such a coherent and helpful way.
At the end of the book, he talks about the legal issues surrounding transgenderism in our country, especially bathroom and locker room debates. His thoughts and ideas provide a good balance between giving privacy and respect and fair treatment to transsexuals, while also protecting the privacy rights of men and women.
A last extremely helpful quotation:
Our transgender moment arose in part from a rebellion against the idea of innate differences between the sexes in disposition and preferences, on average and for the most part. We have seen efforts to stamp out those differences, in the belief that they are a product of social conditioning, artificial and unjust. A strain of radical feminism intersects with transgender ideology in the shared premise that gender has no real connection to biology and can be nullified or changed at will. An effective cultural response to transgender ideology entails recovering a sound cultural understanding of gender and sex differences. First, we must reject the concept of gender fluidity wherein every child has to choose a gender among numerous options—a burden that introduces confusion when children need clarity and guidance. Trying to make boys and girls the same, in a coercive androgyny, can also result in confusion and resentment. On the other hand, we needn’t adopt the overly rigid stereotypes that might lead a boy to think he should be a girl because he is sensitive and artistic, or a girl to think she might really be a boy because she prefers sports over dolls. Acknowledging the richly diverse ways of being male and female can help children more readily identify with and accept their own embodiment. Getting the balance right is the work of an entire culture. For children, developing into a healthy understanding of their bodies and their sexuality is a delicate enterprise, fraught with difficulties even in the best circumstances. Transgender ideology makes the process much more difficult by destabilizing what David Cloutier calls the “sexual ecology.” It challenges the normality of congruence between sex and gender simply because a small number of people have trouble reconciling themselves with their bodily sex. “To destabilize [the] default position of body/soul congruence,” writes Cloutier, “is to allow exceptional cases to reshape the entire ecology.”