When Harry Became Sally | Book Review
The implications of America’s ‘transgender moment’
America is in the midst of what has been called a ‘transgender moment,’” writes Ryan T. Anderson in When Harry Became Sally. “Not long ago, most Americans had never heard of transgender identity, but within the space of a year it became a cause claiming the mantle of civil rights.”
The inflection point was probably Diane Sawyer’s April 2015 interview with Bruce Jenner, in which he said, “for all intents and purposes I’m a woman,” taking the name Caitlyn a few months later. A judge legally approved Jenner’s name and gender change in September of that year. In October, Glamour magazine named Jenner a “Woman of the Year.”
Jenner’s transition put a well-known face on America’s transgender moment, but actions by the Obama administration gave the moment legal muscle. In a series of “Dear Colleague” letters, first the Department of Education (2010) and then the Department of Justice and Department of Education jointly (2016) redefined the word sex — i.e., biological sex — to include “gender identity.”
The Department of Health and Human Services (2016) similarly proposed expanding the meaning of sex to include “gender identity.” Various federal laws ban discrimination based on sex (e.g., Title IX), but Obama administration actions required schools and hospitals to act as if there were no legal difference between a biological female and a biological male who identifies as a woman. (The Trump administration reversed many of these executive actions.)
Popular culture and political action may have normalized transgender identity, but Anderson reminds readers how radical it is: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be, regardless of contrary evidence. A transgender boy is a boy, not merely a girl who identifies as a boy.”
This is a metaphysical claim, one that needs to be subjected to more scrutiny than it has been. When Harry Became Sally offers a multidisciplinary critique of transgender identity.
Chapters 1 and 2 describe our transgender moment and the ideology of transgender activists, respectively.
Chapter 3 then turns to the personal narratives of transgender people who subsequently detransitioned to their birth sex. Anderson argues that these stories “tell us, at minimum, that transitioning is not the ‘only solution’ to gender dysphoria.”
Popular culture and political action may have normalized transgender identity, but Ryan T. Anderson reminds readers how radical it is.
Chapter 4 examines “what science tells us about the biological basis of sex.” Anderson writes, “The fundamental conceptual distinction between a male and a female is the organism’s organization for sexual reproduction.” Indeed, he argues that “sex is a coherent concept only on the basis of that organization.”
Chapter 5 then explores the nature and treatment of gender dysphoria. Anderson understands it as “incongruence between biological sex and experienced gender.” How one defines gender dysphoria determines how one treats it.
“The central debate in treating people with gender dysphoria is whether therapies should focus primarily on the mind or on the body,” writes Anderson, who argues that treating the feeling of incongruity between biological sex and gender identity has better therapeutic outcomes than gender reassignment.
Chapter 6 examines gender dysphoria among children. Experts agree that between 80 and 95 percent of kids who experience gender dysphoria naturally resolve those feelings in favor of their biological sex. Because of this, Anderson argues, “We need medical professionals who will help them mature in harmony with their bodies, rather than deploy experimental treatments to refashion their bodies.”
Chapter 7 outlines a view of gender that Anderson believes is preferable to transgender identity theory. It is a “nuanced view of gender.” It avoids rigid gender stereotypes, even as it acknowledges that “gender norms” are not merely “social constructs.”
Chapter 8 concludes the book by examining transgender identity from the standpoint of public policy. Anderson’s primary concern is that “commonsense policies regarding bodily privacy and sound medicine are now being labeled discriminatory.”
In my judgment, When Harry Became Sally makes a persuasive case against the idea of transgender identity, as well as the medical and public policy practices that flow from that idea.
Five or 10 years ago, Anderson’s arguments would have been noncontroversial. Today, however, as popular culture and presidential politics have mainstreamed transgender identity, those arguments have become a matter of great controversy.
The value of When Harry Became Sally lies in its multidisciplinary arguments. If you’re looking for a book about what to do if you personally experience gender dysphoria, or how to help a friend or family member who experiences it, this is not the book to read.
Similarly, it is not a religious book. I read it from the perspective of a Christian minister interested in how the Church should respond to transgender persons. Though Anderson is Catholic, his arguments are secular in character, depending on biology, psychology and philosophy, not Scripture and theology. Anderson helped me understand the nature of transgender identity, but he didn’t outline a uniquely pastoral response to it.
In sum, When Harry Became Sally is the reasoned judgment of a public intellectual on an important matter of current controversy, well worth reading.
Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (New York: Encounter, 2018).