Review, Top Stories

The Real Gender Trouble

A Review of When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment by Ryan T. Anderson, Encounter Books (February, 2018) 264 pages.

In his new book, When Harry Became Sally, Ryan Anderson provides a sustained critique of the transgender rights movement. The book’s irreverent title is sure to turn heads; its contents will probably change some minds, too. Although Anderson is an outspoken social conservative, most of his arguments in this work could be advanced by someone who is politically left of center. Anderson is at pains to distinguish his criticism of transgender activists – by which he means people who promote a certain ideology, regardless of their sexual identities – from condemnation of transgender individuals as such. Surely he knows that such protestations will not insulate him from the charge of transphobic hatred. Here I analyze Anderson’s criticisms of the transgender movement and offer a few criticisms of my own, which I intend to be constructive in spirit.

The Transgender Movement’s Philosophy

Although they don’t usually acknowledge it, transgender activists make philosophical claims, which are susceptible to philosophical critique. Anderson dwells on these commitments most heavily in chapter 2, “What Transgender Activists Say.” He writes: “People say that we live in a postmodern age that has rejected metaphysics. That’s not quite true. We live in a postmodern age that promotes an alternative metaphysics.” The assertion that “A transgender boy is a boy, not merely a girl who identifies as a boy” is a metaphysical claim, though transgender activists “dress it up as a scientific or a medical claim” to avoid philosophical debate and the suggestion of controversy.

And the metaphysical claims are subject to change without warning or fanfare. In 2005, the pro-trans Human Rights Campaign referred to “birth sex” and “biological sex” as things that were distinct from, and capable of being in conflict with, gender identity. More recent rhetoric avoids mention of biological sex, substituting “sex assigned at birth.” This leaves mysterious what people observe with ultrasounds and announce at “gender reveal” parties if the sex of the unborn child has yet to be assigned. Previously transgender activists acknowledged that at least one aspect of a person’s sexual identity is the product of nature; the new language suggests it is all socially constructed. Present trends are toward ever more radical forms of subjectivism. Some now regard the “assignment” of sex at birth as a human rights violation.

The differences between two graphics used by transgender activists illustrates the trend. The Genderbread Person v3.3 (2015), includes biological sex as an identity category. By contrast the Gender Unicorn (2017), puts “sex assigned at birth” in the place of “biological sex” and adds a third category to the male/female dichotomy: other/intersex. I wonder how many people are “assigned” anything other than male, female or intersex at birth. And how do those people feel about being lumped together with the intersex folks for categorization purposes? The double helix at the unicorn’s cartoon crotch is the only acknowledgement that biology has something to do with sexuality – as if DNA were somehow more relevant to the genitals than to the rest of the body.

Instead of vouching for biology, the scientific and medical establishments have adopted the transgender movement’s preferred terminology and conceptual framework (as have many educators). In an expert declaration to a federal court regarding North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill,” Dr. Deanna Adkins, a professor at Duke University School of Medicine and director of the Duke Center for Child and Adolescent Gender Care, asserted that gender identity is “the only medically supported determinate of sex” when there is not “complete alignment among sex-related characteristics” including gender identity. Moreover, in such cases “It is counter to medical science to use chromosomes, hormones, internal reproductive organs, external genitalia, or secondary sex characteristics to override gender identity for the purposes of classifying someone as male or female.”

Anderson points out that, “This is a remarkable claim, not least because the argument was recently that gender is only a social construct, while sex is a biological reality. Now, activists claim that gender identity is destiny, while biological sex is the social construct.” He queries whether this standard should apply to any other animals besides humans. But this line of interrogation misfires. Adkins doesn’t seem to be opposed to using external features to identify sex when there is no conflict with gender identity (presumably, only humans have gender identities). A better question to ask Adkins is why gender identity takes precedence over external features when they do conflict.

Adkins defines gender identity as “a person’s inner sense of belonging to a particular gender, such as male or female.” The American Psychological Association offers a similar definition: “a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else.” Both definitions imply that there is an unspecified number of alternatives to male and female, and neither explains why ‘male’ and ‘female’ constitute genders in the first place. Nor is it clear what the feeling of being a male is if it is distinct from the feeling of being embodied as a male. Until we have satisfactory answers to these questions, we don’t know what gender identity is, or why it is considered the sole determinant of sex.

When gender identity is divorced from biology, the only way to distinguish a male from a female gender identity is to rely on gender stereotypes. We can imagine a woman’s mind in a man’s body, or a biological woman who defies gender stereotypes with regard to preferences and behavior. But try to say something substantive about the gender identity “woman” – something that would distinguish it from other gender identities – without referencing either biology or gender stereotypes. The DSM-5, the most recent edition of American Psychological Association’s guide for identifying mental illnesses, includes having a “strong preference for toys, games or other activities stereotypically used or engaged in by the other gender” among its diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria. Why not assume that children with such preferences are simply members of their biological sex who defy the stereotypes?

The epistemic claims made by transgender activists are no less subject to scrutiny. Supposedly, we should accept the word of children when they say they have a certain gender identity. Anderson asks whether a pre-pubescent child is an authority on what it is to be a man or a woman. It isn’t as though we generally defer to their judgment. To this I would add that some people do not transition until late in life. By that point, they have for many years believed – falsely, they later come to think – that their genders are whatever was “assigned” at birth. If transgender individuals can be mistaken about their genders prior to transitioning, then why assume they couldn’t possibly be mistaken about their gender after, or in the course of, transitioning? Why assume that an internal sense of gender cannot be outweighed by contrary external evidence?

Consequences for society

The American Civil Liberties Union describes itself as an organization that “champions transgender people’s right to be themselves,” which suggests that transgender activists are motivated by a “live and let live” philosophy. But because the underlying conception of selfhood is so radical, this implies a right to live in a society devoid of gender norms. It is far from clear that most people would flourish under these conditions. “In a culture where transgender identities are not only affirmed, but celebrated,” Anderson writes, “everyone will be compelled to construct their own gender identities, unaided by a common understanding of sex differences and why they matter.”

Transforming society along these lines necessarily has implications for the rights and interests of others. Privacy is a case in point. According to transgender activists, transgender individuals have a right to access all areas reserved for the gender that they identify as. That is to all areas, such as bathrooms and locker rooms, traditionally reserved for people of the opposite biological sex. In its final year, the Obama administration capitulated to these demands with a series of departmental decrees. Under the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s September 20, 2016 “Gender Identity Rule” (an amendment to the Equal Access Rule published in 2012), shelters for battered women are required to provide the same accommodations to anyone identifying as women – with no documentation required or “intrusive questions” asked.

The new policy for educational facilities (now rescinded by the Trump administration) maintained that transgender students have the right to use whatever facilities were suitable to their proclaimed gender identities. Compromises such as the construction of new single-occupancy restrooms, or requirements that transgender students to change behind a shower curtain while using the opposite sex’s locker room, were categorically rejected as discriminatory. Previously, the Department of Justice had decided that even prisoners have a right not to be seen naked by non-medical prison staff of the opposite sex in ordinary circumstances. Hence students in the public school system were in this respect granted less privacy than inmates. Anderson writes:

With the [May 13, 2016] “Dear Colleague” letter from the Justice and Education Departments, the Obama administration instructed schools that they may not even notify students (or their parents) about whether they will have to share a bathroom, a shower, or a locker room with a student of the opposite biological sex. The privacy of transgender students is held to be paramount; the privacy of other students irrelevant.

Safety is a related issue. Anderson discusses several cases in which male sexual predators claimed transgender identity in order to gain access to women’s facilities. Kenneth V. Lanning, a law enforcement veteran who specializes in preventing and solving sex crimes, said that “gender-identity-based access policies” make intent more difficult to establish: “Is the biological male who shows his private parts to a woman coming out of a women’s restroom stall a flasher or a transgendered person? What about the biological male whose eyes wander while in a woman’s locker room?” Women may be reluctant to report suspicious behavior if they aren’t sure. To this I would add that, because gender identity is supposed to be independent of sexual orientation, biological males who are attracted to women, and who might become aroused by the sight of naked women, presumably have the same right to use these facilities. This further complicates the task of identifying predatory imposters.

The book’s sixth chapter, “Childhood Dysphoria and Desistance,” reads like a non-fiction work of dystopian literature. Although 80-95 percent of children with gender dysphoria desist – i.e., grow out of it naturally – in adolescence, transgender activists demand a policy of “affirmation” towards “trans youth.” A policy, that is, of embracing and reinforcing the child’s proclaimed gender identity, without waiting for, let alone encouraging, desistance. The first stage of affirmation is social transition, in which the child changes names, uses the new gender’s facilities, etc. Next the child is given hormone blockers to prevent the onset of puberty for the “wrong” gender. This is followed by the administration of hormones of the biological sex the child is transitioning to: estrogen for males, testosterone for females. If they continue on this path into adulthood, the process culminates with gender reassignment surgery (which Anderson addresses in chapter 3).

Anderson argues that not nearly enough rigorous scientific research has been done on the effects of hormone blockers when they are used to treat gender dysphoria, so this treatment remains essentially experimental. Information on pro-trans websites seems to support this. British Columbia’s Transgender Health Information Program notes that puberty blockers “temporarily limit or stop” such things as “Growth in height,” “Development of sex drive,” “Accumulation of calcium in the bones” and “Fertility.” Nonetheless, “Puberty blockers are considered to be very safe overall” and their effects are “fully reversible.” However, “we won’t know the long-term effects until the first people to take puberty-blockers get older.” So we don’t know that it’s fully reversible. And what was the state of our knowledge when puberty blockers were first administered to these children?

Transgender activists deny that desistance is a legitimate treatment objective. They think that children with gender dysphoria should not be encouraged to embrace their biological sexes. The Canadian sex researcher Kenneth Zucker, one of the world’s leading experts on transgender healthcare and a staunch advocate of transgender rights, became persona non grata for espousing the heresy that desistance is desirable. In the U.S., several states have adopted measures ostensibly to forbid “conversion therapy,” or therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation, for minors. These laws offer explicit protection for therapy that “affirms” a child’s proclaimed gender identity, but not for desistance therapy. So medical professionals in these states are under pressure to promote transition rather than desistance, even though most children with gender dysphoria would eventually desist without medical intervention.

Zucker’s research suggests that desistance-inducing therapy for children holds promise. On the other hand, the medical interventions that transgender activists recommend tend to make dysphoria persist into adulthood. Anderson teeters on the brink of ad hominem attack when he writes: “It’s hard to avoid the sense that an underlying motive for promoting social transition, followed by puberty blockers, is to “lock in” a transgender identity.” Presumably, the purpose of doing this would be to strengthen the transgender movement. Some will balk at the suggestion that the medical establishment could be corrupted by fashionable ideology to the point that they would let this happen. But the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century is proof that the medical establishment is not immune to this kind of corruption.


In chapter 4, “What Makes us a Man or a Woman,” Anderson endorses the idea that sex organs have a teleology, or natural function. Previously, he has relied on that idea to argue against same-sex marriage. We might wonder, then, whether accepting everything Anderson says in When Harry Became Sally commits us to traditionalism about marriage (I think the answer is “no”). Anderson doesn’t mention his other positions, presumably because he wants to focus on the issue at hand. The drawback is we might want to know more about how the issues discussed in this book relate to other issues. Moreover, uncharitable readers might suspect that he wants to avoid alerting his audience to implications that they would find unwelcome.

Anderson approvingly quotes philosopher Robert P. George, one of his co-authors for the same-sex marriage article, who says that “Changing sexes is a metaphysical impossibility because it is a biological impossibility.” I am skeptical on two counts. First, I don’t see grounds for asserting that sex change is biologically impossible even if “gender reassignment” surgeries don’t really change sex. It seems that on Anderson’s and George’s view, sex could be changed only if patients could receive wholly integrated, reproductively functional sex organs of the opposite sex. That’s suspect given that some men and women don’t have reproductively functional sex organs. Moreover, how sure can they be that biotechnology will not progress to the point that surgeons will one day accomplish this? Second, it’s far from obvious that biological impossibility implies metaphysical impossibility. In any event, I don’t think that Anderson needs to rely on such controversial metaphysical premises to make his points.

How long we can expect this transgender “moment” to last? In his conclusion, Anderson briefly addresses this question. He attempts to end on an optimistic note. Notwithstanding his efforts, I come away with the impression that the answer is “quite a long time” and that things will get worse before they get better. The transgender activists are no longer underdogs, and their ideas will be difficult to dislodge from the medical and education establishments where they are now entrenched. Although these ideas are unpopular, a concerted movement against them has yet to coalesce. I suspect that before it is over, we will see parents losing custody of their children for failing to affirm their proclaimed gender identities, and biotechnology being used to help people transition into novel gender identities other than male or female. But sooner or later, the moment will end. Many will rediscover that our identities as males or females do not depend upon our subjective preferences. This is truth may be painful for some to accept, but it is far more painful to deny.


Spencer Case is a philosophy doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder who writes for Quillette, National Review, and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @SpencerJayCase


  1. Many of Ryan T. Anderson’s critiques of the transgender movement have merit, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that he’s partly arguing in bad faith. I have read the book, and I think he commits two errors that undermine his overall point:

    1. He fails to disclose his devout Roman Catholic faith. He has a right to his religious beliefs, but they offer him a foregone conclusion that colors his worldview. He spends a lot of time discussing why sex reassignment doesn’t have good outcomes for transgender people, but why? Even if it had perfect results all of the time, Anderson still would not support transgenderism.

    2. Anderson neglects to point out that most of the transgender children who desist grow up to be gay men and lesbians. Indeed, one theory about why people identify as transgender is that they feel ashamed of their homosexuality. Anderson mentions this argument, but he doesn’t seem introspective enough to realize that his actions as a staunch anti-gay marriage advocate have contributed to that shame. He makes a handful of vague references to why “rigid sex stereotypes” are harmful, but the idea that every individual should be heterosexual is one of those rigid stereotypes, and that’s an idea that he and the Roman Catholic Church have both taught.

    Thank you for the interesting review.

    • Robert Paulson says

      1. I would be curious to know if you would also support Jews having to disclose themselves as such if they were writing a book on Arab-Israeli relations?

      2. You seem to be suggesting that Anderson’s actions as an advocate against gay marriage have “contributed to a sense of shame” among homosexuals that feel ashamed and decide to transition. Unless you can point specific persons who know of Mr. Anderson and his advocacy and have been personally effected by it, this point seems specious.

      Otherwise, you would have to resort nebulous claims about contributing to a “climate” of shame. Such claims are tenuous and cannot be proved since I don’t see how it is possible 1) quantify a person’s sense of shame, and then 2) attribute a certain proportion of that shame back to the actions of a specific person such as Mr. Anderson.

      • 1. Merely being Jewish isn’t an ideology. There are Jews on all sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Roman Catholicism is an ideology, though. A devout Roman Catholic can still write a good book about transgenderism, of course. However, I do think it’s a little disingenuous for Anderson to act as if he merely conducted a dispassionate review of the scientific literature. When you have conservative religious beliefs that will only allow you to reach one conclusion, that is something that your readers should know.

        2. I did mean to say that Anderson contributed to a climate of shame, but if you don’t think that’s accurate, let me put it another way. In When Harry Became Sally Anderson favorably quotes Dr. Paul McHugh and repeats the theory that many transgender women are “guilt-ridden homosexual men who saw a sex-change as a way to resolve their conflicts over homosexuality by allowing them to behave sexually as females with men” (p. 109). One method of treating them, then, is to help them accept their homosexuality. This theory might be correct; I don’t know. What interests me is that Anderson is an ardent adherent of a religion that is notorious for fostering this type of guilt. His own political and cultural views have been consistently against any expansion of gay rights or even the “normalization of homosexuality” in the media. He has written elsewhere of the necessity for gay Christians to “struggle” against their homosexual desires. So, the treatment McHugh advocates would be a non-starter for him.

        In sum, Anderson doesn’t believe that gay couples should have full marriage rights and has spent a good portion of his career arguing against those rights. He doesn’t think that homosexuality should be “normalized” in popular culture. He belongs to a religion that says homosexuals are “objectively disordered” and that homosexuality is an “intrinsic moral evil” worthy of eternal damnation. And, unlike liberal Catholics, Anderson is very clear about accepting the church’s teachings on this matter. So, I find it incoherent for Anderson to feign sympathy for “guilt-ridden homosexuals” when he promotes an ideology that peddles guilt. Similarly, I find it incoherent for Linda Sarsour to claim to be a feminist while wearing a hijab and promoting Islam.

        As I said, many of Anderson’s criticisms about transgenderism are valid. I think the book is a worthwhile read. But I don’t think it’s irrelevant to discuss an author’s underpinning ideology while criticizing his book.

          • Well said! Would it be preferable if my atheist mate wrote the same book? Would that improve the arguments?

            Of course not. He’s not mentioned Catholicism because he doesn’t need to.

            Are you really saying that ones faith must be qualified every time you comment on something that may relate?

            What stinks most though is a presumption that he reached his conclusion illogically before reasoning and not after. ‘Only allow you to reach one conclusion’…so it was chance he came across these arguments?

            In reality the reply attempts to make the book appear to be an adhoc reaction to justify a belief and not the other way around!

          • I said elsewhere that Anderson made many logical points. If you think it’s bigotry to criticize his adherence to Catholicism, is it also bigotry to criticize Linda Sarsour’s adherence to Islam? Of course not. If Linda Sarsour wrote a feminist manifesto, centrist and conservative readers would rightly wonder how her liberal political beliefs jibed with the totalitarian religion she follows. An individual’s ideas do not exist in a vacuum. Some of the ideas that Anderson proposes in When Harry Became Sally are good; others are incompatible with his other writings on faith and sexuality. It’s not wrong for a reader to point out those contradictions. Leave it to college-aged snowflakes to throw around “bigot” unnecessarily. Anderson is right to say that biology isn’t bigotry. Neither is criticism of a religion.

        • Being Jewish isn’t an ideology, but being Roman Catholic is? That’s some seriously biased thinking since the last time I checked, Roman Catholicism and Judaism are both religions with the own ideologies right alongside Islam, Hindu, Shinto and others. And what is the adjective “devout” trying to do? Like alt-Right it is a smear. A good percentage of “devout Roman Catholics” believe in birth control so are they no longer devout? What is the measure for devoutness?

          • There are plenty of atheist Jews. Being Jewish is an ethnicity; it’s not entirely religious. This means that Jews can hold a wide array of opinions. I would argue that Roman Catholics who don’t uphold the church’s clear teachings are not devout. I would say they are liberal or heterodox. I used the term devout to clarify that Anderson strongly believes the church’s teachings; he isn’t a lapsed Catholic. In no way was it intended as a smear. Those are his beliefs. He writes about them publicly.

        • It’s not Marriage Rights, it’s Marriage RITES! Societies, tribes, groups, whatever, be they secular, religious, or a mixture, promote and support opposite sex couples bonding in the RITE of Marriage (its root is in creating a Mother) because of the potential to procreate and so propagate the society. By definition a same sex couple can’t do that. And there is nothing stopping opposite sex gay couples Marrying if they want to play Mummies and Daddies and create babies! Societies don’t give tax breaks to opposite sex couples who Marry so that they can throw a bigger party to Celebrate their Luuuuurve with family and friends. And they don’t give them Marriage Certificates to give them an excuse to have a party. Get Over It!!!

      • “Unless you can point specific persons who know of Mr. Anderson and his advocacy and have been personally effected by it, this point seems specious.”

        I, for one, am a gay man who has lived a 51yo life shamed for being homosexual and repeatedly been mocked as a man for that.

        I never felt I had to become a woman in order to fit in heterosexual society, yet, I do know a lot of people about whom I could definitely argue that they transitioned in order to have an easier life, one where their gender identity and social expectations matched, unlike the life of a homosexual, which remains pretty much very difficult outside of a few blocks in the gay villages of super-privileged and progressive cities like New York or London.

        • And the homophobic arguments against same-sex marriage by the likes of Anderson and the Catholic Church are exactly the reason why the life of a homosexual, which remains pretty much very difficult

        • @Otis
          “I never felt I had to become a woman in order to fit in heterosexual society”

          I haven’t read Anderson’s book so I can’t speak for his stance specifically, but I want to go into what I’ve picked up from some different accounts by transgender people and the people who study them. (Actually my starting point was another Quillette article:

          Looking at the subgroup of people who have (1) been diagnosed as transgender (2) later desisted (3) came out as homosexual instead of trans, I get the impression they didn’t actively decide “Life would be easier if I were a heterosexual woman” so much as a more vague internal process of “I feel attracted to men, which is something women do, maybe that makes me a woman inside.” (You can reverse everything to make it apply to homosexual women, of course). I want to emphasize that I’m talking about children and teens, not adults. People who won’t have had years to get used to their bodies and minds, and may not even have entered puberty. We already know that you can prime a kid to say all sorts of things (see: the Satanic preschool panic), and if people are on a hair-trigger to draw out and encourage any statements of “I’m X trapped in a Y body” as Gender Affirmative treatment dictates, you can see where we’d get so many misdiagnoses.

          Since this is happening to fairly young children and teens, my concern is that young homosexual kids are not being given a chance to explore their homosexuality, and instead getting railroaded very quickly into being heterosexual transgender by activists who are far too attached to Gender Affirmative types of treatment.

          • Also forgot to clarify, I don’t mean to imply any kids who wander down the “I feel attracted to men, which is something women do, maybe that makes me a woman inside” train of thought are correct. They’re just exploring ideas. Hopefully if they (people turn out to be homosexual instead of transgender) were allowed to examine themselves comfortably and without activist interference, they would eventually conclude “I’m attracted to men, but I’m still a man, I’m a homosexual man.”

          • Andrew Mcguiness says

            ‘Hopefully if they (people turn out to be homosexual instead of transgender) were allowed to examine themselves comfortably and without activist interference, they would eventually conclude “I’m attracted to men, but I’m still a man, I’m a homosexual man.” ‘

            Or, they could say, “Hey, I’m a person who is attracted to men, and also attracted to women, and doesn’t conform behaviourally to any particular genderm and happens to have [check inside own pants] *that* kind of genitals.’

    • For logical and philosophical points, there is no need to disclose beliefs. In part, because philosophy is a way of looking the world based on your belief system. Should a Muslim talking about refugees disclose its affiliation? Or should just make the points as good as he/she can? If someone disagrees, would it be a valid point to say that he/she is muslim? that it dismiss any arguments? NO

      • I’m not dismissing Anderson’s arguments just because he’s a Roman Catholic. I’m saying that his Catholicism and his past writings about sex and sexuality make some of the arguments in When Harry Became Sally incoherent. I find it contradictory for Anderson to bemoan the rigid sex stereotypes that transgenderism espouses while at the same time upholding one of those strict sex stereotypes—namely, that it is immoral to fall in love with someone of the same sex. This belief makes his concern that transgender women are “guilt-ridden homosexual men” come across as dishonest.

        It would be wrong to immediately dismiss a Muslim’s or a Christian’s arguments only because of his faith, but I haven’t done that. Anderson raises a lot of good points about “desistance,” de-transitioners, and the overall incoherence of transgender dogma. However, it is still not wrong to evaluate an individual’s arguments in the context of his broader belief system. I wouldn’t be inappropriate for a Muslim, an atheist, or a Catholic author.

        • That last sentence should say, “It wouldn’t be inappropriate,” not “I wouldn’t be inappropriate.”

    • Your criticism that “he’s partly arguing in bad faith” because “He fails to disclose his devout Roman Catholic faith” is based on identity politics. Would you have the same complaint if it was a Muslim from Somalia making the same arguments? A persons identity has nothing whatsoever to do with the argument they put forth, it’s either well reasoned and consistent with logic or it’s not.

      • Neither Roman Catholicism nor Islam is an “identity.” They are both belief systems that readers can evaluate. You’re right to say that a man’s identity has nothing to do with the argument he puts forth. His belief system, however, does. It doesn’t make any sense at all to divorce Anderson’s natural-law arguments from his faith. As a Catholic reader pointed out, his faith is evidently their origin. Yes, one can evaluate his natural-law arguments in a vacuum (and Spencer Case does so in his criticism), but Anderson is a public intellectual who has written about these topics for years. I don’t think it’s inappropriate at all to say that the solutions he puts forth in When Harry Became Sally are inconsistent with his faith and his writings elsewhere.

        And I would criticize a Muslim author as well. I’m highly critical of Islam.

        I just don’t think you can criticize rigid sex stereotypes on the one hand and be condemnatory to gays and lesbians on the other. It is incoherent to claim that transgender women are gay men who only need to accept themselves in your book and then promote groups like Courage on Twitter. Anderson claims that it’s extreme for a person to want to change his natural body (and it is), but he has no qualms about telling gay people to suppress their sexual desires and live permanent lives of celibacy. “Accept your body” but “reject your sexuality” are not consistent, in my opinion.

        I think people seem to be upset that I’m not evaluating When Harry Became Sally in a vacuum, but I’ve followed Anderson’s work for many years. I admire his intelligence, his writing ability, and his civility, but I do think his ultimate goal—to present secular arguments for Catholic morality—is disingenuous.

        • It’s a shame that a few people have jumped down your throat Jay for your original comment as I thought it was perfectly fair and reasonable, and most of these attacks on you haven’t been. I haven’t read Anderson’s book and I’m willing to bet others who are criticizing you haven’t either.

          This is not about identity, it’s about *ideas*. It’s weird to see people who might criticize identity politics immediately fall back on the lazy, intellectually-suspect arguments of identity politics. Take out the “Roman Catholic” part and just talk about ideas:

          Before he wrote this book, Anderson held strong negative views about the morality of homosexuality and transgenderism – strong negative views he was unlikely to change, which it’s reasonable to expect would colour his inquiry into the issue and his conclusions about it. Where those views came from isn’t important, but the fact that he held them is, and I agree with you, it would be more honest and forthcoming if he disclosed them up front. It doesn’t mean his conclusions are wrong (or right), but it may have affected how he got there, and may reveal flaws in his reasoning.

  2. Veronica says

    “This is a remarkable claim, not least because the argument was recently that gender is only a social construct, while sex is a biological reality. Now, activists claim that gender identity is destiny, while biological sex is the social construct.”

    This is an equivocation. Gender feminists base their opposition to transgender rights (and even the existence of transgender people on the first argument (i.e. “that gender is only a social construct”). The existence of transgender people thus refutes the underlying principle of gender feminism.

    The available science suggests gender feminists’ claim is mostly false. Gender identity is essentially fixed in adults, although it is more fluid in children.

    The real problem, then, is that children may be diagnosed as transgender and undergo gender transition, only to have their gender identity align with their biological sex once they reach adulthood.

  3. Criticising Anderson’s argument because he is Catholic or, indeed, socially conservative, is an ad hom.

    Besides, transgenderism is more of a threat to homosexuality than conservatism. How can you be attracted to the same sex if sexual identity is in flux? We have already seen pre-op transwomen shaming lesbians into having sex with them, even trying to destroy the careers of lesbian pornstars for refusing to have oral sex with transwomen.

    • I didn’t quite say that his Catholicism negated his argument. As I said, he raises a lot of good points. I just pointed out that he was partly arguing in bad faith. There’s an undercurrent of dishonesty in When Harry Became Sally if you read it with Anderson’s other writings in mind. However, I agree that transgenderism and homosexuality mostly are at odds with one another. I addressed other issues in my reply to Robert Paulson. Cheers.

    • Jane Dough says

      Yes, it’s an ad hominem. But simply making the observation gives an idea of his likely motivation.

      You’re making the same equivocation that Anderson did, and it’s pretty egregious. Gender feminists are the ones who argue that gender is a “construct,” that it’s the result of social conditioning; the existence of transgender people pretty much shoots that one down.

      “Transwomen shaming lesbians” isn’t really a thing. Read this blog post, for instance:

      And wasn’t the porn star (two words, bro) blacklisted for not having sex with men who did gay for pay?

      • I was under the impression that all “progressives” and “liberals” argued that everything was a social construct, something to do a tabula rasa or sumfink?!

    • “Criticising Anderson’s argument because he is Catholic or, indeed, socially conservative, is an ad hom.”

      With a dash of Genetic Fallacy, maybe.

      • I’m not “criticizing Anderson’s argument because he is Catholic or socially conservative.” I’m saying that those things influence his argument and limit its reach, thereby undermining it. Anderson believes that homosexuality is immoral and has supported the Catholic organization Courage on Twitter. Courage seeks to help gay people suppress their sexual orientations and embrace celibacy in line with Catholic teaching. (Good luck with that, I say.) Anderson has also allowed conversion-therapy practitioners and advocates to write articles for his Web site, The Public Discourse.

        Many of the arguments in When Harry Became Sally are sound on their own, and I said that. But if you look at the whole context of the author’s worldview, they become inconsistent. “Accept your body” and “reject your sexuality” are not congruous. It doesn’t make sense, on the one hand, to say that transgender women are shame-filled gay men who want to become women to live more comfortable lives and then, on the other hand, to support organizations and institutions that promote this same type of shame and repression.

        If you wish to examine When Harry Became Sally‘s arguments in a vacuum, you should. I can’t because I’m too familiar with Anderson’s other writings and views.

        • Robert Paulson says

          I don’t see how it is inconsistent to argue that some transgenders are actually homosexuals trying to escape their guilt and also in different parts of his work engage in “shaming” homosexuals. Where is the inconsistency here?

          • Well, much of the book discusses why it would be better for these “guilt-ridden homosexuals to accept” their sexualities, and he promotes the work of secular therapists like Kenneth Zucker who help them do just that. I agree with that, so I’m not arguing with that particular point. It seems pretty evident that accepting one’s sexuality and body is much better than attempting to change them radically, so I do not argue with Anderson there.

            But, in light of his condemnatory views about homosexuality, it just seems like odd and inconsistent advice. His vocal support for ministries and therapies that encourage people to suppress their sexualities doesn’t jibe with the arguments made in the book. According to his worldview, a “guilt-ridden homosexual” should accept his body but then suppress his sexuality. In When Harry Became Sally, he only mentions the “accept his body” part, so it sounds good. But I think he’s disingenuous because I don’t think his views about homosexuality have changed. His opinion about what’s acceptable is very narrow.

  4. The existence of transgender people thus refutes the underlying principle of gender feminism.

    True, but transgenderism is a logical consequence of feminism’s insistence on the separation of gender and biological sex.

    If gender is simply a social construct there’s no reason a biological man can’t be a socially constructed woman.

    Had feminism stuck to arguing for gender equality instead of against the notion of gender itself we wouldn’t now have biological men occupying spaces on all-women shortlists or pushing female sports records far beyond the abilities of sportswomen who had the ‘misfortune’ to be born female.

    • I can honestly say feminism had no impact on me being a trans woman. Honestly having people argue whether or not my existence is a consequence of something is rather strange. I’m not ashamed of my “homosexuality.” I’ve never felt immersed in gay culture, or consumed gay porn, But im sure no one wants to hear my opinion on this. It’s weird to have my identity be a discussion among people.
      I don’t see why my life needs to be a point of political discussion, I just want to pass, get bottom surgery, find a husband, not lie to him about my past, and then live happily.
      Take my word for it I’m just out to be comfortable in my own skin, in fact my Hormone replacement therapy has eased my discomfort quite a lot, which wouldn’t really make sense if i was a gay man(hell that would actually cause dysphoria in a gay man), and my sexuality is something I’m pretty rock solid about.

      • Daniel PV says

        I’d like to get more insight Mina. Please share. Hopefully this forum is sufficiently logical and non-hysterical to get some kind of learning opportunity for us all.

      • Hello, Mina. Since I mentioned the argument elsewhere in the thread, I just wanted to point out that I didn’t necessarily believe McHugh’s theory that transgender women are guilty gay men. I just pointed out that it was hypocritical of Anderson to promote it in light of his other beliefs about gay men. All the best to you.

      • Robert Paulson says

        Mina, we are not discussing your personal life, we are discussing ideas. Just because some of those ideas are important to your identity does not mean they cannot be discussed in the abstract, apart from your personal subjectivity.

        I often hear identity activists using the “you have no right to talk about my life” as a form or rhetorical power grab to monopolize the discussion of certain ideas that are important to them. (I’m not saying this is what you are doing).

        That being said, your experience as a transwoman is important because you have personal experience with this and can provide valuable insight for those of us who are not trans. For instance, could you explain what “gender identity” is?

    • Veronica says

      That’s another equivocation. Transgender is a biological condition, and certainly not a “logical consequence” of any advocacy or set of principles.

      “If gender is simply a social construct there’s no reason a biological man can’t be a socially constructed woman.”

      Yes, this is the irony of gender feminism. Notice, though, that the medical and psychological communities (and transgender people) aren’t making that claim. The anti-trans feminists, however, are.

      “Had feminism stuck to arguing for gender equality instead of against the notion of gender itself we wouldn’t now have biological men occupying spaces on all-women shortlists or pushing female sports records far beyond the abilities of sportswomen who had the ‘misfortune’ to be born female.”

      Again, you’re conflating gender feminism — which rejects trans people — with feminism as a whole. The issues you cite are dependent on accepting that rejection. If a trans woman author is, say, nominated for a writing award that goes to a woman, her nomination is only a problem if one denies she is female.

      Likewise, “biological men…pushing female sports record far beyond the abilities of sportswomen” isn’t a thing. The NWHL did have one player come out as transgender, so the league came up with a policy on transgender athletes. Players can’t undergo masculinizing hormone therapy, and trans women have to have hormonal levels in the same range as non-trans women.

      But I think there’s also some underlying sexism in focusing the prejudice, the bad logic, and the anti-science attitudes on transgender women, and meanwhile trying to blame feminism for the moral panic.

  5. A good and thankfully-neutral review of the issues. Is it the author or the reviewer who feels that the medical profession is “corrupted” by social fashions? I would argue that the medical profession simply reflects the prevailing philosophy. When society was conservative on birth control and abortion, the medical profession was too, but when laws were changed the profession changed very quickly to make both available. When (Canadian) public opinion on medically-assisted death changed and laws were drafted to legalize the procedure, the medical profession reversed a 2,000 year ban on “mercy killing” within six months. Public pressure from lawmakers, politicians, activists and civil rights organizations was very strong to accept gender identity on the basis of self expression and doctors who disagreed were fired from their positions. A significant majority of doctors did not agree with this position but their arguments were dismissed by neomodernists as an invalid “medical model”, which had to give way to the prevalent philosophy. And since anyone speaking up against the philosophy was bullied as transphobic and bigoted, counter-argument was effectively stifled.

    This philosophy seems to be creating huge issues as the full impact of wrongful first assumptions becomes evident. But people are starting to speak up, and leadership by philosophers like Dr Peterson is encouraging others to challenge what has, until now, been unchallengeable.

  6. Well, I thought I knew what I wanted to say until I read some of the responses.
    I admit I haven’t read the book, but was interested in reading the review. Without having read the book, I did think that the review was written in a compelling and logical way until almost the very end.
    However, the second from the last sentence seemed to be missing something. I wasn’t sure what made him arrive at that conclusion because there was no “because”.
    At that very moment, as a lifelong Roman Catholic, it occurred to me what was missing…God’s part in all this. It’s interesting that one commenter found the writer’s Catholicism may have influenced his conclusions. I have to agree with that person. In fact, at the very end, I thought the author could have used a good quote from Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas Aquinas. That was before I had certain knowledge that he was Roman Catholic, though I suspected it.
    Having said that, I agree that Mr Case should have made made his Catholicism clear from the outset. In fact, he should have given a really good apologetic reason for his conclusion that people will realize their male or female identities do not come from their subjective ideas about themselves. That Mr Case’s Catholicism influences his thinking and writing should be used as a solid proof of it’s logic, not as reason to presume prejudice.
    I very much enjoyed reading all the comments. Overall, I thought they were very respectful.

    • I’m glad to hear a Catholic weigh in. We might disagree about Catholicism and Christianity in general, but I agree that it’s hard to read Anderson’s writing without seeing how his faith has influenced him. He’s a devoted proponent of natural law, and it shows. I don’t think it necessarily makes him prejudiced, but it gives his views context that readers should evaluate. If you like Anderson’s writing, you should check out First Things. He writes for them regularly. Cheers.

      • If you recall, I did not read the book, but was lured into the discussion by the quality of the review and comments on the review. That I hadn’t read the book makes me the least qualified to comment, I realize. I found the discussion very thought-provoking, so I jumped in. It’s very interesting to read and ponder what other people think. Sadly, though I am a Roman Catholic, I I am not theologically grounded enough to be a very good apologist. I need to read much more. Thank you for your participation.

  7. What I can’t quite grasp what ‘gender ‘identity’ really is.

    I understand biological sex. I understand gender expression. These are clearly defined concepts and the definitions allow me to classify myself and others as to their biological sex and gender expression. I say this as a biological male who likes typically male things and also has a feminine side.

    I have no idea what ‘gender identity’ is.

    A common definition is: “Gender identity is one’s personal experience of one’s own gender.” (I got this from Wikipedia but it’s pretty common). Well I don’t understand what this means. What it seems to mean is that gender identity is a totally subjective thing that can be anything one wants it to be. Which is essentially what the activists say. But as a definition it’s pretty useless because it does not describe any characteristics of what is defined and it doesn’t identify any criteria by which one can decide if something falls within the class. And it’s tautological: it defines gender as gender.

    Definitionally, it’s not helpful to explain it by saying that a biological male who likes ‘girl things’ and wants to be a biological girl ‘identifies’ as a female. Or at least if this is the explanation, then gender identity is being defined by a person’s biological sex and gender expression, and I think this is definitely NOT what the activists claim. They claim that gender identity is different from and independent of biological sex and gender expression. If I understand correctly, it’s not the desire to transition, for example, from male to female biological sex that defines one as having a female gender identity. The notion of gender identity posits that a female gender identity is the intrinsic feeling of truly being female (for example) that precedes and causes the desire to change biological sex in order to bring one’s gender identity and biological sex into alignment. This seriously begs the question of what it means to “truly be” of a gender. Because the activists definitely act as if they believe that the gender one identifies as is a persons ‘true’ or ‘real’ gender. Otherwise, it would be legitimate to treat gender dysphoria by desistance therapy.

    I wonder if gender identity wasn’t a polite term that was originally invented to explain gender dysphoria in a way that didn’t stigmatize victims as confused or mentally ill. This is laudable. But it has since been hijacked by activists in order to argue that only a person’s self-declared identity is legitimate and should be respected, without being constrained by biological sex or socially constructed gender expression. I have no problem with the idea that each of us should strive to develop our identities as individuals. But we humans are biological beings who are culturally encapsulated and live in social communities. It can’t be healthy for individuals (or society) to encourage people to develop their identities ignoring our biological and social realities.

    So is gender identity a real thing – in which case I would love to see a better explanation of what it is because it’s the foundation on which trans activists build their position – or is it a sleight of hand that is used to promote an agenda and has no real meaning?

  8. Sorry for my error. I was really interested in and and enjoyed your critique. Actually, somehow, I confused the Catholic comment in the other reply. I applied it to you. (That’s what happens when grandmas stay up late and read book reports.) Though you are not a Catholic, your writing was rather Catholic. By that, I mean clear and logical. I hope that doesn’t dismay you. Your logic impressed me until the second to last sentence. I was looking for the why of that conclusion. There was the exact spot for God. I hope to read more of your thoughts.

  9. These attacks on the transgender social movement seem to me to be a gratuitous rearguard attack of very little import on a set of individual preferences and behaviors that are almost entirely self-regarding.

    Moreover, the conceptual and ethical claims that folks are putting themselves through in order to sustain such attacks are nothing short of heroic.

    With the sole exception of aggressive treatments recommended for children of an age at which they still have a significant statistical probability of reverting to their previously assigned gender, the claims transgender folks place upon the rest of us are extremely minimal and reasonable, taking into consideration the importance these issues have to them.

    I mean, really. Get. A. Life. And with it, live and let live. Focus political energies on constructive issues that matter to the welfare of large swathes of humanity. For any classical liberal with half a brain, or even a conservative living outside of reality distortion fields and free of malignant shame and disgust reflexes, it should not be all that complicated.

  10. gabityting says

    I would think that the Me Two movement had taught us that having men able to self identify as women and enter women’s changing rooms is not an ‘extremely minimal’ issue.

  11. To respond to the interesting discussion upthread about disclosing Catholicism: like Martha Juliene, I am Catholic. I can see a case for Mr Anderson disclosing his faith, but ultimately see a bigger question hiding behind this one–what is the natural law? From another angle, in the words of Pontius Pilate, what is truth? For Anderson–and as far as Catholicism is concerned–natural law is true in itself. That it is part of Catholic intellectual tradition is a consequence of it being true, and the Church is concerned with the truth (about God, about the real nature of things, about the answer to life and everything in the universe…). In other words, as far as Catholics are concerned, they believe in natural law because it is true, not because they’re Catholics and the Church says that it is true. Similarly, they believe that God is real because He is, and not because the Church says to believe it. (And following on from that, we can make arguments about the necessity of God, and the necessity of a body of such a nature as the Catholic Church claims to have. But those are questions down the line.)

    Of course, it is possible not to have subjective certainty with regard to… well, any of the truths of life or Catholicism. That is where the teaching authority of the Church comes in, as it allows (within the Catholic intellectual tradition) for truth to be preserved and handed down. It is similar, perhaps, to how a child might not believe that the sun will come up tomorrow, or that her parents will love her tomorrow. If she cannot have subjective certainty in this regard, she can perhaps derive a measure of certitude from the assertions of a parent whom she trusts to know these things. And in this way, her erroneous beliefs about the constancy of a good parent, or the constancy of the world’s spinning on its axis, may be corrected.

    So the question is, are the assertions that Mr Anderson makes true? Is the natural law really true in itself? Those are questions that can be answered without reference to one’s being Catholic or not. Catholicism, in a way, does not consider itself to have a unique hold on the truth. In another sense, it really does, but not in such a way that I think one would have to require Mr Anderson to disclose his religious affiliation in order to be arguing in good faith.

    By the by, I think it is both incredibly apt and not that Catholicism should have been described as an “ideology that peddles guilt”. Understanding “guilt” in the legal sense, the Catholic can only congratulate you for making a very accurate description! For we are all guilty, whether for self-love or selfishness or immoderacy in drink or wrath. Since there is right and there is wrong, one can be innocent or guilty. Understanding guilt in this way, is there a credible belief system that would say that attributing guilt it in itself bad? It would have to be one wherein no one can be wrong–and consequently, by which no one can be right. It would be impossible also to consider the peddler of guilt guilty of something. The flaw that one really means to allege, then, in declaring Catholicism an ideology that peddles guilt, is that Catholicism attributes guilt *wrongly*, i.e. it calls the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent. That is the question. (But one for another time.)

  12. Steersman says

    Spencer Case certainly makes a fair number of reasonable points, and he highlights some serious problems with the entire transgender “movement” and the “premises” [AKA, delusions] that undergird it. However, I think he is also, in some cases, putting the cart before the horse, and is labouring under a number of serious misapprehensions that are shared by those attempting to turn back the “red tide” of that particular movement – and which seriously vitiate the challenges against it.

    And, relative to the first aspect, it seems reasonable to argue that the assertion “A transgender boy is a boy” is “a metaphysical claim”. But the crux there, and running through many other transactivist “arguments”, is the question of just what is a “boy”, although even more fundamental to that is the question of just what is a male.

    For instance, consider the arguments, as described by Case, of one Dr. Deanna Adkins who, while exhibiting some degree of knowledge in listing some dozen manifestations of transgenderism, absolutely nowhere in her supposed “Expert Declaration” actually explicitly states or defines what the terms “male” and “female” actually refer to. And all the while referring to a myriad of “biological, sex-related characteristics that are typically associated with both men and women” – pray tell, Ms Adkins, how can you say they’re “associated with both men and women” if you never define those terms in the first place?

    Methinks she needs to be taking some remedial courses in biology. Even a cursory review of the online Wikipedia articles on female and woman, in particular, would show the latter (“woman”) is, by definition, “human female (produces ova)”. Which transwomen ain’t EVER going to do.

    But that brings us to where Case, I think, goes off the rails and into the weeds, although it’s a well-worn path. Specifically he argues that saying “sex could be changed only if patients could receive wholly integrated, reproductively functional sex organs of the opposite sex” is “suspect given that some men and women don’t have reproductively functional sex organs”. Putting the cart before the horse. But IF male and female are, by definition, individuals of a species – human in this case – who actually have the ability to produce gametes – in “functional sex organs” (gonads) – THEN those people who don’t have either the ability or the functional gonads are, ipso facto, neither male nor female; they are then intersex, or infertile, or eunuchs. Though kind of sad if not criminal that many children in particular should be more of less tricked into entering the latter two classes – more than a little justification for calling that egregious child abuse.

    But part of the problem there seems to be a reluctance to face the fact that the sexes “male” and “female” are not exhaustive descriptions or classifications of the human species, at least from a reproductive point of view: there are those people, still human, who are simply not reproductively viable or capable for one reason or the other. And one might reasonably suggest that intersex individuals in particular might justifiably feel somewhat excluded from the “human” community by that rather untenable classification. Although it’s surprising too the number of women – even “TERFs” – who are reluctant to face that perspective as it apparently cuts the ground out from under their “identities” as “woman” (“hear me roar ….”)

    In any case, a somewhat more detailed elaboration on the above theme can be found in a Post Millennial article titled “A discussion on the Transgender issue”.

  13. gabityting: Roughly how many of the #MeToo self-reported incidents pertained to trans women in a women’s washroom molesting other women or attempting to ask them out on a date? Zero?

    Owen: It may surprise you to learn that the argument, “It can’t be healthy for individuals (or society) to encourage people to develop their identities ignoring our biological and social realities.” carries zero water in this context. This is an instance of “Begging the question.” As for gender identity might it not be as simple as the distinction between being “rich” (a more-or-less physical state) and feeling “prosperous” (which is subjective and may be “aspirational”). I think we need to exercise considerably more imagination when we are reasoning about the space for other people’s liberties.

    thelexicalform: This is no time or place (that is, the modern, enlightened, technological world) for cute and cramped Aristotelian reasoning. Plus, if there were such a thing as “natural law”, we could hardly claim to hold in our hands the last word on it, both for our limited capabilities of discernment and for the mutability of any such thing with respect to fundamental, technologically induced changes in our basic circumstances stemming from, among other things, fertility and fertility control (hence gender roles), hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery (hence modern gender expression). So, yes, I’d say that folks freighted with such archaic perspectival warpage (under the brand name “Catholic” or otherwise) should come with a warning label visible from at least 100 metres away, in precisely the same way as followers of Hugo Chavez, Steve Bannon, or Naomi Klein who’ve drunk the Kool-Aid do us all an immense favor when they preface their utterances by telling us, “before I begin, let me say that everything I believe about X, I absorbed through my devotion to Y. This means that I have already arrived at the Truth. Though thanks for coming out. Now, if you insist on wasting my time with reasoned argument and actual empirical data, please be quick about it, because my mind is a rock….”

  14. Caligula says

    Transgenderism seems redolent of Freudianism in favoring environmental factors and free will over a hereditarian determinism.

    Freudianism was a hopeful, perhaps even utopian, philosophy in its insistence that environmental insults were the wellspring of much human dysphoria. For in that insistence was always the assumption that one could, with effort and insight, overcome these insults.

    Freudianism remained ever-hopeful in ways that today’s psychiatry is not and cannot be Thus, autism was once held to be due to “refrigerator mothers” and not biology. And, if you found your autism to be an affliction you wished to discard, wouldn’t you rather believe it was due to a malevolent environment (the effects of which can be overcome) and not something hardwired into your skull?

    And yet, today Freudianism mostly lies in ruins, rejected for lacking any foundation in science. And this remains so despite its offering a tremendously hopeful belief in human potential and the freedom to become what one wishes to be and not subject to the limitations of nature..

    Is not transgenderism, in its insistence that gender and even sex are (and must be regarded as) endlessly malleable, not similarly utopian, and, equally lacking a basis in science?

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