How should we respond to this transgender moment?

When it comes to the issue of transgenderism, there appears to be one thing everyone is agreed on: it is complex and challenging! The claims of transgender ideology appear to have rushed on us in a moment; the issues involved touch everyone very deeply; there are bizarre contradictions between advocates of transgender ideology and the other elements of the LGBT+ community, and even within the transgender ‘community’ itself; and philosophical questions seem to blur into some real and personal issues of deep pain which demand a pastoral response.

These issues are what makes a book like Ryan T Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally both so important and so helpful. There are several things that are immediately helpful about Anderson’s approach (quite apart from the brilliant title!). The first is that it is rooted in primary research, and gives (in chapter endnotes) references to published papers. The second is its careful analysis of the evidence—indeed, a focus on evidence which is not pushed out of shaped by Anderson’s own theological agenda (Ryan is Roman Catholic). In fact, one of the striking things about the book is that it contains almost no theological reflection at all in its mapping out of the issues, a phenomenon to which I will return. Although there is a lot of detail about what is happening in North America in terms of legislation and ideology, the book is much less technical than Mark Yarhouse’s exploration of transgenderism and the intersex condition, and though Anderson is acutely aware of the pastoral response required, he does not offer anything comparable to Yarhouse’s threefold ethical paradigm. Instead, Anderson looks at the big picture of what is happening and why we have reached this ‘moment’—and this idea is also important. He cites clear evidence that this is not a linear trend in culture, but a particular moment on which we will likely look back in amazement.

The Introduction and short first chapter ‘Our Transgender Moment’ offers a brief sketch of the current situation in culture regarding the transgender question. Like some other sections of the book, this has a focus in North America and particularly in the United States, since this is where Anderson is writing from—but some of the issues can be evident in the UK already. But he anticipates some of the themes which will be explored in more detail later in the book. National Geographic‘s special issue on ‘The Gender Revolution’ featured

eight people on its combined covers, [including] three boys or men who identify as girls or women, a girl who identifies as a boy, individuals who identity as “bi-gender”, “intersex non binary”, and “androgynous”, and even someone who is just “male”—but not one girl who is comfortable being female. (p 12)

Anderson notes the shifts in medical terminology based on ideology rather than evidence, and observes the way that big business in the States has also jumped on the sexual identity bandwagon—but rather selectively. Whilst Paypal cancelled a major contract in protest at a North Carolina law decreeing that public toilets should be separated based on biological sex (male/female), the company

never explained why its international headquarters are in Singapore, where people who engage in private, consensual, homosexual acts can face two years in jail. (p 15)

Chapter Two focuses on ‘What the Activists Say’, and forms the first part of the vital distinction that Anderson makes between transgender activists and individuals who identify as transgender or as having gender dysphoria. For most of the chapter, Anderson simply quotes documented statements by activists without too much evaluation, but the issues become evident as the chapter progresses. For example, in one context an activist claims that transgender identity

‘is fixed, cannot be changed by others, and is not undermined or altered by the existence of other sex-related characteristics that do not align with it’

Yet in another context, it is claimed that gender identity and expression ‘can change every day or even every few hours’ and that this fluidity ‘can be displayed in how we dress, express and describe ourselves’. Anderson highlights the way in which (for activists) ‘transgender policies follow on from transgender ontology’ (p 39), that is, the claims that are made about the ‘reality’ of sexual identity—but also how the claims about reality actually have no basis in science or research. He also notes the, sometimes subtle, ways in which language has been tweaked and changed to support this agenda, the most notable being the idea that sex is ‘assigned’ at birth, rather than being recognised from the evidence. The last three pages of this chapter includes a long list of the questions and contradictions of transgender ideology—though Anderson again emphasises that these are questions for activists speaking in the public realm (mostly but not exclusively in the States), and that we need to respond to individuals in a different way.

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, mane 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?…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. (p 46)

Chapter Three is perhaps the most important, and certainly the most uncomfortable for anyone to read. Anderson here tells the story of ‘detransitioners’—those who have undergone the process of sex reassignment, and then regretted their decision and tried to change back. The chapter begins with a story from the Daily Mail in 2012,  ‘I was born a boy, became a girl, and now I want to be a boy again’: Britain’s youngest sex swap patient to reverse her sex change treatment.’

Ria Cooper made headlines last year when she became Britain’s youngest sex change patient aged 17, after years of begging her family and the NHS to turn her in to a girl. But now, having lived as a women for less than a year the 18-year has decided to change back in to a man after suffering huge mental anguish as a woman.

She has cancelled the full sex change operation that was scheduled for January and ceased the female hormone therapy that has seen her develop breasts saying that she has found the changes overwhelming and that they have made her deeply unhappy.

The stories are painful at every level, and are mostly recounted in the words of the individuals themselves. But the pain is compounded by the fact that the narratives told do not fit with the transgender ideology of the activists in the previous chapter, and so these people are often shunned by the activists themselves. But several consistent themes emerge from the stories as the people affected tell them. The first is that the unhappiness with sex identity was often rooted in other issues, often related to childhood experiences of violence and bullying.

When I was a child I started to have this fantasy of being a girl, because it meant I could be safe and not suffer from this violence due to being at the bottom of the male hierarchy. (p 63)

The second is that the unhappiness was fuelled by the negative perception of sex identity within society for the individual’s sex—particularly in the case of girls and women. And there was a deep perception of the need to conform to gender stereotypes in order to succeed in life.

The truth is that a lot of women don’t feel like they have options. There isn’t a whole lot of place in society for women who look like this, women who don’t fit, women who don’t comply. (p 53)

And many of those regretting their transition felt as though the medical profession, in adopting transgender ideology in their decisions, rather than looking carefully at deeper causes, were treating their bodies as subjects of experimentation. Anderson is careful to treat these stories in their own terms, regardless of whether the views of the individuals concerned would fit with his own confession ‘socially conservative stance’—and many of these stories are in the public domain online.

Chapter Four asks the question ‘What Makes us a Man or a Woman?’ and is shorter than you might expect—and where we might expect some theology, Anderson focusses exclusively on science. Anderson sets out, clearly and carefully, what scientific research says about chromosomal sex identity, how that is understood, the ways in which it affects human development, and the very well established sex differences between men and women. Sex differentiation begins from the moment of conception; it is expressed in both primary and secondary biological characteristics; and recognition of biological sex difference is vital in all sorts of ways for medicine, since men and women respond to pain differently, and are susceptible to different diseases and respond to treatments in different ways. Anderson is careful to note that cohort differences need to be interpreted carefully. If you gave someone a brain scan they could not tell whether it was male or female on its own—but the differences between male and female brains are well established in research. (The same is true of height, and every other variable: it is true that men are taller than women, but because height is distributed on overlapping bell curves for each cohort, you cannot tell someone’s sex by knowing their height.) Again, and most importantly for this chapter, all Anderson’s observations are support with reference to primary sources.

Anderson then turns to the whole question of sex ‘reassignment’, exploring three important issues. Does research show good mental health outcomes for those who undergo transition? On the whole, the evidence is poor, with the little research that has been done demonstrating ambiguous outcomes. Does the idea of ‘sex reassignment’ make sense medically? Not when a proper medical understanding of biological sex is taken into account. Does this idea make sense philosophically? Only if one accepts a mind/body duality which most medicine now rejects based on the evidence from research and experience.

Anderson then looks carefully at the most contested question in this whole debate: that of childhood dysphoria and desistance. He has, earlier in the book, introduced us to the research evidence that between 80 and 95% of children who experience dissonance between their biological sex and their felt gender resolve these issues over time if not pressed into transitioning—which should make us sit up and think about some of the stories that we see hitting the headlines. Anderson makes a plea for a responsible and informed approach to this difficult question, and is happy to draw on the research evidence of those who do not, in other regards, suit his agenda.

Children need our protection and guidance as they navigate the challenges of growing into adulthood. We need medical professionals who will help them mature in harmony with their bodies, rather than deploy experimental treatments to refashion their bodies. And we need a culture that cultivates a sound understanding of gender and how it is rooted in biology, a culture that respects our differences without imposing restrictive stereotypes. (p 144)

Chapter Seven steps back from the specific issue of transgender, and looks at questions of gender and culture. Anderson does an excellent job of looking at the wider debates about gender, and against them develops a case for seeing (socially constructed) gender as connected with (though not always determined in form by) biological sex.

Gender is socially shaped, but it is not a mere social construct. It originates in biology, but in turn it directs our bodily nature to higher human goods. A sound understanding of gender clarifies the important differences between the sexes, and guides our distinctly male or female qualities toward our well-being (p 149).

This seems to me to be a much more robust and persuasive position, with much wider appeal, than the idea that we are male and female for the theological reasons that the Bible tells us this is the way God made us. We actually know we are male and female because that is what science tells us—and Scripture gives a theological significance to this physical reality.

The final main chapter looks at policy question in the United States, and his conclusion notes that the public are not all persuaded by the claims of transgender activists, so this ‘transgender moment’ might pass—though it will need courage for all sorts of people in public life to make a stand for the truth and the evidence that we have.

If you want a comprehensive, readable, evidence-based case for questioning the assumptions of this transgender moment, then Anderson’s book is for you. I think it must be essential reading for anyone engaging in the sexuality debate, in the Church of England and elsewhere.

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34 thoughts on “How should we respond to this transgender moment?”

  1. Thank you for a very helpful review.

    At the end you say it should be essential reading for anyone engaging in the sexuality debate. But it wasn’t clear to me how the book related the transgender issue to sexuality issues. Does it connect the T with the LGB or does it treat them as separate issues, joined by our culture and politics but essentially distinct? In my mind they’re connected, but I’m aware that this is a controversial position, and that many people regard transgenderism as a quite different proposition to gay rights. For some feminists and their allies transgenderism is problematic in a way that gay rights are not, though in the CofE it seems that sexuality is seen as a more difficult issue than transgender, which hasn’t experienced anything like the push-back from conservatives given to SSM etc.

    • I think Anderson would see them as quite distinct issues. The debate about gay relationships is primarily focussed on how we respond to desire; the argument about identity has been added on, and in my experience only persists in Christian circles who want to equate opposition to equating gay relationships with marriage with racism. In the wider world, the argument as I have seen it is made on the basis of free choice and expression, and mostly rejects ‘marriage’ as an appropriate category for gay relationships.

      Interestingly, Anderson sees a connection between feminist and transgender activism, in both being rooted in radically detaching gender from biological sex. what is paradoxical here is that the parallel argument in both movements leads to radically different and contradictory conclusions, often at loggerheads with one another. Feminism says that the elimination of sex difference should lead to equality; transgenderism says that the elimination of sex difference means that biological men can identify as women, which then destroys the protections of equality.

      • Bit of a side issue, Ian, but do you really think that feminism is rooted in the elimination of sex difference? I see feminism as rooted in the essential and common humanity of men and women.

        • Dear Penelope, please read what is said!
          Ian said that “….Anderson sees a connection ….”. He did not say that he did.

          • Dear Clive
            Please allow Ian to answer his won questions. I don’t think he needs your protection.

        • Penny, I am no expert on philosophical aspects of feminist discussion. But my observation is that most forms of popular feminism do seek to eliminate sex difference.

          One example is in the sexual liberation of the 60s and 70s, where a common argument was that women should enjoy sex just as much as, and in a similar way to, men i.e. seeing it as pleasurable and detached from relationships of commitment.

          In contemporary discussion at the moment, the horror stories of ‘gender pay gaps’ are nothing of the sort if you only scratch just below the surface. In the second sentence of most arguments, you find a recognition that the statistical gap is largely attributable to women taking time out for childcare, and the other contributor is differential interest in technical v relational professions, hence the case of airlines where most pilots are men (as my father was!) and most steward(esses) are women (as my mother was!). But the 2 and 2 is then not added up in common discourse, but it is in more explicit feminist discourse.

          So Anderson cites feminists who argue that women who choose to stay at home to care for children are betraying their sex, and this should be outlawed.

          Personally, I cannot see how you can possibly eliminate gender pay differences without either seeking to eliminate really well established sex differences, *or* arguing for a radical recalibration of pay across professions…which no-one has even suggested.

          Does that make sense?

    • LGB and T are indeed essentially separate and distinct issues. There is no more LOGICAL connection between them than there is between S and T (straight and transgender).The only actual connection is that the initialism LGBT has been somehow brazenly foisted on the media and on the general public (including the LGB public) without any proper debate, by I know not whom, as though it were somehow self-evident, although it is anything but. I have long avoided using it.

  2. Hi Ian,

    thanks for this review – wasn’t aware of this book apart from your signposting of it here. But I’d echo Will’s comment above – your last sentence looks rather tacked-on as you don’t explain how and in what senses this links to the brawling over same-sex relationships. Could you maybe say more about that, or even re-word the last sentence…? I agree that the T is connected with the LGB but that doesn’t mean that there are no distinctions to be made.

    I think Will is also correct that “in the CofE it seems that sexuality is seen as a more difficult issue than transgender”, and wonder if it would be of help to explore possible reasons for that (I’m rather unsure why it is, myself).

    in friendship, Blair

    • Thanks for the link Jonathan. I think it makes a good case for buying and reading Anderson’s book!

      The review is full of ad hominem attacks, circular reasoning, and the closing down of debate. For example, he pours scorn on Anderson for arguing that Jenner is not a women, and ‘Anderson ignores the fact that Jenner has legally changed her name’. But that is precisely Anderson’s argument: actual science says that making a legal change doesn’t change one’s biological sex! Ford appears to have completely missed the point here, and simply tramples Anderson under his politically correct feet.

      From this review, you would never spot that Anderson includes a sophisticated assessment of the inter-relation of culture and gender (in chapter 7) and Ford doesn’t even notice the challenging questions Anderson asks about the incoherence of the transgender movement itself, let alone its fraught relations with feminism.

      Are there are reviews out there that actually engagement with the arguments? If not, then here we have another area in our supposed liberal culture where debate has collapsed to nothing, even more quickly than the debate about gay relationships.

      • That’s what the National Review thought too:

        “Anderson has a gift for managing controversy without losing human perspective. He is direct and even scathing in his dissection of incoherent ideologies, but his tone is markedly different when it comes to human beings. Progressives sometimes revile Anderson as a heartless ideologue, but it’s hard to maintain that view when one reads this book.

        What he is, in truth, is an Aristotelian. He cares about people, including their feelings and aspirations. But he also believes that human beings are happiest when they can align their feelings with material and moral realities. A rational life is better than one built on self-deception and false hope.”

        • Thanks for highlighting that review, which I had not seen.

          Yes, he is an Aristotelian, and he says so once (or perhaps twice). It is interesting that he does not push a theological or philosophical perspective very strongly, but it does surface where he asks the question: ‘How should our self-perception relate to reality?’ I guess he follows Aristotle here, rather than having a Platonic notion of ‘ideas’, and that is what presses him back to looking at science and evidence.

          But I don’t think you have to be Aristotelian to think that bodily reality actually matters. I think you have to be a creation- and resurrection-believing orthodox Christian.

          Again, you would never guess that there was this sophistication of thought in the book from reading Ford’s polemical attack.

          • “But I don’t think you have to be Aristotelian to think that bodily reality actually matters. I think you have to be a creation- and resurrection-believing orthodox Christian.”

            Indeed. Apologies for not providing the link in my comment, I thought I had done.

    • Perhaps also worth adding that Anderson is very clear when he cites much of his evidence that the authors he cites do not agree with him overall, and he offers several warnings to ‘social conservatives like myself’ about how they engage with the issue.

      So he is demonstrating a good deal more self-awareness than Ford is here.

    • Thanks for the balance.

      Some quick (and possibly sub-standard) googling tells me that Zack is hardly the best person to be throwing stones. He makes a good point about the weaknesses of proposed legislation near the end of the article, but otherwise seems content to do precisely what he accuses Anderson of doing: making assertions without supporting evidence.

      The science may not be as clear a Anderson claims (and not being a medical expert, or a researcher, I’m prepared to accept that), and there may not be much consensus, but at least Anderson is trying to look at what is there, especially when the landscape of research is much sparser than we’d like.

      • But Anderson is quite open about the lack of research, and does ask that more is done. The difficulty in this whole area, as Anderson points out, is that supposedly scientific issues have been revised and renamed without any scientific evidence, and on the basis of ideology alone. This makes the appeal to scientific ‘authorities’ in this area mired in difficulty.

  3. In this febrile liberal progressive, ideologically driven, culture, where is the funding going to come from to support both objective quantitative and qualitative research? Didn’t one university in Bath block someone from carrying out research?

    Is there anything in the book which seeks to disinguish, transgender from gender fluidity, or have I missed that in the review, as there is a vas deferens [great typo! I think you mean ‘vast difference’] between gender reassignment and the vast number of named genders of choice, that brought Jordan Peterson to the fore?

    • Rather than cataloguing the possible gender identities, Anderson sticks with the main point about what the biological sciences actually say about sex. He doesn’t talk explicitly about ‘teleology’, but highlights the fact that, from a scientific point of view, sex difference is completely oriented to reproductive capacity.

      That then forms the basis for his discussion about social constructions of gender.

      • Not sure who added (great typo) for vas deferens, but it isn’t a typo and was meant, as a play on words. Please look it up: it is a decidedly male biological function which is a vast difference between male and female.
        It seems that Ian was addressing the same point about research at the same time I was typing.

  4. It is attributable to my “O + A level” biology teacher: memorable indeed. She’d probably be disciplined today for the humour, even though a “fail ” would likely result if questioned on the compare and contrast difference between male and female reproductive organs and it did not form part of the answer. But, gender may now have replaced biology in the curriculum in natural sciences.

  5. Ian, I was interested that he describes this as a passing ‘moment’. Did he touch on the possibility, as others have suggested, that in future years transgenderism could become the new abuse scandal – “I was pressured by others into transition many years ago when I was young and now regret it; they abused me”?

    • Dear Peter, that is a very interesting question. My first response is ‘no’, in that the final main chapter offers some evidence that the general public are not persuaded. When Target introduced a ‘trans-friendly’ bathroom policy, their sales dropped immediately, suggesting customers were not impressed. But he does not there suggest the possibility you mention.

      However, in the chapter on detransitioners, there are some excoriating criticisms of the medical profession; those unhappy with what has happened feel themselves victims of experimentation foisted on them by ideological agendas, rather than being treated properly as medical cases needing proper clinical support. The failures they cite are just the ones you would expect given the current climate…

    • There is also a very sobering parallel about the treatment of children, highlighted by Alan Jacobs on his blog. It concerns accusations of Satanic abuse from the 1980s:

      In this “moral panic” of thirty years ago, social workers and, later, prosecutors elicited from children horrific tales of Satan-worship, sexual abuse, and murder — and then, when anyone expressed skepticism, cried “We believe the children!” But every single one of the stories was false. The lives of many innocent people, people who cared for children rather than exploiting or abusing them, were destroyed. And — this may be the worst of all the many terrifying elements of Beck’s story — those who, through subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, extracted false testimonies from children have suffered virtually no repercussions for what they did….

      So if you want to celebrate the courage of trans tweens, or for that matter high-schoolers speaking out for gun control, please do. But can you please stop the pretense that “the children are leading us”? What you are praising them for is not courage but rather docility, for learning their lessons well. (I wonder if anyone who has praised the students who speak out on behalf of gun control has also praised the students who participate in anti-abortion rallies like the March for Life.) And perhaps you might also hope that, if things go badly for the kids whose gender transitions you are cheering for, your role will be as completely forgotten as those who, thirty years ago, sent innocent people to prison by doing only what they thought was best.

      You can read the whole (short) blog post here:

      • I agree totally on the docility. Children are (pretty much) taught one sole perspective at school on certain moral/social topics, namely the perspective preferred by their teachers (teachers, like academics, being a very particular demographic). They then regard that perspective as the only game in town (which is what they were taught, being unaware of counter-arguments and alternatives). Having been taught thus, they cannot conceive why anyone would conclude differently. But being familiar with one sole perspective makes them peculiarly unsuited to campaigning on the issue. Then there is the matter of their age. If we are to listen to the young above the old (presumably because wisdom leaks and decreases progressively) then we ought never to listen to these present young as soon as they stop being young. Such a perspective is incoherent.

        • Or (more succinctly) teachers teach them only one perspective (at a formative age when the teachers’ word is authoritative; and in a milieu where media and society are backing up the teachers) and then trumpet the fact that they (who are not only young and inexperienced, but also without knowledge of alternative perspectives) hold to that one perspective – as though they could do otherwise. Headline (or not): people who are taught just one way of looking at things adopt that way of looking at things.


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