A new book on today’s ‘transgender moment’ argues it’s not too late for society to rethink some assumptions about gender dysphoria

“We need to insist on telling the truth, and on preventing lives from being irreparably damaged,” Ryan T. Anderson writes in the new book, “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.” 

“What’s at stake in the transgender moment is the human person. If trans activists succeed in their political agenda, our nation’s children will be indoctrinated in a harmful ideology, and some will live by its lies about their own bodies, at great cost to themselves physically, psychologically and socially.”

The scholar talks about it in an interview with Angelus News.


Kathryn Jean Lopez: How are questions related to gender transitions remotely like the question “When Harry Met Sally” raised, “Can a man and a woman really be ‘just friends’?”

Ryan T. Anderson: They aren’t. That’s partly the point of the title. Within one generation we went from taking sex differences so seriously that an entire movie could be based on exploring the question of whether men could really be “just friends” with women, to now considering whether men can really become women, or whether men can really be “trapped in the bodies” of women. It’s a radical development in such a short period of time, from “When Harry Met Sally” to “When Harry Became Sally.” 


Lopez: Having written an entire book on gender identity, how do you view transgendered people?

Anderson: Sympathetically. These are people who have struggled and suffered throughout so much of their lives. What they deserve is sympathy, compassion, respect and real help based on the truth.


Lopez: You write: “We are told that not treating people as the gender they claim to be is discriminatory. But is it true that a boy could be ‘trapped’ in a girl’s body? Is our sex merely ‘assigned’ to us? Can modern medicine ‘reassign’ sex? What is the most loving and helpful response to the condition of gender dysphoria, a profound and often debilitating sense of alienation from one’s bodily sex? Should our laws accept and enforce a subjective notion of gender?”

And you ultimately respond: “These shouldn’t be difficult questions.” But aren’t they the most difficult — inasmuch as they are the most intimate there are?

Anderson: It depends on what you mean by difficult. These should not be difficult questions for society as a whole to answer. As I argue in the book, the best biology, psychology and philosophy reveal that sex is a bodily biological reality, and gender is a social manifestation of bodily sex. 

So in that sense, no, these shouldn’t be difficult questions: they are questions every one of our grandparents could readily answer. But you’re correct in saying that to someone who is struggling with their gender identity accepting the truth may be difficult to do. That’s why we need to develop better ways of speaking the truth in love, and better therapeutic approaches to treating gender dysphoria.  


Lopez: So what is a parent to say to a child who is struggling with gender identity issues — perhaps convinced she’s a boy trapped in a girl’s body, or vice versa? 

Anderson: Parents, frequently with the assistance of professionals, will need to explore with their children what the underlying causes of their gender dysphoria may be, in order that they can adequately respond. 

This normally will involve talk therapy with the child to identify what about being a boy, for example, he finds distressing, and what aspects of being a girl he finds appealing.

A sound therapeutic approach begins by acknowledging that the vast majority of children with gender dysphoria will grow out of it naturally. An effective therapy looks into the reasons for the child’s mistaken beliefs about gender, and addresses the problems that the child believes will be solved if the body is altered. 

Dr. Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins finds that other psychosocial issues usually lie beneath the child’s false assumptions, and his therapy focuses on remedies for those issues. Chapter 6 of the book goes through several case studies of children who received effective therapy that offered strategies for accepting themselves.

Another part of an effective treatment plan for children will help them develop a more nuanced view of gender, so they understand that real boys and real girls don’t all conform to narrow stereotypes. But this doesn’t require adopting the view that gender norms are purely “social constructs,” and hence artificial and oppressive.


Lopez: How should government be approaching these questions? And schools?

Anderson: New transgender policies raise five distinct areas of concern — privacy, safety, equality, liberty and ideology.

It shouldn’t be hard to see the privacy concerns that arise when men who identify as women can enter female-only spaces. When changing for gym class, most high school girls don’t want to see or be seen by boys who identify as girls. 

The reason we have separate facilities in the first place is not because of “gender identity” but because of the bodily differences between males and females. This privacy concern is particularly acute for victims of sexual assault, who testify that seeing naked male bodies can function as a trigger.

Preventing sexual assault is another major area of concern. Public-safety experts explain that predators abuse gender-identity policies to gain access to victims. The concern is not that people who identify as transgender will victimize women, but that perverts will use such policies to do so. 

Indeed, after Target changed its policies to open bathrooms and fitting rooms to people of both sexes, men disguised as women were caught doing just that.

Activists promote gender-identity policies in the name of equality, but isn’t it a violation of equality when biological males compete against females in sports and other arenas where sex differences are relevant? 

Already a high school girl has lost a state track championship to a boy who was allowed to compete against girls.

Activists also promote gender-identity policies in the name of liberty, but isn’t it a violation of liberty to force people to speak or act in ways contrary to their best judgment and deeply held beliefs? 

In New York City, you can be fined up to a quarter-million dollars for “misgendering” someone. Catholic hospitals are being sued for declining to perform sex-reassignment surgeries.

And in its last year, the Obama administration issued a mandate forcing health care plans to cover sex-reassignment procedures and forcing qualified physicians to perform them.

While the mandate doesn’t require that all physicians perform transitions, a surgeon who performs hysterectomies for cancer, for example, would be required to also perform them for sex-reassignment purposes; an endocrinologist who administers testosterone for men with low testosterone would also have to do so for women who want to identify as men.

This mandate included no exemptions for religious liberty, no protections for conscience and no considerations at all about best medical judgment. Many doctors, after all, think hormonal and surgical “transition” procedures are bad medicine. They consider the appropriate medical response to gender dysphoria is one directed at the mind and the emotions, not at the body.

Which, of course, leads to the final concern: ideology. Transgender ideology is promoted not only in schools — where children are taught that gender is fluid, falls along a spectrum and is detached from bodily sex — but increasingly in all walks of life, where no one may dare dissent from transgender-affirming protocols. 

Activists go after anyone who expresses any reservations about social transition for 5-year-olds, puberty blockers for 9-year-olds and testosterone for 14-year-old girls. 


Lopez: You still make arguments — you have a recent book with others debating same-sex marriage — trying to advance the traditional view of marriage. Why is that still important or relevant? And is it necessarily connected to some of what you’re trying to advance in this book? 

Anderson: My work on the proper understanding of marriage is now largely focused in the context of religious liberty and antidiscrimination debates. 

Two recent papers, a law review article in the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, and an essay in National Affairs, make the argument that supporters of marriage as the union of husband and wife should be treated by the government after Obergefell in similar ways in which pro-lifers have been treated after Roe. 

That just as we haven’t punished pro-lifers for their convictions, nor should we punish supporters of conjugal marriage. Anti-gay bigotry exists and should be condemned. But support for marriage defined as the union of husband and wife isn’t anti-gay. Not every disagreement is discrimination. And our law shouldn’t suppose otherwise.

The one area where marriage comes up in “When Harry Became Sally” is in the chapter on gender theory. Ultimately, our sexed bodies — male and female — are what make marriage possible. 

That we are a sexually dimorphic species is what allows a man and a woman to unite as one flesh as husband and wife in the very same act that creates new life and makes them father and mother. And so the trajectory in terms of our sexed identity is boy, man, husband and father, and girl, woman, wife and mother.


Lopez: You talk about the need for “real alternatives” to transitioning and specifically “a network of clinicians who are ready to help those with gender dysphoria in ways that don’t endorse transgender ideology or aim to change people’s bodies.” 

Are we anywhere near that? Is that going to be somewhat close to impossible if “bigotry” and “intolerance” are the assumptions if you don’t affirm someone’s declaration?

 Anderson: Not yet. There are many physicians who practice good medicine when it comes to gender dysphoria, but many of them are (rightly) afraid to speak out or publicize their work. And so parents who are looking for good care for a child struggling with gender dysphoria often don’t know where to run. 

That is why this network needs to be developed. To a certain extent it is similar to what pro-lifers have done: created an alternative to abortion with a network of crisis pregnancy centers. 

What the Sisters of Life have done for women facing an unplanned pregnancy, and what Courage has done for Catholics experiencing same-sex attractions, various groups will need to do for people struggling with gender dysphoria.


Lopez: Who can “When Harry Became Sally” best be used by? 

Anderson: Anyone. Parents, teachers, students, pastors, lawyers, educators, policy-makers, politicians, doctors, therapists, etc. The book is written in a way so that anyone with a high school education can read it, understand it and benefit from it. 

And it’s written ultimately to equip people to not only better understand this transgender moment, but to respond to it — to help shape the future for the better.


Kathryn Jean Lopez is a contributing editor to Angelus and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.

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