Ryan Anderson’s new book on America’s new “transgender moment,” “When Harry Became Sally,” is a comprehensive, analytical look at the arguments and data regarding transgender issues. Predictably, it has been targeted by the usual suspects, who seem to view any intellectual disagreement on these issues as a sign of hatred. On the contrary, the book makes an important contribution to the substantive discussion and models the kind of honest analysis that reasonable people of good will, on both sides, should welcome.
Unfortunately, it is easier for some to mischaracterize than to engage the issues. Zack Ford of ThinkProgress recently reviewed “When Harry Became Sally.” He purports to respond to its arguments and expose its logical flaws, highlighting “the many weaknesses and contradictions” in Anderson’s book. Instead he only reinforces many of the points he intends to dispute.
Ford accurately highlights many of the points of contention in the transgender debates, however. It is useful to consider them in turn.
‘The Compassion Myth’
Ford categorically rejects what he describes as Anderson’s “clai[m] to be motivated by compassion.” His proof? Anderson’s description of transgender teen activist Jazz Jennings as “a biological male.”
Regardless of one’s stance on the wisdom of recognizing a transgender individual’s internal sense of being male or female instead of his or her biological sex, describing someone’s biological status as a male or female is purely objective (i.e., the person either possesses both an X and a Y chromosome or does not). In fact, one of the transgender movement’s own slogans, “biology is not destiny,” implicitly acknowledges the reality of biological sex (even if it disputes its lifelong implications).
Anderson affirms the reality of biological sex and points out “biology is not bigotry.” This distinction cuts to the core of our controversies over the “transgender moment”: it is impossible to have a reasonable discussion about rights and responsibilities if we cannot even agree to name biological realities without resorting to fictions and euphemisms.
What De-Transitioning Means
Ford also reacts poorly to Anderson including stories of “de-transitioners,” people who regret their decisions to undergo medical or surgical transitions to the opposite sex and eventually return to living in accord with their biological sex. Anderson’s book brings much-needed attention to these stories, which much media have roundly ignored or dismissed.
Why? Because these real-life stories upend the narrative. Like many of his fellow activists, Ford would have Anderson focus only on the “real-life accounts of those who have benefited by transitioning,” rather than the “small handful of individuals” who de-transition. All “lived experiences” may be equal, but some are apparently more equal than others.
In an ironic twist (and presumably with a straight face), Ford uses one of Anderson’s points about the transgender phenomenon as a way to dismiss de-transitioners. He argues that the de-transitioned individuals profiled in “When Harry Became Sally” “may not have been transgender” to begin with, and instead “largely convinced themselves that the problems they were experiencing meant they were transgender.”
Ford points out that individuals who de-transition frequently were victims of childhood trauma, and posits that many could simply have been suffering from dissociative disorders instead of being “actually” transgender. In the space of a few paragraphs, Ford apparently forgot that he has branded Anderson a “bigot” for raising similar points.
Ford never addresses—perhaps because there is no logically consistent way to do so—why his reasoning should apply to individuals who regret their transition but not to those who have not de-transitioned or who plan to transition in the future. Indeed, studies have noted that the transgender population has significantly higher rates of childhood trauma than the rest of the population — the same experiences Ford uses to discredit those who have de-transitioned. According to Ford’s logic, childhood trauma is evidence of dissociative disorders for gender-dysphoric individuals who transition then de-transition, but not for gender-dysphoric individuals who transition but have not (or, in some cases, not yet) de-transitioned.
Here again, Ford perhaps unwittingly undermines his own defense of the idea that young children can “know” they are transgender, and thus should be encouraged to transition, first socially then potentially with puberty blockers and hormone therapies. If, as Ford acknowledges (and the research shows), there is a correlation between childhood trauma and dissociative disorders that may lead people to transition, the recent push to allow children as young as four to begin transitioning begins to look like medical malpractice.
Anderson makes these points, with careful explanations: the “four-stage course of treatment [social transition as early as four, puberty blockers as the child approaches puberty, cross-sex hormones at sixteen, and sex reassignment surgery at eighteen] is the current standard of care promoted by transgender activists. But the ages for each stage to commence are getting lower,” and there are currently no U.S. laws regulating ages at which treatment can be administered.
Omitted Research and the ‘Desistance Myth’
Ford’s final substantive criticism of Anderson’s work consists of a frontal attack on the book’s sources, studies, and data. One of his targets is the American College of Pediatricians, which he describes as “an anti-LGBT hate group” that “peddle[s] anti-LGBT junk science.”
He also takes umbrage with Anderson’s citations of Dr. Paul McHugh, who served as the chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital for more than 26 years. Ford criticizes McHugh’s work as non-peer reviewed—an apparent reference to a 2016 article McHugh wrote with a colleague in The New Atlantis that summarized other peer-reviewed studies. After a quick Google search, I was able to find a list of at least 125 peer-reviewed publications McHugh has authored.
Ford also criticizes Anderson’s decision to dedicate a chapter to transgender children, an editing decision that is self-evidently reasonable, given the many lawsuits parents of transgender schoolchildren have filed over the past few years and recent events like an LGBT clothing designer’s decision to feature a nine-year-old boy dressed in drag. Ford quarrels with Anderson’s references to studies that show that nearly 80 percent of children who exhibit gender dysphoria eventually grow out of it. Ford calls these findings “the desistance myth,” citing a previous article he wrote that claimed the studies “did not adequately distinguish transgender kids from those who simply violated gender norms.”
That article also claimed that “children as young as 18 months can articulate” gender-nonconforming behavior. How exactly one determines an 18-month-old’s internal sense of being male or female is unclear, nor is it clear how one would distinguish a “real” transgender toddler from one who might simply be exhibiting signs of the dissociative disorders Ford attributes to individuals who have de-transitioned.
“When Harry Became Sally” presents a step forward in how to have necessary discussions about rights and responsibilities in our society in an honest—if not always comfortable— manner. Ford’s refusal to engage the arguments it contains is a telling signal of its effectiveness.