What to Do in Our Current ‘Transgender Moment’

Ryan T. Anderson (Portait via Facebook; cover courtesy Encounter Books)
Ryan Anderson on how to tell the truth about gender & sexuality in a loving way.

Some of the political issues that become most contentious are also some of the most intimately painful and personal. Anything related to sex and gender certainly falls into that category. Ryan T. Anderson — William E. Simon senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation — has written a new book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, that addresses many of these important issues with compassion.

“Children are especially vulnerable, so we must do everything possible to protect them and provide an environment that fosters healthy development,” he implores in the book. He is as reasonable as it gets, writing:

We need to respect the dignity of people who identify as transgender, but without encouraging children to undergo experimental transition treatments, and without trampling on the needs and interests of others. And we need to acknowledge that taking our sexual embodiment seriously in public policy is not discriminatory.

In the book, he also emphasizes:

Transgender ideology may appear to be establishing a firm place in our culture, yet there are signs of defensiveness among its advocates, as if they realize that their claims are contrary to basic, self-evident truths. The transgender moment may turn out to be fleeting, but that doesn’t mean we should expect it to fade away on its own. We need to insist on telling the truth, and on preventing lives from being irreparably damaged.

Here, he talks a bit more about the book and the importance of this moment of uncertainty about gender and sexuality.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why do you say in the subtitle to your book that this is but “a moment”?

Ryan T. Anderson: Because the claims being made by activists are contrary to basic, self-evident truths. And a culture can only sustain lies about human nature for so long. Eventually, the human costs of getting human nature wrong rack up — and people notice. But, while the transgender moment may turn out to be fleeting, that doesn’t mean we should expect it to fade away on its own. We need to insist on telling the truth, and on preventing lives from being irreparably damaged. How long this moment lasts will be partly determined by what people like you and I say and do — and that’s why I wrote the book, to equip people for this moment.

Lopez: Why is the work of Paul McHugh important, and why and how can it become more mainstream?

Anderson: In the late 1970s, Dr. Paul McHugh thought he had convinced the vast majority of medical professionals not to go along with bold claims about sex and gender that were being advanced by some of his colleagues. McHugh received a world-class education at Harvard College and Harvard Medical School. As chair of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School and psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he put a stop to sex-reassignment surgery at that facility in 1979.

As a young professor of psychiatry at Hopkins, McHugh tried to dissuade his colleagues from rushing into the fad of transgender-affirming treatment and “sex reassignment.” Decades later he recounted his experience:

When the practice of sex-change surgery first emerged back in the early 1970s, I would often remind its advocating psychiatrists that with other patients, alcoholics in particular, they would quote the Serenity Prayer, “God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Where did they get the idea that our sexual identity (“gender” was the term they preferred) as men or women was in the category of things that could be changed?

Hormones and surgery cannot actually transform a man into a woman or a woman into a man, McHugh argued. His colleagues responded by introducing him to patients they claimed had successfully transitioned. They thought that if he met enough sexually reassigned people, he would come to see the benefit. But as McHugh recalls, “none of these encounters were persuasive.”

McHugh encouraged Jon Meyer, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at Hopkins, to follow up with adults who had undergone sex-change operations at the hospital and determine whether the surgery was beneficial in the long term. Meyer found that only a few of the patients he tracked down some years after their surgery actually regretted it, yet most did not appear to have benefited psychologically.

McHugh explains: “They had much the same problems with relationships, work, and emotions as before. The hope that they would emerge now from their emotional difficulties to flourish psychologically had not been fulfilled.” While the surgery may have provided some subjective satisfaction, it brought little real improvement in well-being. After studying the evidence, McHugh decided that sex-change surgery was bad medicine and was “fundamentally cooperating with a mental illness.” Psychiatrists, he thought, could better help patients with gender dysphoria by “trying to fix their minds and not their genitalia.”

Similar studies were conducted in Toronto and arrived at similar conclusions. With a better understanding of what was really being done through sex-change operations, McHugh and his colleagues stopped prescribing those procedures for adults at Hopkins. Some of the hospital’s plastic surgeons, he added, were relieved at no longer being “commandeered to carry out the procedures.” Many other medical centers across the country followed the elite Johns Hopkins’s lead. But recent years have brought a resurgence of these procedures — not in light of new scientific evidence, mind you, but under the pressure of ideology.

Lopez: You write about some radical arguments in favor of obliterating sex distinctions. Some of these are arguments that Kate O’Beirne was writing about in her book about feminism, Women Who Make the World Worse. Others of these arguments are ideas that Phyllis Schlafly was pushing back against in her day. Are these the same old arguments on steroids? And how can they be opposed while still having compassion for people who advance them? And without being patronizing or dismissive of people who believe them to be true?

Anderson: To a certain extent, this transgender perspective on sex and gender has deep roots. Chapter 7 of the book traces our cultural gender confusion to its roots in gender theory and in certain strains of feminist thinking about our embodiment. First-wave feminism was a campaign to liberate women from an overly restrictive concept of gender, so they could be free to fulfill their nature, but it gave way to a movement seeking to make women identical to men. From the error of inflexible stereotypes, our culture swung to the opposite error of denying any important differences between male and female. The result is a culture of androgyny and confusion. An agenda of nullifying the distinction between men and women might seem opposed to the insistence on the absolute reality of transgender identity — i.e., an inner sense of being truly male or female — yet both start by severing gender from biological sex.

Between stereotypes on the one hand and androgyny on the other, the virtuous mean is a view of gender that reveals meaningful sex differences and communicates the difference they make; a view that takes sex differences seriously while upholding the fundamental equality of the sexes as complements to one another. It acknowledges what sex differences mean for marriage and family, for friendship and education. Our sexual embodiment is precisely what makes marriage possible, and a host of social practices —including how we nurture boys and girls — are shaped with the good of marriage in view.

On average, boys and girls, men and women have different needs and inclinations, so our law and culture should not take the male way of being human as the norm. This means that women should not be forced to live, work, and compete as if they were men — which is what some people would prefer, with proposals to ban being a stay-at-home mom, for example. Society should accept that men and women may, on the whole, have different preferences and freely make different choices.

Lopez: You write in the book, “Transgender ideology may appear to be establishing a firm place in our culture, yet there are signs of defensiveness among its advocates, as if they realize that their claims are contrary to basic, self-evident truths.” When you wrote those words, did it worry you that it might harken back to same-sex marriage opponents who believed that arguments for traditional marriage would inevitably win the day? It turns out, though, that legal acceptance of same-sex marriage may have been somewhat inevitable, given the cultural forces arguing in favor of it?

Anderson: Two friends of mine on the political left have given me cause to believe that transgender activists may have overplayed their hand and provoked a pushback. One of these friends is a twenty-something man who, with some bemusement, pointed me to the viral video du jour in which someone who describes herself as an “intersectional feminist,” a “queer girl,” etc., declared that having “genital preferences” is transphobic, and that “preferences for women with vaginas over women with penises might be partially informed by the influence of a cis-sexist society.” And no, this was not satire.

The video lecture went on: “If you’re a woman who only likes women, go ahead, identify as a lesbian! But some women have penises. And if the fact that some lesbians might be attracted to those women offends you, it’s because you don’t think trans women are real women.” My friend objected to being judged transphobic and cis-sexist merely on the grounds that he dates biological women only. And when lesbians are accused of bigotry because they prefer women who don’t have male equipment, you have to wonder how long the “L” and the “T” can be held together in LGBT advocacy.

More significant doubts were expressed by a liberal friend who is the father of several children. He told me that he doesn’t care all that much about gay marriage; it doesn’t really affect him. (I think he’s wrong about that.) But he cares very much about what affects his kids. He doesn’t want his daughter coming home from school to say that a boy who thinks he’s a girl is sharing a locker room with her. He doesn’t want his son to announce that he’s “gender-fluid.” Average parents of various political stripes are not on board with “gender identity”–access policies or school lessons about gender ideology.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.

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