Transgender Ideology: A Book Review of Ryan T. Anderson’s “When Harry Became Sally”

In 2021, Ahmed’s story became another account in a growing number of insidious incidents. 

It went like this: a family of practicing Muslims had a son with autism who struggled with mental health issues. One day, he suddenly began to identify as a girl. The family was told that the only way to keep “her” from committing suicide was to immediately seek out “gender-affirming care.” Washington, the state they lived in at the time, did not require parental permission for such care, so telling the family was “effectively a courtesy” and the providers would initiate “gender-affirming care” regardless of the parents wishes. A trusted lawyer and psychiatrist advised the father to be careful and to refrain from expressing any hint of delaying this “treatment”, otherwise he would risk Child Protective Services taking his son away. In response, the father quit his job and left the state with his family. Later, the son’s therapist confirmed that the son was improving; that he was no longer suicidal nor did he believe that he was a girl. [1]

To many observant Muslims, these incidents may seem implausible. It is taboo to openly discuss these issues within the Muslim community, but not out of an acceptance of dogma (acceptance of transgender ideology is still relegated to the fringes, and usually not by mosque-goers). Rather, it is out of a shock that such problems — features of an irreligious, hedonistic, individualistic West — could possibly worm their way into our homes. Fears that dissenting from liberal orthodoxy will jeopardize the safety of Muslims further prevent even the most active community leaders from speaking publicly on the matter (take the recent criticisms of Muslim leaders protesting in Dearborn with concerned Christian parents as an example). Additionally, a substantial portion of the U.S. Muslim population is comprised of immigrants for whom the idea of deciding one’s own gender is entirely unfathomable and unheard of.

But, the growing familiarity and unquestioned acceptance of transgender ideology has begun to affect the younger generations. Preoccupied with other problems, the Muslim community has (understandably) not kept up with the evolving mores of the LGBTQ+ movement such that we can provide robust answers. Aside from a few prolific writers, most prominently Ustadh Mobeen Vaid, that rebut modern gender and sexuality ideology through an Islamic framework, much of mainstream pushback and criticism emerges primarily from observant Catholics. We can build on their works, those that we largely align with in the impetus to preserve the institution of marriage and family unity, to further our understanding and refine our critiques of the latest hegemonizing force in Western society. Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally is one such insightful read.

The title is a play on the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally” which asks the quintessential question “can men and women be just friends?” although, in current day, progressive movements are concerned with deconstructing the categories of woman and man altogether. In under 300 pages, Anderson discusses the wide range of affected areas: political development, specifically civil rights strides under the Obama administration; medicine; philosophical incoherence of the movement; the experiences of individuals regretting undergoing sex-reassignment procedures (“detransitioners”); reforms in education to indoctrinate children; coercion to align with the latest evolution of the ideology; cultural and media forces; the encroachment into single-sex spaces and the harm to women especially.

As is typical of the many efforts that dissent from the institutionalization of self-truths, the wider culture makes no distinction between the legitimately vile and the valid. Increasingly, any approach to this ideological force that is not complacency is regarded as hateful, evidenced by Amazon’s ban of Anderson’s book. However, When Harry Became Sally is a brilliantly written treatise that repeatedly emphasizes that the children — and adults — are victims, both in their internal suffering and also in being convinced that the only way to address it is through mutilation of their bodies. In the words of one detransitioner:

After months of waiting and appointments, none of which included counselling, I finally started on testosterone gel, later switching to injections…I was so focused on trying to change my gender, I never stopped to think about what gender meant. [2] 

Another woman explains:

…there were all these factors that played into my dysphoria: dissociation, and feelings of inferiority for being female, and depression, body dysmorphia, you know, all these things contributing to this kind of general sense of alienation, sense of otherness from the people around me, and specifically from other women…I’m a real live 22 year old woman with a scarred chest and a broken voice and 5 o’clock shadow because I couldn’t face the idea of growing up to be a woman. [3]

Most children who say they suffer from gender dysphoria cease identifying as transgender post-adolescence. [4] Additionally, clinical research fails to establish sex-reassignment surgeries as effective in resolving gender dysphoria, yet such an approach is still considered standard. Clinics that take more cautious approaches, or outright consider other avenues to resolving dysphoria are targeted by activists and shutdown. Take for example the Canadian government buckling to pressure from activists to close Dr. Kenneth Zucker’s clinic. This was despite the fact that Dr. Zucker was still providing transitioning procedures, but employed a cautious approach to children who identified as transgender by refraining from the immediate prescription of surgeries. [5]

The key issue at hand, however, is not merely the physical harms this ideology sows but metaphysical ones. Transgender ideology is based on the principle that one is the gender and corresponding biological sex that they identify as, and that the body can be remade to fit that perception. Nowhere else is such a claim to identity taken at face-value, without a quantifiable way to assess or falsify it, much less basing the mutilation of a healthy, physical body solely on such a claim. Dr. Paul McHugh, the former head of psychiatry at John Hopkins, succinctly addresses this issue by calling for an approach that addresses the internal state, “not their genitalia.” [6] A person identifying as trans-racial, or trans-abled, for example, should have their perception of reality and any related trauma or factors influencing it addressed. A surgeon taking a knife to a healthy body so the person can feel better aligned with a “trans-abled” identity would be roundly condemned. As Anderson observes, a “postmodern worldview is changing medicine from a profession that restores health and wholeness, into a set of techniques to provide customers with what they desire.” [7]

Another point to emphasize, especially as both critics and proponents look to science for answers, is to recognize that science in and of itself has no moral bearing (Anderson hints at this throughout and readers should study philosophy of science to further their understanding of the scope of science). Simply put, it is an issue of is-ought: science describes what is but has no answers for what “ought to be” done.

What ought to be done is informed by one’s worldview. Both proponents and critics of transgender ideology should recognize this before resorting to literature: even if some literature may suggest that some children benefit from sex-reassignment surgeries, this would remain a corrupt undertaking. Under shari’a (Islamic law), treatments must be halal (permissible), and attempting to alter one’s sex on the basis of internal discord is not. [8] Additionally, under a Muslim philosophy of shifa (healing) and medicine, what constitutes benefit and harm in Islamic creed is not limited to this world, but the next and the pleasure of Allah ﷻ as well.

Sex-change procedures are based on an untenable ideology that continually fails to prove itself as an accurate description of the reality of gender. The following excerpt from the book is worth citing in full:

Regardless of whether they identify as ‘cisgender’ or ‘transgender,’ the activists promote a highly subjective and incoherent worldview. On the one hand, they claim that the real self is something other than the physical body, in a new form of Gnostic dualism, yet at the same time they embrace a materialist philosophy in which only the material world exists. They say that gender is purely a social construct, while asserting that a person can be ‘trapped’ in the wrong body. They say there are no meaningful differences between man and woman, yet they rely on rigid sex stereotypes to argue that ‘gender identity’ is real while human embodiment is not. They claim that truth is whatever a person says it is, yet they believe there’s a real self to be discovered inside that person. They promote a radical expressive individualism in which people are free to do whatever they want and define the truth however they wish, yet they try to enforce acceptance of transgender ideology in a paternalistic way…Why should feeling like a man—whatever that means—make someone a man? Why do our feelings determine reality on the question of sex, but on little else? [9]

For most of human history and vast majority of societies today, never has an unchangeable reality like biological sex been called into question. Muslims are largely absent from these discussions, both for reasons mentioned above but also in the wider society. For example, the response to Muslim parents in Dearborn protesting explicit, LGBT-affirming books in school libraries labelled them as being infected with “madness” and “white supremacy.” Dissent is often framed in terms of “fundamental Christian bigotry” by progressive activists, a framing we should absolutely dispute.

But such a framing also betrays the assumption that either, non-Christian religions are not part of this discussion, or they assume (wrongly) that they agree with all progressive movements because they are minorities in the U.S. As a Muslim minority concerned with preserving our rights and beliefs, we have to ask ourselves: is the long-term alliance with progressives worth it (especially in light of bipartisan support for horrific foreign policy, an issue a previous writer discussed here)?

The consequences of these social and policy changes on Muslims are enormous: Muslim women, who without warning will be coerced to share spaces with males, or have their discomfort declared transphobic; targeting of mosques for not hiring employees that contravene basic Islamic theology and jurisprudence; and a growing number initiatives/organizations using fringe Muslims to undermine Sunni orthodox aqidah (creed), like Human Rights’ Campaign absurd brochure highlighting baseless, slanderous statements about normative Islamic law in an attempt to push a a ideologically-vetted reformed version that does not challenge the latest iteration of progressive morals. These, like the story of Ahmed’s family, are just a few of such worrying examples.

Continued ignorance will only further harm, on every level, our ability to exist and practice in this country. Additionally, general Islamic injunctions on speaking truth and rebutting falsehood compel us to directly and fervently address a movement harming other communities as well. To this end, Anderson’s book provides an overview of medical, social, political, and philosophical developments of the movement.

Muslims seeking to understand the current American climate will benefit from this read, if nothing else but to understand the issues our children, and increasingly ourselves, are facing in society. However, it is imperative that we develop our own critiques rooted in tawhid, shari’a, and the Islamic vision for bettering society.

Works Cited:

[1] Shrier, Abigail, “When the State Comes for Your Kids”, City Journal, 8 June 2022.
[2] Anderson, Ryan T., When Harry Became Sally, Encounter Books, 2018, p. 59.
[3] Ibid. at 64.
[4] Thomas D. Steensma et. al., Factors associated with desistence and persistence of childhood gender dysphoria: a quantitative follow-up study, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, June 2013.
[5] Anderson, Ryan T., When Harry Became Sally, Encounter Books, 2018, p. 30-32.
[6] Paul R. McHugh, “Surgical Sex,” First Things, November 2004.
[7] Anderson, Ryan T., When Harry Became Sally, Encounter Books, 2018, p. 26.
[8] American Fiqh Academy, “Male, Female, or Other: Ruling of a Transgender Post Sex Change Procedures”,
[9] Ibid. at 53-54.

Photo by Kenneth Sørensen on Unsplash

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

Farhana Khan

Farhana Khan is based out of North America. She is interested in the Islamic sciences and medical ethics.

One thought on “Transgender Ideology: A Book Review of Ryan T. Anderson’s “When Harry Became Sally”

  1. Just FYI it was not the Canadian government who closed down Zuckers clinic, healthcare is typically administrated by province and through suborganizations. The organization that ran that department as well as several others shut it down after pressure from ideologues. And it was not due to with surgeries but prescribing drugs as far as I know.

    The book itself is mainly just a summary rather than anything ground breaking in my personal view. It does occasionally have some back handed jabs, one against Dubais laws for example.

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