The New Instrument of Gnosticism

Review: 'When Harry Became Sally' by Ryan T. Anderson

Getty Images
April 1, 2018

Directly after a rainbow flag flew in victory above the ramparts of American marriage law, it was borne into battle again. Transgenderism—till then the auxiliary partner in LGBT activism—took up the hexacolor to reenter the legal fray in its own cause. This haste to further prosecute the culture war caught many by surprise, and prompted a backlash from Americans bewildered by the pace of the country's social transformation. Providing an analysis and account of the battle lines is the latest book from the Heritage Foundation's Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally. (Disclosure: Anderson's wife is a friend of mine and so I see her husband socially.) To push back against the contention that the legal and scientific status of transgenderism is an uncomplicated one, the book assembles medical studies, people's stories, and policy assessments, annotated by Anderson's natural-law understanding of human persons.

There are two main points, reciprocal to each other. Anderson's research leads him to conclude, and shows, that there has been insufficient study of gender dysphoria and the effectiveness of what has rapidly become the standard treatment for it: social, then chemical, then surgical transition. That is, as a consequence of activists' desire to normalize and promote transgenderism, gender dysphoria has not received the same kind of careful scrutiny as other forms of psychiatric dysphoria or dysmorphia. This first point, that transition and transgender identity may not be the medically straightforward response to gender dysphoria we're told it is, leads Anderson to his second main point. His primary policy takeaway is that children experiencing gender dysphoria should be treated differently than adults are. A religious conservative, sure, Anderson is still a political liberal in the larger sense, and believes the circumstances of adults transitioning, bathroom accommodation for such adults, and other legal and social questions should be settled by normal democratic and market means—voting, with ballots or wallets, not by judicial fiat or bureaucratic regulation.

These two points are inverted in contemporary activism. A conversation, and voting of any kind, is precisely what is not allowed. In order to promote transition as a healthy response to gender dysphoria, leading activist organizations ignore dissenting voices in the medical and even transgender communities, especially those who have detransitioned, and advocate and enable the social, chemical, and surgical transition of children. Because of socialization and neuroplasticity, as well as irreversible chemical or surgical alterations, children who transition are less likely to find an alternate response to their dysphoria and reconcile with their biology. As Anderson observes, "The course of treatment promoted by transgender activists is, in short, self-reinforcing." But it is not just the course of treatment: a strategy of self-reinforcement is pursued on all fronts here, medical, legal, and social.

The puzzling thing about this blitz for manufactured consensus is why people buy it. Not why hurting dysphoric people look to chemical and surgical rebirth, or why activists are pushing it, of a piece as it is with their larger vision for the world. Nor why civil rights organizations and health care institutions and pharmaceutical companies are so enthusiastic despite the lack of standard scientific due process or caution, having as they do vested interests in the lawsuits and artificial hormones and procedures involved. (Resisting nature is expensive.) The goods pursued in promoting transgenderism and all transgenderism's implications as normal and healthy are obvious for all of those parties. Perplexing is why, with the exception of people such as Anderson, objections to the new dogma have been so muted.

There is the obvious first factor, which is that it is profoundly uncool to question any of this, and very angry social media accounts will make sure you know it is, and that your employer and anyone else with power knows it is, if you do not shut up and go along with the grand experiment. I confess this review is the first time I've publicly touched the topic for this very reason; cautious reader, let me assure you, I understand your silence. Even were he wrong, Anderson would be a courageous man. As we all head through the looking glass, the second reason people unconnected to transgender activism are willing to nod along to six impossible things before breakfast is less obvious and more interesting. Transgenderism's use of technology as solution to dysphoria is eminently modern, and the rhetoric around it has, if not explanatory, reassuring power for one of life's most distressing tensions.

The Princeton philosopher Robert George, notes Anderson, "detects the scent of ancient Gnosticism" in transgender ideology. The Gnostic mystery cults of the early Roman empire saw an essential schism between humanity's spirit and the material cosmos; the world is corrupt, flesh is wrong, but knowledge and the will can free us from our imprisonment in it. The comparison is a good one, but as Anderson observes, only up to a point. There's a tension to it: "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." So, in our creatorless and spiritless cosmos we find a comparison of transgenderism to ancient Gnosticism is inexact. But gnosticism has other forms, and transgender rhetoric's power comes from its participation in a less doctrinal gnosticism, technological modernity's response to nihilism.

Ever since Francis Bacon advocated the "vexations of art" against Nature in Novum Organum technology has assumed an antagonistic relationship between man and cosmic order. As humanity discarded the old image of a created order and chain of being that situated us in a pride of place, the cosmos has grown vast and alien, empty of significance, but still ordered; nature—cosmology and biology—is a prison now and not a garden. In his essay "Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism," philosopher Hans Jonas describes how man's alienation from nature in a materialist universe has created the conditions of this new modern gnosticism.

He alone in the world thinks, not because but in spite of his being part of nature. As he shares no longer in the meaning of nature, but merely, through his body, in its mechanical determination, so nature no longer shares in his inner concerns...Estranged from the community of being in one whole, his consciousness only makes him a foreigner in the world, and in every act of true reflection tells of this stark foreignness. ... It is on this primary human foundation of a passionately felt experience of self and world, that the formulated dualistic doctrines rest.

This modern gnosticism is rooted in our self-consciousness in a material world of givens that we do not receive as such. We find ourselves in a universe whose laws we are subject to but whose justice we are not assured of. Those laws are most inescapably felt in our bodies, for our corporeality is part of nature even though our minds have long since regarded nature as an other. This bodily context for our selfhood, like any intermediary context of place or time or society, seems accidental, a given without a giver. We can receive our contexts as gift, but for many and apparent reasons in this world of pain and death this is difficult. 

Transgenderism participates in this modern gnosticism in a two-fold response to an apparently indifferent nature. The activist that would object to Anderson's title by saying that Harry always was Sally, is Sally, is a female trapped in a male body, is declaring—implied gender essentialism aside—the self to be other to the material order, elsewhere than the body, more than animal chemistry. But, in so far as, limited by the physical world as we all are, Harry becomes Sally, the activity of transitioning, the social and chemical and finally surgical manipulation of biology is a technological rejection of the restraining natural order. In the finest Baconian tradition, in transitioning Nature is subject to the forceful application of art, and in this process of becoming, unwanted givenness is rejected and with it, in theory, the feeling of having been thrown into life as accident.

The paradox and tension inherent to transgender ideology is the paradox and tension inherent to life in liberal modernity. The desire for perfect freedom and autonomy will always come into conflict with nature, and it is nature's laws, far more than the laws of the land, that transgender activists are at war with. But there is nothing liberal about allowing children to be caught up in this combat, too young as they are beneath the age of majority to make decisions for themselves. No amount of enthusiasm for chemical and surgical alteration by such a child can be considered consent. In When Harry Became Sally, Anderson asks society to have a conversation before continuing the fight, to stop the flag-waving and pause for a moment to think. He does this in charity, without acrimony. We must do the same.