5(ish) Books on Understanding and Ministering in the Transgender Moment

A while ago I wrote a piece titled “What is a Woman?” I’ll admit that it was a provocative piece. I frankly don’t see any reason to write anything unless it is provocative. What a waste of time. My intent is never to provoke purely emotional responses. Emotional responses are easy to illicit on the internet. They are also unreliable guides to the truth. My intent with that piece and with most of my writing on this blog was to provoke a bit of critical thinking. I intended to explore some of the philosophical problems inherent to the way that we’ve come to talk (or not) about gender. It wasn’t a perfect piece (this is, after all a blog that I maintain mostly as a hobby), but I stand by its conclusions. I received a lot of positive feedback for the piece. There were a handful of people who pushed back at my premises and conclusions. Most were very charitable in their critiques which is nice because this isn’t an issue where there is a ton of charity extended to those who disagree with us. There was one criticism (offered offline) that I really took to heart which inspired this post. I think that appeals to authority are cheap ways of bypassing the need to defend your assertions. In other words, it is a way of shutting up dissent. You aren’t allowed to have an opinion unless you’ve read all the books that I feel you need to read. The unspoken assumption is that not only must you read these books, but you must also come to the same conclusions I have after reading them. If you don’t fulfill each of these requirements, you aren’t allowed to speak on an issue. It’s a garbage approach to public discourse. My friend wasn’t at all offering that kind of critique. He simply asked me how much reading I had actually done on the issue. I had to be honest that at that point most of my reading consisted of short(ish) articles posted online or individual chapters embedded in larger books. I hadn’t seriously studied the issue. I decided this summer that this needed to change. I’m a college administrator and parent of three teenagers. Further, I teach classes on ethics, philosophy, and critical thinking. It was unacceptable that I hadn’t done more reading on the topic. So, I put together a list of several books recommended by people I trust and dove in this summer. This post is a very brief summary of each of these books. I offer this simply as a resource. If you are a pastor, teacher, parent, friend, or someone who struggles with gender identity issues yourself, I recommend each one of these books. I don’t necessarily agree with (or understand) everything in each of these books, but they each helped me to think about the issue more clearly.

Before jumping into each book, I’ll offer two general observations. 1) Each of these books is a reflection of the particular expertise of the author. There is a book written by a journalist, a public intellectual, a licensed clinician, a pastor, and at least a couple of philosophers. Each of these different perspectives brings different agendas and goals. 2) Related to that, some of these books are addressing the cultural currents that help to explain our current transgender moment, some of the books are addressing the most extreme activists in the transgender cause, some are more clinical, some are explicitly pastoral and are aimed at addressing the needs of individuals with gender identity issues. These different “audiences” make for very different books. Each one of these perspectives is needed and helpful, but if we read one in isolation from the others we might come away with a skewed perspective.

Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters – Abigail Shrier

Shrier’s book is probably the most polarizing of these books. It was banned by Target for wrongthink. After reading the book, I can understand why so many activists hated it. It pulls absolutely no punches. As a journalist, Shrier never hesitates to expose hard truths with an arresting style. This is the most polarizing book, but it is also the book with the most limited scope. She’s not writing about gender dysphoria as a wide phenomenon. She is addressing the explosion of late-onset gender dysphoria among teenage girls. Any books written on gender dysphoria before around 2015 will be out of date given the fact that late-onset gender dysphoria among teenage girls was almost non-existent before that time. Now, the majority of those seeking care for gender dysphoria are among this group. She points out that in 2016, natal females accounted for 46 percent of all sex reassignment surgeries in this United States. A year later, it was 70 percent. In Britain, adolescent gender dysphoria has seen a 4000 percent (!) increase with three-quarters of those being natal females. There is clearly something going on that defies any sort of natural explanation. Shrier’s conclusion is that young girls are being caught up in a social contagion supported by the entire infrastructure of culture: social media, the porn industry, entertainers, educators, activists, and a money-hungry medical industry. Her conclusion is clear: We are abusing our girls. No one would give an anorexic girl “weight-affirming” liposuction, so why are we cutting healthy breasts off of adolescent girls to affirm their gender perception? Some disagree with her conclusions, but their disagreements tend to be ideologically bound. If you are reflexively affirming in your position towards gender affirmation, I can’t think of a more important book to read than this one.

When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment – Ryan Anderson

This is also a very polarizing book. I had to link to it through Barnes and Noble because Amazon still sees fit to ban its purchase from their website. This is largely the work of activist groups like the Human Rights Campaign. Shrier is a secular Jew, and her book contained very limited references to faith. Anderson is a very devoted Catholic, but it would be a mistake to assume that this is a “Christian” book. Anderson writes like a public intellectual because that’s what he is. His focus is primarily on challenging the assertions made by gender activists. This is an exceptionally researched book. He breaks down the science of sex and gender and summarizes many of the major studies that have attempted to make sense of the phenomenon. The biggest critique of the book is that it’s not empathetic enough. He gives voice to detransitioners in the book but doesn’t engage with other trans people outside of the activist class. That a fair critique I suppose. But that’s also not really his purpose. Don’t come to this book expecting pastoral insights or advice on how to lovingly help those going through gender dysphoria. His purpose, similar to Shrier, is to shine an uncomfortable light on the philosophical and scientific incoherence of the transgender movement within our culture. If you are a pastor I would argue that books like this are still worth your time because it is the activists who are reshaping the world in which your children are growing up. You can’t intelligently discuss transgender issues without at least knowing and critiquing what the activists are saying. Anderson accomplishes this task well.

Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture – Mark Yarhouse

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a long time without actually reading it (can anyone relate?). I’ve heard Yarhouse speak a couple of times. I would say that Yarhouse is one of the foremost scholars engaging with LGBTQ issues from an evangelical Christian perspective. What makes him unique among other authors is that he is a therapist with a huge amount of first-hand experience listening to and helping those struggling with gender dysphoria. In other words, I trust him as an expert more than anyone else on this list. Reading Yarhouse is sometimes frustrating because he is so measured in his analysis. He avoids overstatements and cheap shots. He doesn’t engage in simplistic, dogmatic thinking, which is typical of someone in his profession. One thing you take away from Yarhouse is that gender dysphoria is extremely complicated. No one can really identify a single cause, a single set of symptoms, or a single treatment that works. We can’t even seem to agree on what we mean by “works.” One thing he says quite a bit is “If you’ve met one transgendered person, you’ve met exactly one transgendered person.” Yarhouse also doesn’t engage in the type of culture war arguments that Shrier and Anderson sometimes do. His focus is always on providing help to individuals. Gender dysphoria is not an abstract cultural issue. It is personal. As such, this was a really important read for someone like me who tends to “enjoy” the culture war approaches more. One of the more helpful insights from the book was his description of three frameworks for understanding GD. The integrity framework which sees GD as a sinful diversion from the gender binary. The disability framework which sees GD as a kind of brokenness that needs healing. Finally, there is the diversity framework which mostly sees gender as immutable. Transgendered people are ontologically a different gender than their birth sex. Therefore, they should be celebrated and affirmed in their diversity. Yarhouse sees some value in each approach but also critiques each one from a biblical and therapeutic perspective. At the end, he lands on an integrated approach that adopts insights from each group. This book is great for pastors and counselors who are interested in figuring out ways to help those struggling with GD. I wish that he could have spent more time expounding on a biblical understanding of sex and gender, but I also recognize that this wasn’t his primary purpose or expertise. I didn’t find any of his theological/biblical insights to be at all problematic however. The only major critique is that this book was written in 2015, so some of the statistics about prevalence are clearly outdated. This is part of the reason he wrote the next book with Julia Sadusky.

Emerging Gender Identities: Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Today’s Youth – Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky

Yarhouse and Sadusky repeat some of the same ideas that Yarhouse mentioned in the previous book. Honestly, you could probably skip the previous book and just read this one instead. This book leans more into pastoral care. How do we as pastors, churches, and parents love people who are struggling with gender identity? They offer some helpful advice and insights but I think I can boil them down to three: accept, listen, love. Accept doesn’t necessarily mean “affirm.” They criticize both fundamentalist and liberal approaches because both are ultimately thoughtless and unloving. It’s thoughtless and unloving to bar the door to the church to anyone struggling with gender identity. It’s also thoughtless and unloving to not offer any help to those who are struggling by simplistically affirming their gender identity. Most people who go to church want spiritual and pastoral help. Fundamentalists and liberals deny this help. Ministering to people struggling with gender identity is messy, but that is after all what ministry is!

Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say – Preston Sprinkle

If you had to buy only one book, I would probably buy Sprinkle’s. He shares some of the strengths of Yarhouse’s books. Both he and Yarhouse give voice to those who are actually struggling with gender identity. They aren’t abstract caricatures. They are real people with real issues whom Sprinkle clearly cares about. Sprinkle is a great example of speaking the truth in love within the context of relationship. He doesn’t hesitate to speak the Bible truth but it is always seasoned with grace and empathy. He knows what he is an is not an expert in, but the book is very well researched. His chapter on intersex people was especially welcome since these folks are often caught up in the cross-fire of the transgender debate. He also addresses the common arguments made regarding gendered brains and gendered souls. I found his breakdown and evaluation to be clear and helpful. This is a book that should probably be on every pastor’s bookshelf.

Honorable Mention:

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution – Carl Trueman

Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality – Nancy Pearcey

Both of these books are written by philosophers. Trueman’s book in particular is one of the best books I’ve read in the last 5-10 years. Pearcey is always helpful as a cultural commentator. Both books are about sexuality and how our culture has moved into a place where our personal identity and understanding of a meaningful life is wrapped up closely with sexual expression. The transgender movement is not the sole focus of either book, but both books do provide some essential insights on how we arrived at this cultural moment. If you’re looking for a roadmap of how we got here and where we may be going, these are helpful guides.

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