by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
In last Sunday's The Ethicist column in the New York Times magazine, author Randy Cohen takes on the issue of transgender dating and disclosure. In the column, done as a typical "Dear Abby" style write-in question and answer piece, "Name Withheld" from New York writes about a man she has been dating.
"I am a straight woman," she writes, "and I was set up on a date with a man." They apparently got on well, but she was concerned about how cagey he was about his past. After some Internet queries, she discovered that her date was female to male, and this discovery was the end of their relationship.
Name Withheld, however, was not simply asking for relationship advice. Rather, she was asking if she should urge the rabbi in her Orthodox Jewish community to out the transgender man in question. Her reasoning being that this fellow, who converted to Judaism some time after his transition, was dating others within their shared community.
In his response, Cohen started with a quip, "Changed religion and sex? I feel emotionally exhausted if I get a new sport coat." Perhaps he should have stopped there, confessing that maybe he doesn't know the whole story here, is somewhat ignorant of the lives of transgender people, and perhaps he did not have the best answers. It would have made for a shorter response, at the least.
To his credit, though, he did make it clear that the rabbi should not be outing anyone, though he did leave the road paved for Name Withheld to share this tidbit with her friends. Not that one might have already expected such, given she was willing to share a fair number of details with the Times.
In many ways, I think Cohen may have given this a much broader pronouncement than the community rabbi would have. If I were part of an Orthodox Jewish community in New York, this letter may raise a lot of flags about this or that fellow who was part of the local singles scene. I dare say that if Cohen agrees with the need to respect privacy, then perhaps this was not the letter to publish. Of course, I am aware that I am just as guilty with talking about this, sure, but any felines have long since slipped out of their bags.
As ham-fisted as this was all handled, it does open up several questions around privacy and disclosure in the life of a transgender person. At what point should we disclose to a love interest any of the details of our transgender lives?
Cohen's view is that this transman "behaved badly" by not outing himself. Assuming that Name Withheld's statement, "We got along well initially" is enough to paint this as a fairly involved relationship, Cohen argues such information should have come before the first kiss, around when one might mention any history of sexually transmitted diseases or one already being married.
His feeling, much like Name Withheld's is that this man was being duplicitous about his past. Perhaps in the broadest sense he was, but this is where I think Cohen fails to grasp the feelings of this transgender man. Perhaps, like so many people, he feared rejection, and felt that this self-described straight woman would not only dump him, but also opt to out him to the whole community. Perhaps there were some reasons he felt he could not just then share this information with her – I, too, am not in his head, but I could see where he might not have felt ready to disclose to her, and may not have felt he could trust her with this information. That she decided it best to get her advice from the Times on whether she should have her rabbi out a member of their congregation tells me he may well have been right.
Yet Cohen may be correct on some things. There are hundreds of stories of transgender people who are murdered, and a fair number of them include a disclosure narrative. Many of those narratives are no more than a fabricated story to protect the guilty, but it is likely that people have been taken by surprise on the way to a bedroom. This doesn't excuse their behavior in the slightest, but it does speak to the need to either be forthcoming or avoid situations that will put you in harm's way.
And if Name Withheld's relationship was heading to the boudoir, then yes, it may well have been wisest to disclose – or terminate the relationship before she could. Relationships are built on trust, and both sides of this story seem to have failed to be trustworthy.
One final thing: note that Name Withheld was so adamant about being a straight woman set up on a date with a man. When she finds out that the person she's taken an interest in was born female, she is ready to warn her entire community about this. Cohen, too, speaks of "protracted concealment" and the like. This is the other risk transgender people go through: even if we do disclose, we're still often looked at as "faking" our preferred gender, or having it reduced to the difficulty of changing sport coats.
Meanwhile, those of us who are transgender want spouses who can see us and love us for who we are, and look beyond our pasts, or at least be willing to accept us without assuming that we're trying to deceive simply by existing as ourselves. When we date, we don't want to have to tell you more than you will tell us.
Indeed, it seems we still have a very long way to go.
Gwen Smith's name has not been withheld. You can find her online at http://www.gwensmith.com.