NYT Ethicist Randy Cohen Responds to Bilerico

Randy Cohen, the New York Times Ethicist columnist, has responded to concerns raised by Jillian Weiss at Bilerico Project and that we highlighted here.

Here’s his response to Weiss, as reported at Bilerico:

Thanks for the interesting note.

We no doubt disagree but not on the point you raise so prominently and repeatedly. I did not assert that this person should “out themselves on a first date.” Quite the contrary. I said he should not. I took a far more gradualist approach, writing that it is only “as partners cultivate romance, and particularly as they move toward erotic involvement, there are things each should reveal.” I am surprised that you so misread me, particularly when you quote a sentence where I make the case against disclosing intimate matters too soon.

Nor did I offer any rules, only a guideline. I share your view that the particular details of each couple will affect this decision. But my job — the point of the column — is to suggest a general approach to such questions.

As to the title: I did not compose it or even see it until it went into print. Writing headlines is my editors prerogative.

In defense of the woman who sent the query, she did use the term “transgender” as you prescribe, but I am subject to the dictates of the copy desk, and it is they who amended this word to fit Times style.

The column has gotten other reaction, including a response today from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. There was also an interesting discussion at JoeMyGod that showed the divide between transgender and gay male worlds on the issue of when to disclose one is transgender.

As I said previously, I interpreted the letter and Cohen’s advice differently than Weiss did and Cohen confirms that he wasn’t talking about a first date.

Weiss was critical of Cohen’s comparing the disclosure of one being transgender with disclosing a sexually transmitted disease or a married spouse.

Comparing transgender history to sexually transmitted diseases and adultery is not only disreputable, it is a false analogy.

Sexually transmitted diseases can damage someone’s health; transgender history cannot. Adultery is considered a sin by many, or at least a pretty serious moral problem, and it involves the second party in morally questionable conduct even though they are unaware of it. Transgender history doesn’t involve the second party in morally questionable conduct.

STD’s and adultery aren’t appropriate comparison points.

Not unless you consider being transgender morally questionable conduct.

Do you consider being transgender morally questionable conduct, Mr. Cohen?

The critique is one we see often by LGBT activists when journalists are trying to make an analogy. The analogy often ends up offending, even though that may not have been the intent at all. It’s important to think out analogies to make sure they don’t have the potential to offend, but sometime this is an impossible task.

One last note. Cohen said that the NYT style guide says that the term “transgendered” should be used instead of “transgender” as an adjective/modifier. This has been a dispute among grammarians and style mavens for a while, so it’s interesting to see that this is NYT style.

4 Responses

  1. Well, huh. According to a Google News Archive search, the NYT used the term “transgender” 542 times between 1990 and 2010, and “transgendered” 172 times.

    And here’s a movie review from just a month ago that uses both!

    • Well, anyone who has worked at a publication can tell you that despite good intentions, adherence to the style book isn’t exactly a slavish activity.

  2. The discussion going on at Joe.My.God is mostly between gay trans men and gay cis men. Trans people can be gay too.

  3. Also, do you actually believe that he thought about the consequences of comparing being trans with having a communicable disease? It seems that his analogy wasn’t just naive or misplaced, but based on prejudiced ideas of what trans people do. In this case, he refers to the man as discreditable because he wasn’t completely forthcoming – a common tactic used against trans people to challenge their gender. Trans people are called deceivers, liars and psychological disturbed more often than not, so to ignore that he relies on the same trope is disingenuous on your part. (Refer to trans panic defenses in murder cases – the accused almost always said that they were angry that they were deceived.) His analogy confirmed what many people think about trans people: that we are not “real”, that we are pretending and that the “truth” must be disclosed at all costs. He never mentions the cost to this trans man at being outed in a conservative close-knit community. He either innocently ignored the consequences of divulging sensitive information to friends or purposely ignores that the trans person in this case was actually acting in good faith. Did it occur to him that this trans man was probably wracking his brain every day thinking of the right time to tell her? No, he does not. He immediately calls him discreditable – a harsh judgement for something that is not easy or simple.

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