The NYT Ethicist on Outing a Transgender Boyfriend

Today’s “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times by Randy Cohen deals with whether a transgender person is obligated to inform someone they are dating that they are transgender.  Cohen said “yes” and has gotten into some hot water from Jillian Weiss at the Bilerico Project.  Here’s the letter and his answer:

I am a straight woman, and I was set up on a date with a man. We got along well initially, but I grew concerned about how evasive he was about his past. I did some sophisticated checking online — I do research professionally — and discovered that he is a female-to-male transgender ed individual. I then ended our relationship. He and I live in Orthodox Jewish communities.  (I believe he converted shortly after he became a man.) I think he continues to date women within our group. Should I urge our rabbi to out this person? NAME WITHHELD, N.Y.

Changed religion and sex? I feel emotionally exhausted if I get a new sport coat. But although this person behaved badly by not being more forthcoming with you, he is still entitled to some privacy. You should not prompt a public announcement about his being transgendered.

There are two questions here: What must close companions reveal to each other?And what may they reveal about each other to outsiders?

Getting to know someone is a gradual process. I might panic if on a first date someone began talking about what to name the nine kids she’s eager for us to raise in our new home under the sea. Premature disclosure can be as unnerving as protracted concealment. But as partners cultivate romance, and particularly as they move toward erotic involvement, there are things each should reveal, things they would not mention to a casual acquaintance — any history of S.T.D.’s, for example, or the existence of any current spouse. Even before a first kiss, this person should have told you those things that you would regard as germane to this phase of your evolving relationship, including his being transgendered. Clearly he thought you’d find it pertinent; that’s why he discreditably withheld it, lest you reject him.

As things stand, you have every right to talk this over with friends. We are entitled to discuss the most intimate aspects of our own lives — or what are friends for? But you may not distribute handbills around the neighborhood or ask your rabbi to announce this from the pulpit. Even when the clothes come off — especially when the clothes come off — we expect discretion from our partners. Few people (except perhaps the bitter foes of Tommy Lee or Paris Hilton) want sextapes, or even vivid verbal descriptions of their sexual peccadilloes, posted online. And that goes for being transgendered. We rely on our friends — and even more so partners — to respect our privacy, even if the relationship sours.

Weiss responded:

Mr. Cohen apparently fails to appreciates that hundreds of transgender people are killed every year because of their transgender status. Their murderers often rely on the “panic” defense. The list is long, and the Transgender Day of Remembrance, held every year on November 20, commemorates those deaths.

I choose to live my life as an out transgender person, but “out” is by necessity a relative term. Some people know my history; many of my friends don’t. I live every day with the fear of violence. I have experienced violence. I choose carefully if and when and how to tell people, even people I am dating.

A first date is not a time for such disclosures, if the other person does not already know. A first date is an ambiguous space that may lead on the road to good acquaintanceship, to friendship, or to intimacy. It is a time to get to know another person. It is not a time to be disclosing intimate details, as Cohen himself acknowledges. Why does he differentiate this particular intimate detail from other intimate details? Because, he says, “clearly he thought you’d find it pertinent; that’s why he discreditably withheld it, lest you reject him.”

She also says, “I strongly suggest that Cohen is in need of criticism and education regarding transgender people, particularly from gay and straight allies of transgender people. He ought to issue a retraction.”

I wish that Cohen had sought out some advice from experts–which he does occasionally–to provide some context here. I didn’t read the letter the same way Weiss did and I assumed by the term “relationship,” that this was more than a first date. I can see how it can be read both ways, as an ongoing relationship and as a single date. It would be nice to know whether Cohen’s advice would be different depending on the “first date” versus “ongoing” question.

I don’t think there needs to be a retraction because, as a columnist, he is paid for his opinions and his opinion and advice here is not necessarily wrong or in error. It would be helpful if he and the New York Times issued a clarification on how he viewed the situation and whether, after receiving feedback from transgender individuals, he would revise his ethical advice.

Your thoughts?

UPDATE: Cohen Responds to Bilerico.

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4 Responses

  1. I thought Cohen’s advice was just right. He told the woman that she should not broadcast this person’s history widely. On the other hand, people talk to their friends about their own experiences and the encounter (however many dates were involved) was owned by the letter writer as well as the man who dated her. The letter writer is not a very appealing person, and as Cohen said, one is not required to reveal all one’s history to someone on a casual date. On the other hand, if one is attempting to begin a relationship with someone, it is pertinent to share one’s history. I understand the transgendered person’s hesitancy to share too much too soon, for the very reasons that Dr. Weiss enumerates; but I also understand why one would become suspicious of someone who was very evasive, whatever one’s reaction might be to the fact that a potential suitor is transgendered. (For some people, that would be a positive aspect of the suitor’s history.) I don’t think being transgendered ought to be thought of as a shameful secret, though obviously people need to be cautious about who one shares information with.

  2. One of the problems in this area is that due to wide misunderstanding of terms like “transgender”, or more correctly “transsexual”, a person who “discloses” to another is most likely not bringing more clarity to the situation. The word “disclose” itself misrepresents aspects of the phenomenon that the general public simply does not understand.

    Even with a sympathetic individual and lots of discussion, it is unlikely that people who don’t have with this problem will truly grasp the situation you find yourself in when you are “transsexual”. It is not as simple as just revealing some aspect of your past due to all the (largely false) baggage that the public has in their minds about “transsexual”.

    (I leave out “transgender” because that is largely the reason people have so many misconceptions about transsexualism. In this case it is most likely the man in question is actually transsexual and not “transgender”, which is largely a meaningless term)

  3. Randy Cohan has no standing in ethics. Further he is attempting to apply one size fits all nonsense to a topic he is totally ignorant about.

    If one has a body at odds with how they present to the world that is vastly different than someone who was born with a neurological intersexed condtion where the central nervous system is at odds with the body and has that corrected. (transsexuality) If Randy is willing to provide each and every single person he dates with a full and complete and notarized medical history, maybe he has an “ethical” leg to stand on. But if you were born with a medical condition that was corrected, exactly what are you supposed to disclose? That you have a female mind, female body and live a female life? Get freakin’ real.

    Whether or not and when to disclose a private and resolved medical issue to someone is a personal decision. Not one for some failed comic passing himself off as an expert on ethics to pronounce ex cathreda.

    I suggest Randy begin to wear a Star of David sewn to all his clothes so any anti-Semites are fore-warned before dating him. After-all, don’t they have that right not to have their bigotry openly confronted? Opps, have a problem with that?……it’s ethics baby and no different.

  4. I am going to further point out that when I lobbied for the addition of the “T” to LGB, is sure as hell didn’t mean “transgender” which is a meaningless term of some identity politics.

    Transsexuals do not “trans” their gender, it is the very fact that gender is hardwired into the human brain prenatally that cause the condition and defines it. To call someone born neurologically intersexed and who corrected their somatic/neurological mismatch and lives and identifies as a woman or man a “transgender” is to demean and deny their position as simply a woman or man and attempt to force them into a third category against their life reality and wishes. It is an act of extreme verbal violence. Many of us stopped working with the LGB communties because of this ongoing insult by GLAAD and others, myself included. Listen up, push this “transgender” umbrella garbage and you and are on the same moral level as any other open bigot in my book.

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