The “Ethical Imperative” Of Disclosure, or: How To Believe Your Victim Owes You An Opportunity For Abuse

Another sad and tired cliché of the trans discourse. Another offensive question that cis people consistently ask us so as to assert their privilege. Another way they seize control of the discourse to subtly remind us who’s boss. Something I’ve been skirting the edges of for quite a while but haven’t yet dealt with directly.

Ahhh, “It’s Unethical To Not Disclose”, at last we meet. This battle has long been our destiny.

*activates lightsaber- FWOOOMSHzzzz-*

For those who aren’t clear, the ethics-of-disclosure thing is the argument that a trans woman (and yeah, it’s pretty much always framed as a trans woman because women, under normative sexual dynamics, are regarded as the object of pursuit and men the pursuers and sexual agents) is ethically obliged to inform a potential partner of her trans status (or “true gender”, as the conversation is often framed) prior to sexual intimacy, and that to do otherwise is deceitful and immoral, perhaps “deserving of punishment”.

This argument is so compelling to cisgender sensibilities that it is not only used as a means of informally justifying both hypothetical and actual violence, hatred or abuse against trans women, but has even successfully been used as a legal defense for murder.

But more than being used as a justification for the (very real) violence inflicted upon trans women under comparable circumstances, it is one of the primary grounds on which cis-supremacy is enacted. Even those cis people who would be supportive of trans rights, and opposed to overt cissexism, in most circumstances will come down on the side of agreeing with the notion that a trans person does indeed “owe” her partner to be “honest” about her sex (as though presenting herself as a woman was dishonest?!)… or at best will find themselves on the fence about the issue. Many feminists have even gone so far as to state trans lesbians are committing “rape by deception” if they do not disclose their trans status to female partners.

But what is the most powerful and subtle aspect of this discussion is how it frames cisgender identity, experience and perspective as not only supremely and infallibly normative, but also as the yardstick by which ethics and morality themselves are determined. It extends cis privilege into the concepts of “right” and “wrong” itself, determining morality primarily by how it relates to a cis person’s experience of a conflict, cis perceptions of identity, cis perceptions of “truth” and “falsehood”, cis perceptions of what are the salient issues in identity and sexual interaction, etc. If these are the laws of morality, then God is definitely a heterosexual cisgender man.

I don’t buy it. We don’t owe anyone our histories or gender assignments.

The concept is typically framed with a hypothetical. An attractive straight trans woman is read as a cis female by an interested straight cis man. He approaches her, they flirt for a while, eventually they end up in bed together. He’s attracted to her, she’s attracted to him, they consent to sex. Afterwards, she discloses that she is a trans woman. He freaks out and is angry. He was “deceived”, and it was “unethical”, because if he’d known she was trans, he would not have consented to sex, and she likely waited until after sex to disclose because she knew of that risk.

But let’s look at this carefully…

A lot of it hinges on the idea that the man would not have slept with her if he knew she was trans. A lot of the justifications that are made for this are things like “I’m sorry, it’s nothing personal, but I just find trans people kind of icky” or “It’s just my sexual orientation. I’m not attracted to trans women. I can’t help that. Are you going to blame me for my sexual orientation?” or whatever. This is utterly disingenuous, because the hypothetical is entirely hinged on the idea of him being attracted to her and consenting.

I’ve said it at least three times over the last four months, but really, it bears repeating: if you are attracted to a woman one moment, and repulsed by her the next, when all that has changed is her informing you of an invisible aspect of herself that does not affect you in any way and that you would not have ever been aware of if she hadn’t told you, then the problem is with your perceptions, not her body. It’s not trans women you aren’t attracted to (you clearly are), it’s women you know are trans. Therefore it’s the idea of transsexuality that creeps you out. It’s a conceptual issue, and based on socio-cultural messages, not on anything related to your actual sexuality (which was more than happy to fuck her when this concept hadn’t entered into things).

You’d have the exact same reaction of repulsion and anger if a cis woman told you she was trans after having sex with you. So if you can swap out a cis woman for a trans woman in this equation with the same results, THAT’S not the important, consistent variable. You are.

It’s in your head.

Now… why is it her obligation to tell you, and not your obligation to ask? Here we encounter several layers of cisnormativity and privilege. There is, for instance, how you’re walking around simply assuming that everyone ever is cisgender. Then furthermore expecting us to offer deference to that problematic, selfish assumption, and take it on as somehow our responsibility to deal with the fact that you forgot we exist and never thought about how to negotiate a world where we do. I’m sorry, but if the realization that some women are trans is something so far out of your mind that you can’t even be bothered to take into consideration and be responsible for your own feelings about that, we’re not going to hold your hand and take special care to remind you of this.

Then we have the idea that although it’s your hang-up that is generating the potential conflict, we have to predict that possibility, account for it, and take it on as our own ethical responsibility. This is unbelievably privileged and selfish. If the issue of a partner’s gender status is important to you, and you consider it a potential deal-breaker, then like all potential deal-breakers, it’s your responsibility to both of us to ask beforehand. After all, my being trans is not something that is of some huge concern for me in terms of pursuing our relationship, so why should I have to be the one to bring it up? If smoking is a deal-breaker, you ask potential partners if they smoke (or you smell it on them) or make it overt that that’s a deal-breaker and you’re not interested in smokers. If you don’t make that clear, it’s not a smokers fault that they dated you. If someone having once been a stripper is a deal-breaker for you, it’s your job to ask. If someone having a promiscuous sexual history is a deal-breaker for you, it’s your job to ask. If you’re not okay with dating Jewish women, it’s your job to ask.

It is NOT an ethical imperative for smokers, ex-strippers, people who’ve had lots of sex partners, or Jewish women to ASSUME that you have a big problem with cigarettes, or have a bunch of hang-ups about “sluts”, or are a neo-nazi. It may be a COURTESY for a smoker to let a partner know before making out, sure, but she doesn’t deserve to be punished if she doesn’t. And yeah, an ex-stripper or someone whose had a lot of partners may want to eventually let their partner know about that side of themselves once they become emotionally intimate and start trusting one another with personal information, but it isn’t necessary for a hook-up.

And why didn’t you inform us you were a transphobe, huh? Isn’t it your ethical responsibility to disclose to a potential partner that you have majour hang-ups about transgenderism prior to hooking up? After all, if I’d known you were a transphobe I wouldn’t have consented to sleeping with you! It’s rape by deception! :p

Now, some cis people who haven’t quite gotten the picture here may bring up things like HIV, being married or bisexuality or whatever. In the case of HIV, yes, absolutely, you do have an ethical obligation to inform your partner. But that’s because it has a direct and real risk for the other partner, and not informing them is to put them in jeopardy. It is a horrible, awful, incredibly shitty thing to do to someone, putting them at risk like that just for the sake of a hook-up. But transsexuality is not contagious. It won’t hurt you. It doesn’t really affect you at all. In the case of marriage? Yes, I’d say again that’s a situation where you do indeed owe it to someone to be honest and upfront, because that is again putting them at risk, and entangling them in a complex, emotionally harmful and even potentially dangerous situation, and also pulls them unknowingly into a situation that is potentially hurting a third party (though still not nearly as much of a shitty thing to do as sleeping with  someone without telling them you’re HIV positive). Being trans does not directly involve casual partners in anything that complicated or emotionally fraught, and doesn’t involve hurting a third party. But bisexuality? No. They don’t need to tell you that. That’s another thing that they’re perfectly entitled to keep to themselves until you’ve reached a trusting point in your relationship and are becoming more emotionally intimate.

Now, emotional intimacy is a different matter. When a long-term relationship is placed on the table, yeah, it behooves partners to begin opening up, trusting each other with the intimate details of themselves and their history, and things that may be of consequence down the road. This is the point at which it starts becoming the right thing to do for a trans person to tell you her status (since it involves and affects you in terms of things like the potential for marriage, children, potential social stigma, etc.), but it’s still not any more a moral imperative for her to tell you that, she still has the right to keep it to herself (or simply say “I’m infertile” or something and leave it that) if she chooses, and if it’s really super-duper important to you, you can always ask. If, for instance, having children someday is important to you, make that clear. It’s only if you ask and she lies that she has crossed the threshold into deceit.

But for hook-ups? Dating? No. If it’s important to you, it’s your job to deal with that, not going around applying your cissexist assumptions and standards to everything, and not go boo-hooing when your precious cisnormativity comes crashing to pieces around you.

It is not deceit for a trans woman to present as a woman, because (surprise!) trans women are women. Dishonesty is when we present ourselves as men… which does of course happen, and many hearts have been broken because of it. But this is due to things like denial, coercive gender assignment, the intense social pressures to remain closeted or delay transition, etc. It’s what we often need to do to survive. But yeah… a trans woman presenting as female is completely honest. And if you gender her female, and are attracted to her as a woman, and consent to sexual intimacy with her, nothing unethical or deceitful has occurred. Two adults who were attracted to one another had harmless consensual sexual intercourse. End of story.

Another principle dimension of privilege here is the assumed primacy of the cis person’s feelings. The entire situation is interpreted in terms of how the cis person is affected. The discomfort he has with the “deceit” outweighs how she is affected (or hurt… often literally) by his reaction. It is considered unethical for her not to have told him earlier (even though, if this were a one-off thing, the “harm” originates from her having told him at all and if she hadn’t offered him the respect of disclosing he would have gone on his happy, merry way), but the relative morality of him shaming her, treating her body as revolting, her identity as invalid and dishonest and a “lie”, her identified gender as illegitimate in comparison to her assigned sex, and so on is given no consideration at all, even though the relative harm being dealt is significantly greater and significantly more accountability rests on his shoulders for this harm than the dubious “harm” that she can’t even definitively be said to have “caused” simply by consenting to sex. And further than that, his wounded ego and threatened masculinity and sexual security is given so much privilege in how this scenario is interpreted that this is used even as justification for him inflicting “punishment” upon her, up to and including physical violence or even murder.

That is how deep cis privilege runs. That is how much more important a cis person is considered, and that is the degree to which a trans woman is barely considered human. It is the same brand of “justice” of a rapist and his victim being made to marry and demonstrates just as profound an inequality in who we see as counting in our interpretations of morality.

What else is almost never given consideration here is why we don’t disclose. The truth is not that we try to pass ourselves off as cis women just because we get a kick out of that. It’s because we pretty much have to; in order to be accepted as women at all, in order to be treated as valid, in order to be offered basic respect and dignity and human rights, in order to go to the bathroom, in order to not be treated as jokes or freaks or pariahs, in order to avoid bigotry, in order to be safe, in order to avoid violence, in order to not be instantly discounted (or fetishized) for what we are before anyone bothers trying to understand us as who we are, in order to simply provide ourselves a chance at simple love and intimacy, a chance to have it be simple before it becomes complicated by our gender and the cultural baggage surrounding it …including the potential that you’ll hate us for it.

Don’t blame us for “deceiving” you by not disclosing. Blame the conditions that made it impossible for us to feel safe doing so. Including the way this very question is treated. Including the consequences you dish out or threaten. Every time a trans woman is “punished” (or threatened with punishment) for the “transgression” of non-disclosure, you reinforce the conditions that led to that non-disclosure.

And don’t we deserve a chance at love and sex and intimacy? Isn’t that a basic human right? Don’t we deserve giving people a chance to get to know us as a human being before discounting us as a freak, a “shim”, a “shemale”, a “thing”? Can you blame us for just trying to give you enough time to realize we’re human and potentially wonderful partners with whom a rewarding sexual or romantic relationship could be pursued before we provide you an easy excuse for your prejudices to decide we aren’t?

And why do we owe you the opportunity to hurt us? We’re aware of the statistics. We know what often happens to girls like us, especially when intimacy is involved. How the fuck is it our job to help our oppressors inflict our oppression upon us? How is it our responsibility to enable and encourage our abusers, by alerting them to why they should hurt us? Why should we voluntarily pin the equivalent of a yellow star to our coats if we needn’t do so?

Sometimes it seems like the whole question, the whole construct, is simply a way to believe that we not only deserve our victimization, but that it is the right thing to do, that it is only natural to want to hurt us if we don’t voluntarily submit to that victimization. Another catch-22. Disclose, and be victimized for being trans. Don’t disclose, and be victimized later for being trans and a “liar”.

The construct is so audacious in its scope, so entrenched in its underlying assumptions, and so backed by the mentalities of an enormously vast and enormously privileged majority, that it has succeeded in the most perfect and deeply believed act of victim-blaming still functioning flawlessly and virtually unquestioned in our culture.

At this point, we owe you fuck all. You owe us an apology, and returns on thousands of stolen lives.

And you damn well owe it to us to not bring up this horrible question.