Thoughts on the ethics of disclosure and gender identity

Brynn Tannehill penned a piece for lgbtqnation on the ethics of disclosure for trans folk in dating, as in whether or not it meets some criteria of right or wrong to disclose (or not disclose) our status as transgender or our “gender history.” For the most part I agree with her arguments, and wanted to offer some additional thoughts.

By far the most predictable piece of white noise injected into the discourse is the claim of a cis person asserting they couldn’t date a trans person or find us attractive. The problem is… well, yes you could.

To clarify, there isn’t any consistent way to spot a trans person, because there isn’t any variance in our bodily characteristics that cisgender people don’t also have. Some women have hair loss. Some men have breasts. Some women are tall. Some men are short. The belief that trans people as a demographic can be identified upon sight is predicated in the belief that there is a certain way to “look trans.” This is how trans people have been using the washroom with you long before trans panic gained traction in 2014. Most of you never knew most of us were ever there, so we minded our business and left the loo like everyone else.

So, part one of this debate is establishing that trans people have a variety of appearances. Part two: If trans people have a variety of appearances, it is possible to encounter one of us who meets your particular criteria for attractive.

I’ve been at socials and mixers where men have approached and attempted to flirt with me. Let’s just accept that at a mixer they don’t know who I am. All they’re going off of, at least for who to start a conversation with, is my outward appearance. The encounters are very obviously flirtatious, which implies they were considering me for sexual activity. Sure, probably 90+% of them would say “I don’t find trans women attractive” if you cornered them and asked point blank, but their actual behaviour says otherwise–they flirted with me, sometimes explicitly with the intention to bed me. So, obviously, they did find at least one trans woman attractive, and that this opens up the possibility that trans women can be attractive to them.

In other words, the belief that you personally could never date a trans person is a belief formed on pre-conceived ideas of what makes a trans person. The brute fact of my physical features–the same thing that drew their superficial interest–never changed during the mixers, but the social fact of how those features are interpreted can be radically altered just by disclosing my gender history.

To me, this simply means that the “disclosure” debate is about whether or not it is the responsibility of trans people to coddle the anxieties of gender & sexuality held by the cishet majority. Having had their identities simply taken for granted, encountering trans folk–especially trans folk they are sexually attracted to–forces them to confront the many assumptions in which their identities are couched. Rather than blame the society which imposed upon them this incomplete view of humanity, they scapegoat us for embodying those questions. Somehow it becomes our moral failing not to cushion every cisgender person in bubblewrap just because they can’t accept that the assumptions they’ve been taught to make about gender and people aren’t necessarily true.

You can’t “catch” gender variance. Sleeping with me isn’t going to “make you trans.” It’s not a transmissible disease. There is no actual health reason to disclose gender history when it comes to this issue, because there is no brute fact that could possibly affect you. There is only the social fact that some people are so heavily invested in the belief of discrete gender and sex binaries that they will interpret the mere act of finding me attractive an act of deception.

Yes, not for anything I’ve actually said and done. Being found attractive before I make it known I am transgender is often enough to spark this debate. I did not “trick” you into finding me attractive, you had decided that I was attractive without my input and without my consent. You had already reduced me to a sexual object and interpreted my physical features to be an advertisement for sex. This is all happening before you’ve even began an interaction with me. You were the one labeling me with your assumptions. You are to blame if those assumptions turn out to be not true. This is All. Your. Baggage. Not mine. And I know this because the effect would be the same if I were a cisgender woman and told you I was trans.* It’s in your head, mate.

Tannehill mentions that no other aspects of non-health disclosures receive the same degree of public support. Yet it is brutally common with gender variance to seriously argue that trans people are ethically obligated to subordinate ourselves to the anxieties of cis folk, regardless of the very lethal consequences that tends to have.

It’s not rape if a woman with Jewish heritage doesn’t disclose to an anti-Semite her great grandma was Jewish. It’s not rape if the person you slept with turns out to be biracial, even if they visibly “pass” as one ethnicity. It’s not rape to find out the person you slept with is Christian. It’s not rape if you’re disappointed that your lay is broke. That’s because none of these impact your health in any meaningful way. Yet it is only gender variance that is criminalized and pathologized under the logic that we have “deceived” someone by existing–this despite the fact that many cis people have roleplayed and obscured truths in their dating lives. Hell, the same jurisdictions where it’s legal not to disclose STI status, something which can actually affect your health, are the same districts deciding it is a crime to not disclose gender history.

Fucking. Un. Real.

So how many other things are we obligated to disclose? Should I give you my CV, tell you that I had to work a crummy grocery cashier job when I was a teenager? Should I tell you I broke my wrist in a Taekwondo tournament back in 2004? Should I tell you that I used to weigh less than I do now? How about the fact that my cardio used to be good enough to jog around the block a dozen times? Or the time I wiped out on my bike which gave me a scar on my elbow? How about the fact that literally all of my baby teeth had to be extracted because I lost the genetic lottery when it came to teeth (thanks mum & dad)? I used to be four feet tall–should I disclose that, too? I can’t skate but I’m pretty good with a bow. Should I give you a comprehensive list of my hobbies? Tell you about that nasty flu I had years ago? About the time I shaved my head when I was 10?

Maybe–and I’m just going on a limb here–the idea of attraction has fuck all to do with history? Maybe when we have important dealbreakers we generally understand it’s on us to make that clear with prospective partners? If it’s that important to you to never fuck a trans person, maybe you should be asking pointblank on your dates, “are you cisgender”? After all, I’d never willingly and knowingly fuck a bigot, so you’d certainly spare me the “rape by deception” by disclosing early that this matters to you.

To quote Natalie Reed: (emphasis original)

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 yardstickby 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.

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 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.



*If any cis women reading this want to try that experiment, I suggest you don’t. That will likely be hazardous for your health.



  1. anat says

    I don’t think they fear catching Teh Trans. It is Teh Gay they fear catching. Because everyone is defined by observed genitals at time of birth (regardless of anything else).