How and if and at what point to disclose whether or not you are transgender during the dating process has long been a heated topic within the transgender community. Now that internal conversation is going more public as transgender people gain more visibility in the media. And as cisgender people weigh in with their (almost always hostile) thoughts about disclosure.
“If I found out someone I was dating was transgender I would kill them.” “If someone doesn’t disclose they are transgender then they deserve the beating they get.” “I have every right to not date someone with genitalia I don’t like.” These are all direct quotes that I have seen or heard this week around transgender people and disclosure.
And it’s not just in dating relationships. The question of when and how and if to disclose comes up even in friendships.
I don’t often talk about being transgender in my daily life, not because I am trying to hide it but because I don’t think about it all that much. Well, except that’s not really true. I think about it every time I use a public bathroom. I think about it when transgender issues are mentioned at the table next to me. I think about it when I am walking alone at night.
On an emotional level this is wearing. The constant wonder and worry and fear.
And here’s the deal: almost every single time I have told someone that I am transgender it has changed the relationship. Sometimes in subtle ways sometimes in large ways, sometimes in relationship ending ways.
Suddenly I am an oddity. Or they have all sorts of questions. Suddenly I am not just the dude they were talking to a minute ago. I am a “different type of man”. I am now someone for them to project all of their preconceived notions on. I am someone that will help them work out their masculinity or their femininity. I am someone who can help them sort out their sexuality. Except that I am none of those things. I am just myself. With my own experiences and desires and identity. And my life is different from every other trans person (because every single person’s life is different from everyone else’s).
When I tell someone I am transgender they suddenly feel like they own me. They own my story. They suddenly feel the need to tell me about their transgender cousin or uncle or that person they went to high school with and haven’t seen in 30 years. And they tell me that person’s old name and how they used to identify and how their family is taking it (none of which they have permission to tell me and I wonder if they will one day tell someone else my story like they have told me this story). When I tell someone I am transgender I can see them trying to figure out my body. They look at me as if they have x-ray glasses and can figure out what’s under my clothes. Or they’ll just ask me what’s under my clothes. When I tell someone I am transgender they look at me differently. They talk to me differently. They treat me differently. I am suddenly and instantly OTHER to them. Every time.
And these are the mild reactions. These are the good reactions. These are the reactions that I get to walk away from.
Why don’t you transgender people tell people that you’re transgender? Why are you trying to trick us?
Books could be written about that statement. About the way that you feel you have a right to know my entire history. About the way you really see me (because if you believe I am “tricking you” it means you don’t believe that I am who I say I am, that my history override and overwrites my present identity). About the way that you have a right to be friends with or have sex with only people who’s entire history you approve of.
It’s been said before in ways better than I will say it here, but maybe instead of asking transgender people to disclose cisgender people should have to disclose whether or not they are transphobic jerks while on dates or when meeting new people. That would certainly cut down on the work on my end.
But seriously: what and when and how you disclose is a personal choice. And maybe if someone hasn’t disclosed to you it’s because you’ve proven yourself to not be a safe person to disclose to. Maybe they haven’t told you because they worry that you’ll get violent. Or be mean or cruel.
Maybe instead of always putting the onus on an already vulnerable and marginalized people you take some of the onus onto yourself. Educate yourself about transgender people. Make yourself a safe person to be around. Make it clear by your actions, not just your words, that you are in solidarity with transgender people. If you have hang ups (or think you might have hang ups) about transgender bodies then do your own work (with a therapist) to figure that out before you go projecting it onto transgender people. If you think that a transgender person’s identity somehow overrides and messes with your own identity that is also something to work out with a professional therapist before doing damage to a transgender person with your assumptions and perceptions about them.
When you say you don’t want to have sex with a transgender person you are making all sorts of assumptions about what their body might look like and about who they are. You are becoming the gatekeeper of what someone’s identity is.
I am not interested in conversations about when and how and if to disclose. I am interested in unpacking and demolishing a culture that says that transgender people aren’t human, that they don’t have agency over their bodies, and that says that violence against transgender people is not only acceptable but should be expected. That, to me, is the real issue. It’s where the real danger lies.
And frankly that’s where the danger has always been: in cisgender people who would rather kill transgender people than see us as human.
It’s not just physical violence; the language and thoughts of cisgender people can kill us as well. Transgender people need you to examine your own complicity in the violence against us. We need you to examine the way you speak to and about us. We need you to examine the thoughts and assumptions that you hold about our bodies and lives.
We need you to do your work because your refusal to work out your own issues is literally killing us.