i dream of being possible

on the ethics of disclosure

I find myself unable to resist writing a response to this blog post about whether or not trans ppl have a ethical duty to disclose our trans status to potential sexual partners. There are a few problems with the way that the question is posed in the post.

First, the difference between sex and gender:

Cutting back to our question about disclosure, we see that most people seeking a partner would consider the fact that a potential partner is of the “wrong” sex for the seeker to be a “deal-breaker.” For a straight man, knowing that the potential partner is a man would preclude a relationship, and the converse would be true for a gay man learning that his potential partner is female. Bisexual people may feel differently (or may not, depending on the individual). Other than knowing that one’s partner has an STI, there are probably few other facts (besides the sex of one’s partner) that nearly everyone has a strong desire to have before embarking on a sexual relationship. Perhaps that should count toward the “yes” side of the balance.

Within the discussion, this is perhaps one of the strongest arguments on the ‘yes’ side of the question (ie, that trans ppl do have an ethical obligation). Of course, the immediate problem with this is that people aren’t attracted to each other’s ‘sex’ but rather our genders. This might seem like splitting hairs to some people, but it is an important distinction.

Insofar as you believe that sex represents the ‘biological’ fact of a person and gender their felt identity, attraction and desire don’t depend on the ‘biological’ fact of a person. By and large, I’d wager that almost all of us do not know (and will never know) the ‘sex’ of anyone we’ve ever had sex with. Determining sex depends on quite a few biological factors, some of which almost no one actually knows about themselves (like my chromosomes… I have had no genetic testing, I do not know with any certainty whether I’m XY, XX, or any other possible combination). Sex at birth is usually determined on a cursory glance of genitals. So, at least as far as ‘sex’ is concerned, if that material reality has changed, then so too has the sex1. If your ‘sex’ has changed, do you have an obligation to disclose this change?

And, let’s be honest, this is the real question (or at least it should be). The problem with the discussion as it goes down in the post is that it posits trans people’s identities and genders as inherently deceptive. This is the word actually used. With the invocation of ‘rape by deception’, it makes it clear that she (and presumably her colleagues) consider that being trans ultimately represents a deception (or possible deception) that could be considered to obviate the consent of the partner.

I agree that gender is an important, deal-breaking aspect of a person for many people. However, I’m having a hard time with this given that if a person who has met all personal, medical, psychological, and legal requirements to change their sex (and gender), how can it be considered deceptive to not disclose what a some doctor called your genitals based on a quick glance when you were born?2

I also find it interesting that this question doesn’t actually go in the other direction. Noting how this fundamentally posits trans identities as deceptive, the post doesn’t actually consider the actual situations that might be considered deceptive.

As in the case of a closeted trans woman. She gets married, fathers children, and then later decides to transition. Is this not a better case for analyzing the potential need to disclose a person’s trans identity? Given that many trans ppl feel that living and presenting as our birth gender is the real deception, I find it interesting and curious that this situation never ever occurs to the cis ppl who wish to discuss the ethics of disclosure. Similarly, why is the discussion never about cis gays and cis lesbians who engage in heterosexual sex before (or even after) coming out?

Instead, the discussion is always focused on burdening trans ppl living as their felt gender (and potentially having done any number of things to live authentically up to and including full medical transition), with an ethical obligation to tell our potential sexual partners what our ‘real’ sex or gender is.

Earlier in the article, Colb mentions the situation where an otherwise white looking (I’m guessing based on context) person is a quarter Black but doesn’t disclose this to potentially racist partners who might care a great deal about their partner’s race. One thing I find interesting about this analogy and how the discussion happens, is again where the burden of disclosure rests.

Why isn’t the real question over whether or not bigots have an ethical obligation to disclose their bigotry? If I know, in advance, that a potential partner hates Asians, then I can make the decision not to have sex with them or otherwise associate. Indeed, this was one of the few benefits of online dating for me, since many white gays are more than happy to disclose their racist preferences in their profiles. Likewise, it would be super useful (if I were still dating) to know which men hate girls like us so that I can be sure to avoid them.

The problem, here, of course is cisnormativity, where everyone is considered to be cis unless specified otherwise. This is, in fact, an actual aspect of trans ppl’s oppression, since cisnormativity feeds into cissexism, where cis genders are considered more real and authentic than trans genders. Which takes us into the above discussion where trans ppl are framed as being always inherently deceptive about our gender (or sex).