I know we’ve had a number of Dear Imprudences in the last week or so, but, people, there has been a lot of really bad advice out there. This Sunday’s ‘The Ethicist’ column in the New York Times was a pretty glaring example, and I thank FWD reader Molly Bandit for bringing it to my attention (Dear Imprudence tips can always be emailed to meloukhia at disabledfeminists dot com).
The letter writer says:
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 transgendered 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.
Here’s how ‘The Ethicist’ responds:
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.
Woah woah woah woah. Hold on just a minute here, Ethicist. This column is headed ‘When to Out a Transgendered Dater,’ and the correct answer is…
Never not ever. Period. Ever. Not even if…Not even when…Never. The answer to this letter writer should have been ‘no you should not out him.’ Props to The Ethicist for using the right pronoun, absolute failing grade on absolutely everything else, from ‘you have every right to talk this over with friends’ (no you do not) to ‘that’s why he discreditably withheld it.’
Forcible outing happens all the time, especially commonly in medical settings, as commenters at The Sexist recently pointed out. It is incredibly harmful and dangerous and it is also highly unethical. It is most definitely not acceptable and I am horrified that this column ran, because it reinforced the idea that outing is up for debate and that it may be appropriate in some settings. No it is not.
Here’s Queen Emily, writing on why it is never appropriate to out transgendered people, putting it better than I could myself:
So here’s the deal: if you out us, you can do more damage than you can possibly imagine.
You can expose trans people to violence. You could get them fired. You could make it impossible for them to find work–word of mouth travels quickly in small towns or closeknit industries. They could be harassed so much they need to quit their job, or to need to move, or all kinds of things. You don’t know, because you’ve never had to live with the consequences. Just because you know and trust someone, doesn’t mean that I can. It doesn’t mean that they won’t be hateful to me, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they will be respectful of my confidentiality.
The very idea that one should even be asking if outing is ok is horrific to me. No, it is not ok, not ever. Period. End of discussion.
Related reading: Ethic Pathetic by C. L. Minou at Below the Belt.