Tobi Hill-Meyer

Disclosing Trans Status

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | November 21, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
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Originally written for SexIs Magazine, this last March.

couple_grope-392x600.jpgThe music at the club was pounding and we were dancing close. It wasn't exactly a date, as the friend I was with wasn't exactly available, but I was happy just to dance and share a flirtatious energy. I didn't expect one of the other patrons to come and ask to dance with us both. Within 10 minutes, she was making out with me, groping my side, grinding her leg into my crotch. My mind was racing.

I'd heard the advice to always disclose my trans status before doing anything sexual at least dozen times, but this was my first time navigating it. I'd met all my previous partners through my activism. They knew that I was trans long before the first date. I'd never picked someone up in a club before. It was so loud that we needed to shout just to exchange names. Somehow, yelling: "I'm trans!" over the surrounding cacophony didn't seem like the best way to come out.

Disclosing as Opposed to "Coming Out"

When to disclose trans status to a potential partner is a complicated issue that has been hotly discussed in the trans community. When it comes down to it, the answer invariably is: "It depends." Just like rules about how long to wait before calling after your first date, there's no one time to disclose what works in all situations. The first date, the second date, never, a few hours before sex, when saying hello; any of those could be the best answer in at least one situation, and there are lots of things to consider when deciding what is appropriate.

To begin, let's catch up on the basics of what disclosure is and isn't. A lot of people attempt to extend the metaphor of "the closet" from LGB identity to the issue of trans status disclosure, but it's really a different situation. Cis (non-trans) LGB folks who are closeted are presenting a fake image to the world and hiding who they really are. What makes "coming out" so liberating for them is that they finally have the chance to be and be seen as who they really are. Trans people who hide by living as a gender they do not identify with can be said to be "closeted," but they are not who's typically being discussed in terms of disclosure.

Being a trans woman living as a woman, I get to be who I really am regardless of whether or not I disclose my trans status. However, telling people I'm trans can result in people suddenly no longer seeing me as a real woman. Contrary to the experience of coming out, disclosure of trans status often puts me at risk for losing the ability to be seen as who I really am.

The Myth of Deception

When disclosure is presented as an obligation or responsibility, it's given as either an obligation to the cis partner or to the trans person's own safety. The first reason is clearly motivated by the assumption that trans people's genders are less valid or real than cisgenders, which means that trans people are somehow lying by presenting their true selves. It plays on the trope of the transsexual deceiver, à la The Crying Game or The Jerry Springer Show.

It's true that trans status can be very important in some trans people's lives, but to others, it's just an anomalous fact in their medical history. If someone doesn't notice that their partner is trans, then chances are their trans status is not impacting their life, in which case I'd argue there is no more obligation to disclose that than there is the obligation to disclose things like religion, political affiliation, ethnic heritage, survivor status, occupation and work history, past abortions, hobbies, and food allergies. All of those are fine things to discuss, but normally, you don't claim someone is lying or deceptive if they haven't discussed mentioned them by a specific point in the relationship. There is no reason trans status should be treated differently.

I might be aghast if I discovered a lover was a major fan of George W. Bush, but if I'd never asked about politics, then it would be as much my fault as theirs that I never knew that piece of who they were. Similarly, if someone deeply cares about their partner's trans status, but never asks about it, they cannot claim that their rights were violated because their partner never brought it up.

The Myth of Trans Panic

The idea of to disclosing for one's personal safety has more merit but is often couched within many assumptions that disempower trans people. The biggest one of these is the myth of "trans panic" -- the idea that a reasonable straight cis person would be unable to prevent him/herself from killing a partner they discovered was trans.

While there are some cases of straight cis people killing their trans partners in such instances, but because most trans murders are never thoroughly investigated, it's not clear how many of these cases are simply excuses to get off with minimal punishment and how many are actual trans panic. However, we can see from recent court cases that many murderers did, in fact, know that their partners were trans before they had sex and only claimed not to have known because they realized such a story would play on the jury's transphobic sympathies. Certainly, with the proliferation of this myth in the media, it's likely trans panic happens more often on TV than in real life.

Early disclosure is not an automatic preventive to violence. Those who are willing to commit violence when they find out that the person they just fucked is trans very well might react the same way when they find out the hottie they wanted to fuck is trans. Last November, a young trans woman shared an impactful example of just that on YouTube.

Visibility is not without its own risks. Even if the disgruntled potential partner doesn't assault the trans person upon learning their status, they may go around telling everyone else--including someone who might be more violent. Trans people should be empowered to control their own level of visibility, and not be badgered into taking on a level of visibility or disclosure that feels uncomfortable or dangerous to them.

Practical Precautions

Whether choosing to disclose or not, there are plenty of steps that can be taken to reduce the risks involved in any dating situation. To begin with, all the basic safety protocols typically advised when meeting someone via the Internet apply here: Let your friends know where you are. Have a friend with you if appropriate. Meet in a public or semi-public space. Set up a safety call in which a friend calls to check on you at a certain point (if they can't reach you they then call the police). Let your date know that you have a friend expecting to hear from you at a certain time.

It can also help to know ahead of time under what circumstances you want to disclose or not. Consider factors such as what kind of connection you're forming, and how long it is likely to last. Are they likely to find out on their own? How important is your trans status in your life? Are there other things in your life that you're going to have to hide in the process?

Finally, don't forget that it's an option to test the waters before actually disclosing. Ask their friends about them. Get a general sense of how capable of violence they are (don't forget that the strong, protective type can do a lot of damage if they decide to turn against you). If you can, find out if they know trans people. Ask them what they think about trans movie of trans related issues in the news (mention Chaz Bono). Mention an imaginary trans friend if you have to. Above all, trust your intuition. If something feels wrong, don't be afraid to simply leave. And when balancing all of these risk management concerns, don't forget who is ultimately responsible for anti-trans violence: the perpetrators. No matter what decisions trans people make around disclosure, their partners are fully capable of not committing assault or murder.

In my case, I was in a public space, with a friend right next to me. Even though she could have discovered my trans status herself with a wayward grope or while grinding her thigh into me, I felt rather safe and decided to let things run their course. When we were about to go our separate ways, I decided to tell her. It turned out she hadn't guessed. She only said, "Oh," and paused for a moment before inviting me back to her place.


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"She only said, "Oh," and paused for a moment before inviting me back to her place."

Wow, FTW!

I agonize too over when or whether to disclose (theoretical for me, unfortunately, but I still ponder what is right and wrong) with a sex partner. Really, I feel deep down it shouldn't be any of their business. What I was and how I lived in the past is in the past, and how I am living now is my truth, not a deception or a plot, and I didn't transition to get sex. On the other hand, I do intellectually know that it matters to a lot of ppl, that if they had sex with me and found out later, it could be bad for them emotionally, and worse for me emotionally and perhaps physically, so I guess I prolly would. I would grit my teeth as I did it though.

I like your way of looking at the 'closet' thing for non-trans ppl versus trans ppl. Very true, at least for me.

We do see one thing a bit differently, though: I feel thinking to ask, "Are you trans?" is a much less likely 'are we compatable' question to consider than most other things, esp for non-trans ppl. However, I am also old (just turned 50 last month! ARRRGGGGHHHH!!!!!), so perhaps things are different for the younger generation. :)

Thanks. But to clarify, I don't think it's very common for cis folks to ask their partners if they are trans. I just think that it takes two to not discuss a topic. If someone never brings up the topic, they don't have a right to claim they were lied to -- I mean, chances are they never disclosed their gender history either.

I was just making this point yesterday during a discussion after watching the movie Trained in the Ways of Men, about the murder of Gwen Araujo. If the fact that their partner may be trans is so important to someone's self-image that it could lead them to violence against their partner, then it is their responsibility, not their partner's, to find that out in advance. The fact that cisgender people don't even think about the possibility their partner may be trans, and, even when they do think about that possibility, don't think it's their responsibility to find out (after all, we're the "freaks," right?), is simply an example of the blind privilege they enjoy because they are cisgender, and then exploit when they claim the "trans panic" defense. Frankly, that's bull! If it's that big a deal to them. It's their responsibility, not mine, to deal with their transphobia.

I used to accept both of those arguments, at least somewhat, especially the second. But that was when my operative status was different. At this point, I don't think there's anything to disclose. If I were asked point blank, I wouldn't lie. But I don't think that would happen. And I'm glad for that. Because I accept your reasoning.

Thanks, Tobi, for a very cogent piece.

"Contrary to the experience of coming out, disclosure of trans status often puts me at risk for losing the ability to be seen as who I really am."

Exactly. So often, transitioned people are held to double standards by those of cis-privilege that disrespect the legitimacy of our affirmed identities and blame us for violence that is inflicted on us.

50, @Carol? You're just getting started. Happy belated birthday.


Good article. I think that "trans panic" is more of an excuse than a myth. The perpetrators think that by using it, it would save them from prosecution. In some cases, it does.

Whenever this discussion comes up about early disclosure, I always like to point out that there are two women on the Remembering Our Dead list that told their husbands on the honeymoon, and one where the husband found out in later years. There are also several on the list who were killed by their dates. The killers were all men. I have yet to hear about a cis woman killing a trans woman after she found out. I guess being a lesbian can be a bit safer way to go.

Not getting killed is just *one* of the many awesome things about being a lesbian! :)

Seriously, though, I have thought just the same very often--most of those women were killed by extremely macho type men, who were prolly very insecure in their masculinity (at least that seems pretty common, the more macho men act, the more afraid they are on the inside that they don't measure up).

let's catch up on the basics of what disclosure is and isn't. A lot of people attempt to extend the metaphor of "the closet" from LGB identity to the issue of trans status disclosure, but it's really a different situation. Cis (non-trans) LGB folks who are closeted are presenting a fake image to the world and hiding who they really are. What makes "coming out" so liberating for them is that they finally have the chance to be and be seen as who they really are. Trans people who hide by living as a gender they do not identify with can be said to be "closeted," but they are not who's typically being discussed in terms of disclosure.

Being a trans woman living as a woman, I get to be who I really am regardless of whether or not I disclose my trans status. However, telling people I'm trans can result in people suddenly no longer seeing me as a real woman. Contrary to the experience of coming out, disclosure of trans status often puts me at risk for losing the ability to be seen as who I really am.

This is one of the most succinct and easily readable/understandable descriptions of the differences faced by trans people that I've ever read, Tobi. I'll be sure to use your analogy with others.

Spot on, dear! Always the onus for violence is on the perpetrator. Woman have been trying to move that idea forever (and there is still discussion?). Very well elucidated idea of maintaining one's dignity
'If someone doesn't notice that their partner is trans, then chances are their trans status is not impacting their life, in which case I'd argue there is no more obligation to disclose that than there is the obligation to disclose....'
The parallel is, of course, clear, re- the onus of violence. And I like the proposition: "You didn't ask!" LOL
I might add for the discussion that as a trans-woman who couldn't pass in a blackout, the question is moot. But, we always look forward!
Jeanie Wallenstein
Chicago

Tobi-- I've been struggling with this one. I have been socialized in the gay male community before I had any contact with other trans men/people. So the "coming out" concept has a very important place in my thinking.
You write:
"telling people I'm trans can result in people suddenly no longer seeing me as a real woman. Contrary to the experience of coming out, disclosure of trans status often puts me at risk for losing the ability to be seen as who I really am."

This is the experience of every trans person. No arguing about that.
But I'm wondering- aren't we just *reacting* to trans oppression? Because in a world where people would continue to see us as men and women after we disclose, there would be no need to be stealth.
In the past (before the 1960s), gay people faced similar problems when coming out. They were regarded as "not human", "not normal" "miscreants" and so on. Normal interaction became impossible, because people would always think of *that*. I don't think that's so far away from our experince.
I know several trans guys who suffer intensely because they *can't* disclose. They live in small towns or have jobs where nobody knows about them. Some have been living stealth since their teens.
I totally think that trans disclosure will never have the same meaning as LGB coming out, and rightfully so. It *is* different. But *how* different is it really, to what degree, and isn't there a part of it, where we are actually *kept* the closet, and *not* just "being ourselves"?
I'm not sure about this, so I'd really like to hear what you think.

ShipofFools, This article isn't about stealth so much, but about disclosure. I'm not stealth but I constantly have to make decisions about when to disclose or not.

But yes, choosing not to disclose (or to be stealth) has drawbacks as well. In some cases you have to hide all kinds of other things about your life. Perhaps it might feel significant to talk about pre-transition gender based childhood harassment. Or you can't introduce someone to your family of origin because you don't trust them to use the right pronouns. Or you hide your out trans friends from them because you don't want to raise their suspiscions. And so forth.

The point I was making about the closet, however, is that even though gays half a century ago (and today in some places) have been regarded under terrible terms, the basic point about their sexuality was agreed upon. The choice was between being seen as normal, okay, and straight (closeted) vs being seen as abnormal, miscreant, and gay (out). I know many people who would choose the latter.

Whereas for trans people in similarly prejudicial situations the choice is between seen as normal, okay, and the gender you identify as (stealth) vs being seen as abnormal, miscreant, and probably as being really the gender you were assigned at birth (out). I still know some people who would choose the latter, but my point is that it's not the same choice. While their certainly are costs to being stealth, they are not the same as being closeted. And the benefits and costs of being out as trans are not the same as the benefits and costs of being out as gay, lesbian, or bi.

Now that's what I call a rational explanation ;)

"The choice was between being seen as normal, okay, and straight (closeted) vs being seen as abnormal, miscreant, and gay (out). I know many people who would choose the latter.

Whereas for trans people in similarly prejudicial situations the choice is between seen as normal, okay, and the gender you identify as (stealth) vs being seen as abnormal, miscreant, and probably as being really the gender you were assigned at birth (out)."

I've known this but I've never seen it written down like that so now it gets cearer why things are the way they are.

I think my feeling of discomfort is that I don't want to have the environment push me into not disclosing. Maybe it's just a question of being able to disclose *more often*, as naturally, there will always be situations where someone (trans or cis) keeps information from others for a variety of reasons.
But I just want an environment where "diclosure or not" isn't such a stressful, serious question, where I can feel relaxed in the knowledge that I can disclose when I feel like it, without constantly thinking about the reaction.

Ship,

I will try to explain how I see the 'closet' issue, too, in case that helps (if not, sorry!).

When you see yourself and live as the gender assigned to you at birth (non-trans for this discussion--I personally have stopped using 'cis' since so many non-trans ppl take this as an insult of some sort, esp when it is followed by the word 'priviledge' ) and are attracted to ppl who are seen as that same gender (gay for this discussion), that is the 'classic' closet. Ppl see you as male or female, which is in line with how you see yourself, even if they may see you as gender-transgressive (feminine men, masculine women). What they *don't* know is that you are attacted to so the same sex/gender, so the way you are hiding 'who you really are', is that you are a gay person. When you come out, they *do* see you 'as you really are' and as you see yourself, even if they hate you because of it.

When you see yourself and live as something different from the gender assigned to you at birth (trans), whatever your sexual orientation (so) is (and you can be closeted here just the same as non-trans ppl!), you *already are* living as you really are (relative to gender, if not so), and that is what ppl see (assuming you 'pass', I guess...~). So when you come out, what you are risking is that ppl will NOT see you how you really are, but as something you were assigned as against your will a long time ago. Even though the disgust felt by the ppl to whom you disclosed may be similar to what they would feel about an outed non-trans gay person, in the case of that non-trans gay person, at least they are seeing that person as that person sees themself.

So for us trans ppl, not only may there be disgust at our sexual orientation (though that may change if they find out we are not really 'men sleeping with men' in some way or the other, since we may switch from being gay to str8 in their eyes), there is also disgust at us as trans ppl. (And this disgust often happens within the gay cummunity with which we identify: in my experience trans men are much more accepted by non-trans str8 and bi men and women, and by non-trans lesbians, and trans women are much more accepted by non-trans gay and bi men and bi women. Sucks, but that is the way it is, and there are a lot of pretty vocal gay men who seem to hate trans men and lesbians who hate trans women.)

One last point I would like to make, not in response to you, but in general on this topic, is that how others see us when they find out our history can become much less relevant as we acept ourselves more. For example, though I do have to deal with family and ppl I work for and with, whose opinions of me have mostly changed for the worst, and I may not be accepted in communities with which I identify, I do have enough ppl to hang out with who treat me well to make life ok. I doubt there is a single person who knows my history who really sees me as female, but I am accepted as close enough that I can go to the restroom with friends and be included in female space and conversations, and that has to be enough, I think. Mostly, like you say, we just need to wait, and things will prolly get better as ppl from my generation die off and get replaced by yours! :)

This is a lovely, succinct explanation of a very complicated issue. I'm a cis woman and trans ally - you've given me valuable food for thought, not to mention some good arguments to use when this comes up. In particular, the distinction between disclosing and coming out; it makes a ton of sense, I simply hadn't seen it in that light before.

Thank you!

I hope any woman I might date would feel comfortable disclosing her trans status to me pretty early on, not because I desperately need to know, but because I like being trusted, creating safe space, making people feel accepted. I understand why she might not, though, and it's her call, not mine.

Now to convince the rest of the cis world, huh?

Spot on, dear! Always the onus for violence is on the perpetrator. Woman have been trying to move that idea forever (and there is still discussion?). Very well elucidated idea of maintaining one's dignity
'If someone doesn't notice that their partner is trans, then chances are their trans status is not impacting their life, in which case I'd argue there is no more obligation to disclose that than there is the obligation to disclose....'
The parallel is, of course, clear, re- the onus of violence. And I like the proposition: "You didn't ask!" LOL
I might add for the discussion that as a trans-woman who couldn't pass in a blackout, the question is moot. But, we always look forward!
Jeanie Wallenstein
Chicago

"... for trans people in similarly prejudicial situations the choice is between seen as normal, okay, and the gender you identify as (stealth) vs being seen as abnormal, miscreant, and probably as being really the gender you were assigned at birth (out)."
Never thought of it like that. Wow.

In my ongoing quest of eight years to understand my wife, I just got a giant clue! YAY!
(She puts up with me...for which she should get a sainthood. Maybe I'll order her one for Yule.)

Makes me wonder what I'll get to put up with if I can pull off androgyny-will I have to alter my body in ways I'd rather not just to get people to acknowledge the reality between my ears, and probably not even then?

"Oh you're just a confused GIRL." ARGH."There's no such thing as a third gender." *Facepalm*

You may think that Lesbians and Gay men are seen as women and men even when they come out, but it's not necessarily true. It's better now,after forty years of gay/lesbian liberation, but there's still always the worry that you will be seen as something less than a true male or female. It happens. Regularly.

Even if you don't particularly care, it's still annoying. Even after being an out Lesbian for forty years I still get nervous about the first time I say I'm a Dyke. And I am a very well liked and respected person in my community, never fear for my well being or anything like that. It's just still a hurdle. I always force myself to do it, but trust me, it's just not that easy. Sort of like being a Jew in a mostly christian environment. You always worry that they are going to check you for horns.

There are plenty of women who ridiculed and harassed for being less than female. In the old days we called it sexism. Its a way of keeping women in their place. You don't have to be trans to feel the sting of gender oppression. Just call it woman-hating.

You may think that Lesbians and Gay men are seen as women and men even when they come out, but it's not necessarily true. It's better now,after forty years of gay/lesbian liberation, but there's still always the worry that you will be seen as something less than a true male or female. It happens. Regularly.

Even if you don't particularly care, it's still annoying. Even after being an out Lesbian for forty years I still get nervous about the first time I say I'm a Dyke. And I am a very well liked and respected person in my community, never fear for my well being or anything like that. It's just still a hurdle. I always force myself to do it, but trust me, it's just not that easy. Sort of like being a Jew in a mostly christian environment. You always worry that they are going to check you for horns.

There are plenty of women who ridiculed and harassed for being less than female. In the old days we called it sexism. Its a way of keeping women in their place. You don't have to be trans to feel the sting of gender oppression. Just call it woman-hating.

"There are plenty of women who [are] ridiculed and harassed for being less than female."

@Liza: There sure are... and one of the most common ways it's done is by calling them a 'tranny' and comparing them to a transsexual. (you'll have to guess what that actually means)

I don't think anyone who's trans would suggest non-trans people don't get attacked for not being seen as "gender normative" just that we deal with a much deeper, pervasive and dismissive version of it... and, btw, that's no matter how we look. When you disclose you're trans you're no longer seen as who you are in the world, whereas I think what you're talking about doesn't result in those kind of reversals.

But I can imagine that doesn't make gender policing of non-trans people any less painful. Welcome to a corner of our world. :-

Hiding a major part of one's identity is so detrimental to one's mental stability. I know a woman in her 60s who portrayed herself as white (of Italian descent) throughout her young adult life. It certainly had its advantages, as she was able to attain more easily the lifestyle she'd wanted than she would have, had she been seen as black. But it tormented her, the idea that she would be discovered. She eventually moved to a new town (a much bigger city than she'd been living in) and identified as a woman of color. When she told me her story, she said it had been the biggest relief she's ever experienced.

Last night, I watched Brokeback Mountain for the umpteenth time (still sobbed throughout the last third) and, after reading this article, I thought how devastating it would be to fall in love with someone, not having disclosed your past gender history, and living in fear that your partner would discover and that their feelings for you would change.

Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?

I'm a really codependent person so, if it were applicable, I'd probably want to tell a potential romantic partner right away, but might not work up the courage for fear they wouldn't like me.

A friend made that disclosure to me once, as we were flirting, not long after we'd kissed. It was such a big deal, I thought he was about to tell me some horrible thing about himself, like he had a disease or had served time in prison for murder. When he finally blurted out that he was trans, I had a laugh because I was so relieved.

As an aside, I was proud of myself because my feelings for him didn't change. But that's silly too. Why should I be proud for not having recoiled with revulsion over something that really is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

I am thankful to have been alive during what I've often called the dawning of the transgender movement. I feel that, within a few generations or less, the issue of gender will be as much a non-issue as that of sexual orientation or ethnicity (though, obviously, we still have a lot of work to do there too).

That's a fascinating story, and as a person of color who has spent some time identifying as white I can identify with parts of it. One thing I do want to mention though, is that trans status isn't necessarily a major part of one's identity. It just so happens to be a major part of mine, but I know other folks who would just as soon forget that they are trans -- and sometimes do, then have the odd sensation of suddenly being reminded that they are trans.

For someone like that, there wouldn't necessarily be much anything that they would need to hide at all. For myself, I'd have to hide a good chunk of my bookshelf, movies, online social networks, my friends, not take them to my parents', and so on. Of course, for a hookup at a play party or something like that, I'm probably not planning on sharing any of those things with them anyway. Not every hookup is going to be a long term partner. Disclosing (or not) before getting married is a very different question from disclosing (or not) by the third date, which is very different still from disclosing (or not) to the person on the other side of the wall at a glory hole.