Today’s “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times by Randy Cohen deals with whether a transgender person is obligated to inform someone they are dating that they are transgender. Cohen said “yes” and has gotten into some hot water from Jillian Weiss at the Bilerico Project. Here’s the letter and his answer:
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 transgender ed 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.
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.
Mr. Cohen apparently fails to appreciates that hundreds of transgender people are killed every year because of their transgender status. Their murderers often rely on the “panic” defense. The list is long, and the Transgender Day of Remembrance, held every year on November 20, commemorates those deaths.
I choose to live my life as an out transgender person, but “out” is by necessity a relative term. Some people know my history; many of my friends don’t. I live every day with the fear of violence. I have experienced violence. I choose carefully if and when and how to tell people, even people I am dating.
A first date is not a time for such disclosures, if the other person does not already know. A first date is an ambiguous space that may lead on the road to good acquaintanceship, to friendship, or to intimacy. It is a time to get to know another person. It is not a time to be disclosing intimate details, as Cohen himself acknowledges. Why does he differentiate this particular intimate detail from other intimate details? Because, he says, “clearly he thought you’d find it pertinent; that’s why he discreditably withheld it, lest you reject him.”
She also says, “I strongly suggest that Cohen is in need of criticism and education regarding transgender people, particularly from gay and straight allies of transgender people. He ought to issue a retraction.”
I wish that Cohen had sought out some advice from experts–which he does occasionally–to provide some context here. I didn’t read the letter the same way Weiss did and I assumed by the term “relationship,” that this was more than a first date. I can see how it can be read both ways, as an ongoing relationship and as a single date. It would be nice to know whether Cohen’s advice would be different depending on the “first date” versus “ongoing” question.
I don’t think there needs to be a retraction because, as a columnist, he is paid for his opinions and his opinion and advice here is not necessarily wrong or in error. It would be helpful if he and the New York Times issued a clarification on how he viewed the situation and whether, after receiving feedback from transgender individuals, he would revise his ethical advice.
UPDATE: Cohen Responds to Bilerico.