NYT Ethicist’s dangerous advice on outing “transgendered” people

Sunday’s The Ethicist, an advice column by Randy Cohen in the New York Times, addressed a question from a woman who found out the man she was dating was transgender. The questioner asks if she should out this man to her entire community.
A responsible, informed answer to this question would address how dangerous, not to mention invasive and just plain unethical, publicly outing a trans person is. It would point out that thinking a trans man has to be outed delegitimizes his identity and paints him as a deceptive sexual predator simply by virtue of his trans status. A good answer would explain why some trans folks choose not to reveal their transition status to sexual partners, addressing the “trans panic” defense for violence against trans folks and the problematic notion that being trans and not saying so publicly is “dishonest.” It would talk about the number of trans folks killed every year because of their gender identity and explain that exposing someone to this potential violence because you are uncomfortable with their gender history is completely unacceptable.
Cohen does not give this answer. His response demonstrates complete ignorance about trans folks and our experience with the notion of outing. The language he uses is irresponsible: Cohen repeatedly uses the term “transgendered.” While some trans folks do use this word, it’s a good idea for journalists to avoid it as Dr. Jillian Weiss points out at Bilerico Project:

Even casual study should have revealed to Cohen that “transgendered” is a problematic term for journalists. “Transgender” is considered an adjective, not a noun. That means that there are no “transgendered” people, only transgender people, just as there are no “gayed’ people or “lesbianed” people. While there are a few dissenters from this protocol, and I don’t usually attack for a well-meaning mistake, I have to make an exception in this case, because it reveals that Mr. Cohen doesn’t know the first thing about transgender lives.

Cohen jokes about how he might “panic” if someone revealed too much personal information on a first date, seemingly oblivious to what a loaded word this is for trans folks. The “trans panic” defense is used by people who claim they panicked when they found out someone was trans and couldn’t help killing them. It paints trans folks as deceptive and dangerous when we are the ones facing violence.

Cohen goes on to compare being trans to having an STD or being married as things someone should reveal to potential sexual partners. The comparison to an STD is disgusting – this man isn’t going to infect the questioner with trans-ness. And there’s certainly a difference between cheating on a spouse and keeping one’s gender history private. As I said in the comments of another post about trans deception:

I think the maximum possible amounts of openness and honesty are ideal in sexual relationships. But we can’t let ideals blind us to reality. Allen Ray Andrade [used the “trans panic” defense to claim he] beat Angie Zapata to death with a fire extinguisher because she was “dishonest.” There is absolutely no argument about how trans folks should or must disclose our histories that doesn’t lead easily to victim blaming. Don’t impose morals developed from a position of greater power and privilege on an oppressed population whose experience you do not understand.

Cohen manages to recognize that a public outing is not exactly a good idea, but thinks the questioner should out this trans man to her close friends. Again, because they need to be warned? Not to put to fine a point on it, but this irresponsible advice is potentially deadly.
Cohen needs some serious educating on the topic of revealing trans status. It’s not hard to find perspectives from trans folks on this topic all over the internet, so Cohen’s either lazy for not doing this research or disrespectful for not taking informed positions into account.
You can write to Cohen at ethicist@nytimes.com and send letters to the editor to letters@nytimes.com.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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