Mr. Cohen gave me permission to bring his points to your attention:
Thanks for the interesting note.
We no doubt disagree but not on the point you raise so prominently and repeatedly. I did not assert that this person should "out themselves on a first date." Quite the contrary. I said he should not. I took a far more gradualist approach, writing that it is only "as partners cultivate romance, and particularly as they move toward erotic involvement, there are things each should reveal." I am surprised that you so misread me, particularly when you quote a sentence where I make the case against disclosing intimate matters too soon.
Nor did I offer any rules, only a guideline. I share your view that the particular details of each couple will affect this decision. But my job -- the point of the column -- is to suggest a general approach to such questions.
As to the title: I did not compose it or even see it until it went into print. Writing headlines is my editors prerogative.
In defense of the woman who sent the query, she did use the term "transgender" as you prescribe, but I am subject to the dictates of the copy desk, and it is they who amended this word to fit Times style.
Interestingly, Michael Triplett of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists' Association weighed in on its blog. (Notice anything missing from the name of this organization?):
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.
I think that my first take was a reasonable interpretation of Mr. Cohen's column. The letter-writer says "I was set up on a date with a man." There is no indication of a second date. Perhaps that could be implied from her words "we got along initially," but there's no indication of whether this was the beginning of the date, or the beginning of a longer relationship.
Then, when Mr. Cohen responded "I might panic on a first date," that, to me, implied that the letter-writer was, in fact, referring to a first date.
But enough of defensiveness. Mr. Cohen says that he did not intend to suggest his advice applied to a first date, and I will take that as a given in this discussion.
But he did intend, as he says, a guideline and a general approach.
Mr. Cohen suggests, however, that at some point, failure to disclose becomes "bad behavior" and "discreditable." Thus, his discussion is not about whether disclosure is desirable or wise, but when it is necessary to avoid moral censure.
When You Must Disclose
Let me start with my brief discussion from yesterday's post.
The appropriateness of revealing transgender history depends on many factors. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions.
Is medical history a factor? Sex reassignment surgery? Being at Point X on the timeline of gender transition?
How about social environment? Does it make a difference whether one is in San Francisco, California, Laramie, Wyoming, or Caracas, Venezuela?
Does it make a difference if one judges, upon meeting them for the first date, that the person would respond with scorn or violence, or seems likely to be unable to keep a confidence? Is it pertinent if the transgender person is well-respected in the community, but is at risk of losing that respect from conservative neighbors or employers?
What if the transgender person decides they don't want a second date?
Mr. Cohen defined "erotic involvement' as the furthest line over which one should not cross.
But as partners cultivate romance, and particularly as they move toward erotic involvement, there are things each should reveal...
Erotic involvement is certainly a important line for myself, personally. But that raises an important question about the specific advice Mr. Cohen gave. The letter writer noted that she is an Orthodox Jew. "Erotic involvement" between Orthodox Jews is strictly forbidden prior to marriage. Unmarried Jews of the opposite sex are forbidden to touch, ever, not even a handshake, and not even close relatives. This prohibition is not considered a minor rule, to be broken when no one is looking. As a person who grew up as an Orthodox Jew, and spent a lot of time in the culture, I know that there is no leeway on this whatsoever.
They're not even supposed to be alone in a room together, though that rule is sometimes overlooked.
Given that, what "erotic involvement" could there be?
Personally, I construe the idea of "erotic involvement" more broadly than most people. I don't even like to kiss people I don't know well on the cheek. While this is a common habit for many women in our culture, I grew up as a very religious Jew, and while I am no longer religious, my prudish sensibilities, at least in public, have remained.
In addition, I have a concern that people -- specifically men -- whom I have kissed on the cheek, may later feel some negative emotion because of my transgender history.
I don't believe most of my male co-workers and other acquaintances care much one way or the other about a kiss on the cheek, particularly in this socially liberal area of the Northeast. But I am frankly very cautious, perhaps even overly-timid, but I don't want to have to even think about it. I don't take rejection very well, and I am particularly sensitive about my acceptance as a woman. There is no need for me to rush about kissing every male on the cheek to prove something, when I'm not feeling it.
That's my personal preference, however. As to the question of whether others must follow my guideline, I don't believe it's my place to dictate. In addition, doing it my way risks conveying the sense that such a person is stand-offish, unfriendly, lacking in confidence, or socially awkward. I am willing to encounter these risks, but not at all willing to require others to do so.
Moving on to the issue of actual erotic involvement, meaning nakedness and/or sexual touching, I myself would never go there without disclosure. There are three factors here for me.
First and foremost is that I would never want someone else to feel badly because of our sexual encounter. I have known men who start to question their sexuality in an ego-destroying way afterwards. That doesn't necessarily result, but I personally do not want to hurt another person in that way, even unintentionally. Second, I am concerned about violence on discovery.
Some people, sadly, become angry and violent at the notion, and I don't have any room for that in my life. Not any more, though I had more leeway on the subject when I was younger and unemployed and rejected by pretty much everyone. My younger self reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel's song "The Boxer":
"There were times when I was so lonesome I took some comfort there."
Dark days indeed.
Thirdly, I don't want to be with someone who doesn't want to be with me, as I am. I'd rather be alone. Frankly, I have grown to have a great deal of comfort with solitude in recent years. I don't want to have to hide my wrinkles, those ten pounds, or my gender history.
But again, should this be a hard and fast guideline? Mr. Cohen says it is "germane."
That begs the question of whether it should be "germane." People, in their subjective judgment, might consider a lot of things germane.
I know people who lie about their ages when dating, and consider it a polite white lie. Who cares, as long as you look great? What about disclosing a facelift or bariatric surgery?
I know people who have African-American and Native-American ancestry, but don't identify as Black or Native American. Should they be telling before they have sex? Isn't that "germane"?
Yes, to a bigot.
I know bisexuals who don't identify themselves as bisexuals and have sex with people of the opposite sex without telling them. Is that "germane"?
It would be, to a lot of people.
What about having a criminal conviction in one's past? I think most people would want to know that, but is it "discreditable" not to come out with it prior to cultivating romance? Does it matter if it's a non-violent offense or one that occurred a long time ago?
When is it "prejudice," and so not an illegitimate consideration, and when is it a "material omission," in the language of legal contracts. The law recognizes that one cannot possibly be expected to tell the other party everything, and it is not one's responsibility to do so, if not asked. That is, unless the omission is known to you to be material to the other party's decision to enter into the agreement, and which, if known, would definitely have changed their mind as to the agreement.
I'm not suggesting that social engagements are like legal engagements, but the concept of "germaneness," of materiality, is the concept on which Mr. Cohen hangs his hat.
If age and race and sexual orientation and criminal records aren't "germane," and omissions on these subjects are considered socially permissible, why is transgender status different?
Mr. Cohen also goes a step further, suggesting that even "cultivating romance" is a line not to cross without disclosure. Obviously this doesn't cover the first date, necessarily, as Mr. Cohen has now clarified that he didn't mean a first date.
But a "date" is a social engagement with a romantic character.
At what point does romance become sufficiently "cultivated," short of "erotic involvement" that it requires disclosure, at the peril of scolds like Mr. Cohen calling it "bad behavior" and "discreditable"?
I'm not entirely sure. Does it involve the call for a second date, or physical touching, like handholding, or explicitly "romantic" gestures like a long kiss on the lips? Does it involve longing glances and expressions of love, like "gee I think you're swell," or "I'd love to lick the sweat off your lip," or "I love you?"
I've been on second dates, without disclosure, where I literally said little or nothing while he expounded on the latest fishing techniques, or whatever. The next thing I know, total non sequitur, my hand is between his and he's pursing his lips for a kiss.
Was I guilty of "bad behavior" or "discreditable" conduct?
The phrase "don't hate me because I'm beautiful" comes to mind. Is it my fault that I clean up well?
All joking aside, I don't believe that Mr. Cohen's guideline is at all clearly expressed, and it makes no sensible distinction between transgender history and other kinds of history.
Comparing transgender history to sexually transmitted diseases and adultery is not only disreputable, it is a false analogy.
Sexually transmitted diseases can damage someone's health; transgender history cannot. Adultery is considered a sin by many, or at least a pretty serious moral problem, and it involves the second party in morally questionable conduct even though they are unaware of it. Transgender history doesn't involve the second party in morally questionable conduct.
STD's and adultery aren't appropriate comparison points.
Not unless you consider being transgender morally questionable conduct.
Do you consider being transgender morally questionable conduct, Mr. Cohen?
UPDATE: Mr. Cohen looked into the issue of the language change from "transgender" in his original copy to "transgendered" in the final version.
"I learned more about how the language in the query shifted from "transgender" -- as written -- to "transgendered," as published. My editor looked into this and confirmed that the copy desk had indeed made this change, but they erred in doing so: Times style conforms to just what you prescribe. This was brought to the attention of the copy editors, who immediately corrected it in the online version of the column."
I commend Mr. Cohen for taking the time and effort to look into this situation.
As I told him, to people outside the trans community these issues may look like minor quibbles, but to us, they define our lives. He responded by saying "Not minor at all. In my line of work, the precise use of language, the implications of words, are matters of real significance. I respect your concern."