Originally written for SexIs Magazine, this last March.
The 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.
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.