Allison has a boyfriend.
We have been courting on-and-off for ten months now, and our sexual relationship began a short time ago. It is early days yet, and we’re old enough to be sensible, but we both have strong feelings and see a real possibility of this going the long-term. He is a straight cisgender man, and I am, as yet, undisclosed.
I am ‘woodworked’ in my private life — I do not reveal my trans history. I’ve struggled with disclosure — if and when and how to reveal that I’m transgender to a romantic partner — for decades, and especially over the past year. I have discussed the matter at length with other trans women, young and old, some successful in love, many not so much. Some disclose right up front on their dating profiles, some do it a couple dates in, before that first kiss, some wait till later, and some never disclose. All of these come with serious problems, heartbreak, even trauma, and danger. In the past, I’ve mostly never disclosed — so-called ‘deep stealth’. I don’t see deep stealth as an option for me any longer.
My friend A is one of only a few trans women I know who are married to cisgender men who ‘know’. A’s husband was not previously trans-informed, not ‘trans-attracted’, and waited several years for his first kiss whilst she sorted how and when to tell him. Her advice is to run ‘…the long game…get to know the person, like each other’s company, and keep sex at bay…’ until the time is right for disclosure.
(Hmmm, let’s see… ‘get to know the person’, check, ‘like each other’s company’, check, ‘and keep sex at bay’, …oops!) As I said, her husband waited a long time for that kiss. I don’t seem to be able to do that, nor would most guys wait around, I don’t think.
And what if he’d said ‘no’? A was in her 40s at the time; how many more rounds could she have gone? A couple of losses in the long game and you run out of lifetime. I have nothing but respect and admiration for A, but geez, what a risk! I am 60 years old, and not a woman who is happy being single. My options are quite limited. Dating as an aging woman is very difficult; as an aging straight trans woman, it can be nearly impossible.
I have actually had it suggested as a solution that one can have a happy, fulfilling life whilst remaining single. Though true for some, this strikes me as a bizarre proposal in this context. If society makes it impossible for us to find love, just be celibate, problem solved? Why is it always up to trans people to adapt the most fundamental aspects of our lives and bodies to accommodate cis people’s discomfort? It is often the case that the people forwarding this ‘good single trans life’ notion are, themselves, married cis people. Right.
Some of us cannot have happy fulfilling lives living alone. Most of us, probably. There are a lot of studies that demonstrate that most people do not, in fact, live healthy lives without a partner. These studies consistently show that, as they age, single people are (statistically) more isolated, physically and mentally sicker, and live significantly shorter lives than their partnered peers. Humans, it seems, are just not wired to fly solo, and the Western Individualism ideal is probably not healthy.
I myself was brought up in that cultural ideal, and it has not served me well. Also, I was raised in Second Wave feminism and the idea that ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’. These beliefs brought me a lot of unhappiness for a long time, and setting aside these beliefs has been a major part of my self-realisation. I have spent approximately 2/3 of my life single, so I think I’ve given that a fair try. It doesn’t work for me.
Trans people, on average, live shorter, sicker lives. There are a lot of factors assaulting our health and wellbeing. Loneliness and isolation are a couple of the big ones, and I’ve had more than my share. Excuse me if I try to fix that, in any way I can.
The ‘debate’ over whether trans women (specifically) should disclose when dating seems to be all up in the news again. A’s comments were in reaction to Brynn Tannehill’s ‘What are the ethics of transgender dating?,’ published last December. At that time, Brynn suggested that I write about this from my personal experience, but with so much still unresolved in my mind I just wasn’t ready. Maybe I’m ready now. This essay began as a tweet the other morning, in response to Jen Richards’ recent We Had Sex, But I Never Told Him I’m Trans (something that, as I recall, she had once said she wouldn’t do — but this is all so complicated for trans women — we’re human, and we get frustrated and lonely, just like everyone else).
An interview published in Cracked last February mentioned that I’d been undisclosed in relationships with men. That drew a thousand comments, most from outraged cisgender men, many accusing me of ‘raping’ the man I was in love with. As if. Cis people get so bat-shit crazy when it comes to us. So few trouble themselves to consider how incredibly hard it is for us to fill even our most basic human needs in the face of the intense and pervasive prejudice and oppression heaped upon us. And when we’re caught trying to take care of ourselves, the cis response so often is more oppression.
How dare I date a cis guy.
I don’t buy into the ‘you have to disclose or you’re lying’ argument, nor the ‘right to not be attracted to trans women’ trope. Obviously they’re attracted, or they wouldn’t have anything to say about it, so that’s just bullshit. They freak-out precisely because they are attracted to us, as women. As to ‘lying’, the very premise assumes that I am not ‘a real woman’, and I beg to differ. But I’m sick and tired of defending the validity of my existence. There is now a mountain of evidence that trans women are, yes, ‘real’ women; and in this day, anyone who goes out of their way to claim otherwise is deliberately avoiding the information.
There is a word for deliberately ignoring available information so that one can continue to maintain false beliefs about a group or class: Bigotry.
The vast majority of beliefs held by cisgender men about trans women are false, and misinformation continues to propagate virally and across all media. That situation may be worse now than ever, as there has been a plethora of heavily slanted hit-pieces in recent months, covering everything from kids being forced to transition (not a thing) to men invading women’s space (not a thing) to trans women being super-gay dudes (not a thing) who trick other dudes into fucking them (not a thing) so it’s OK to marginalise, exclude, beat, and kill us (a thing).
Disclosure in the absence of a lot of corrective information based on direct personal exposure over significant time means churning up all that misinformation in the mind of even the most intelligent and compatible man. In other words, it is disclosure itself that brings out a false perception — a.k.a. a ‘lie’. I am not lying if I do not disclose — what he sees is what he gets: this woman, with all the attributes perceived. If I do disclose, I potentially trigger a constellation of false impressions that have nothing to do with me, him, or our relationship — this is not ‘truth’ and it does not give him ‘choice’. What gives him actual choice — the ability to act with autonomy in his own best interest — is complete and accurate information. Getting that information to him in a complete and timely manner in a form he can reasonably process can be complicated and very, very difficult.
A’s long-game approach delivered that corrective information and exposure over time — a long time — and she won. But few men are going to wait around for years. Or even months. There are intractable facts and limits involved. Human nature is what it is, however different we might wish it were. Initial bonding typically happens in the early weeks, months at most. It is based on intimate social and physical contact. Everyone knows what happens when a woman puts off physical contact for too long (A’s husband being the very rare exception). For all the reasons mentioned, a ‘no kissing without disclosure’ rule soon ends almost all otherwise promising beginnings, including those that would surely have worked out well for both parties, given time.
My boyfriend has already waited ten months for us to get together, and here I am again, in the same position I was in twenty years ago. I have not told any lies and I don’t intend to. Both my profession and my personal desire for an honest, open, and complete relationship with my man mean that I will soon need him to know everything. It will be interesting to see how I navigate this, because I really don’t yet know.