Sunday, March 10, 2013

With friends like these


Yesterday Gay Star News, a British online publication which offers "LGBT global news 24-7" posted this poll prominently on the front page of their web site.

The back story to why they should have thought to ask such a question is a complex court case in Scotland, which has all the makings of a car crash.

And, yes, that last link really is an article from Gay Star News themselves, in the same week, demonstrating that they fully understand just what a complex case it is.


The possible implications of the Scottish court's decision … that a trans person could be convicted and imprisoned for not telling a sexual partner about their gender reassignment before intimacies … is so disturbing that the Scottish Transgender Alliance have set up a petition to the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal service.

Writing on their Facebook page, the STA say,

The Scottish Transgender Alliance is very concerned about this case and the message the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is sending to trans people. It was our understanding that obtaining intimacy by fraud would not be used against trans people who chose not to disclose their gender history to prospective partners.

Obviously there are other factors involved in this case and other details which we may not know of. However we are seeking an urgent meeting to clarify the position of the Crown Office on this and are writing to the Lord Advocate to express our concerns.

Complex issues

The question of when to tell prospective partners sensitive things about yourself is never simple. You cannot boil it down into a simple Yes or No.

And when you open this Pandora's Box, you raise the question of just what counts as something you must disclose, and why.

Should you tell a partner that you're cheating on someone else?

Should you tell them you're a racist? Or a Roman Catholic Priest?

Should you admit to having a problem with uncontrolled anger? I'm sure many women (and prospective same sex partners)  would dearly like to know that last one before getting involved with someone who would go on to abuse them.

Moral dimension

Should you disclose before sex that you have a potentially life threatening condition that could be communicated through the exchange of bodily fluids?

Well, that's one where LGB people are probably quite used to feeling on the back foot … though it applies equally to heterosexual couples too.

This is one on which there seems to be a strong consensus. The reason is pretty evident. And it underlines that the "why" question is fundamental to where you draw any lines.

Most people would probably think there was a pretty strong moral dimension to telling people you carry the HIV virus before sex. The same would apply to warning people about other sexually transmitted diseases. People have a right to know that having sex with you could do them harm without precautions.

But there is no comparable moral dimension … no vital need to know … when it comes to a whole range of other questions.

Should the person having sex with you own up beforehand to the fact that you're about to become part of the betrayal of their relationship? Should they disclose their political beliefs? Should they tell you their whole medical history?

You might like to know. However, there are lots of things we could count that way. And, in honesty, where does it stop?

If you're that fussy about how squeaky clean a prospective partner might be then I recommend the old fashioned approach of courting with them for a couple of years before heading for the bedroom.

But if you've just picked up someone for a meaningless one night stand I would suggest you're always taking pot luck.

You can argue for the right to know that the encounter could give you a serious disease (more than a cold or flu), but don't ask for more unless you're prepared for a similar grilling.

Trans dimension

For trans people there is a whole extra set of dimensions. And I've not met a trans person who hasn't honestly thought about it over and over, as the risk equation tilts strongly against them.

For trans people who have difficulty in passing it is a moot point. Their physicality announces their status in advance. Making an announcement about it would seem a trifle unnecessary, unless dating a blind person perhaps.

For those who pass, it is a much more complex question. It involves personal safety in a vulnerable situation. Every year the Transgender Day of Remembrance carries a reminder of just how vulnerable they are … especially in a sexual context.

So, if you agreed that the "why" question was important above … because you need to know if sex is about to harm you … it is logical to accept that trans people have a serious "why" question about when, whether and where to disclose their gender history.

Get it wrong and it could cost your life. Swiftly. Brutally.

I wrote about this in far more depth a few years ago.In 2011 I republished my thoughts on this blog.

Fear of Harm

Gay Star News' crass online poll revealed that their readers have a curious idea of where the risk equation might tilt for them...


This would suggest to me that a slim majority of lesbians and gays think they have some sort of compelling reason to need to know their partner's gender history.

Given that you can't 'catch' gender dysphoria from having sex with a trans person it is hard to understand.

What would it be that gays and lesbians fear to the extent that would override a trans person's possibly very real concerns about privacy about their past medical condition, and how disclosure might harm them?

If there is fear in the air at all, who should be feeling it?

There is a term for this … certainly as far as cis-gender lesbians are concerned. It is called the Cotton Ceiling. And it has been widely debated online in the past. I recommend you check out this and this and this. Google for 'cotton ceiling' and there's a whole lot more.

Wrong message

Whether theories like the Cotton Ceiling explain a feeling among LGB folk that unknowingly having sex with trans people might be scary, there is no excuse for the lack of insight in publishing such an ill-considered poll at this time though.

What messages has Gay Star News conveyed?

Well, for a start, the proposition contained in their poll reinforces the view, already widely expressed in many tabloid newspapers, that trans people, by the act of passing and not broadcasting their gender history, set out to deceive.

And this is the essence of the Scottish Court's rationale too.

There is no consideration of why trans people require the privacy to be themselves to the fullest extent possible, or the consequences they might face in forgoing that privacy. The assumption, as crassly demonstrated by Gay Star News and their readers, is that the desperate need to be sure you've not had intimacy with a trans person overrides all such considerations.

It is one stop short of demanding that trans people have some sort of sign, so that people can be sure to avoid them. Of course it would be politically unacceptable to demand a physical sign … a T-shirt or badge maybe … but demanding full disclosure is the verbal equivalent.

So, the Gay Star News poll says to the courts that voting by the masses on a complex safety issue for a minority is OK.

And the Gay Star News reader vote tells the tabloids that, "look, even the gays think trans people are out of order".

No insight

The lack of insight displayed here by an LGBT publication beggars belief … especially when you consider the parallels.

In December 2009 the BBC caused global LGBT anger when it held a poll on its news website posing the question, "Should homosexuals face execution?"

BBC Africa

Anger centred on the fact that it was not even appropriate to ask a question framed in this way.

Proposition 8

In California, a measure known as Proposition 8 has been widely condemned and opposed through the courts since before it was voted on in state elections in 2008.

Proposition 8 effectively asked voters in the state to choose whether the right of same sex couples to marry there should be eliminated or not. This not only applied going forwards but also invalidated the marriages of same sex couples who had already married there.

A major argument in the case, as it has ground its way upwards through the US courts, is that it is unconstitutional for a majority to vote to deny rights to their neighbours in this way.

Coalition for Marriage

Nearer to home, of course, campaigners for same sex marriage in the UK have been appalled by the antics of those who oppose them … especially the online poll begun by the group Coalition for Marriage (C4M), which forcefully opposes moves towards equality.

Lesbian and Gay people feel understandably hurt by a group which claims almost 650,000 people have voted against changing marriage law.


Questions you wouldn't like

All of this prompted me to wonder what other polls Gay Star News might consider running on their front page and how they would be received

Should gays tell all to prospective employers? You can understand why some would like to know...


Should gays and lesbians have the same human rights? Some people think that's a valid question...


Or, taking a leaf from the BBC's earlier poll...


You can see why readers of Gay Star News would be incensed if their rag legitimised questions like this on the front page.

And I rush to stress that these are merely mock ups created to make a point. I wouldn't ask these questions either.

With friends like these

You can see why, therefore, trans people might have a case for wondering whether lesbians and gays are on their side at all.

Or whether there really is something called an 'LGBT' community.


Lucy Melford said...

I would regard gay, lesbian and bisexual people as minority groups within society, different from the mainstream mainly because of their sexual orientation. That characteristic doesn't have to show.

Trans people are also a minority group, but are quite different from LGB persons for two reasons: (1) our difference is based primarily on gender identity, and not on sexual orientation; and (2) we can usually be detected by close visual inspection, whatever the sophistication of any surgery, and many unlucky individuals are frankly easy to spot. That can be highly dangerous, apart from inviting social disadvantage on sight. LGB persons are not at risk like this.

So if trans persons are correctly included under this LGBT umbrella, then they must be the Cinderellas!

It's arguable that trans persons would get a better deal, and present a more appropriate public face, by breaking away from the LGBT club and fending for themselves. It's not as if there are no other organisations out there who could represent the trans point of view to the public.

I socialise in Brighton, and my trans friends there seem to be a mixture of gay, lesbian, bi and 'not interested' where sex is concerned. But all of us feel distinct from the much larger local groupings of natal gay men and natal lesbian women. We salute them, so to speak, but we seem to have issues and complications and battles to fight that they don't. And that is probably the chief downside of being associated with them - our own special concerns may not be appreciated, and may not get voiced by them on our behalf.


Pandora said...

I have dared to ask those questions in a direct action Trans* campaign group. Feedback of results will follow in a few days :)

Kitty said...

I cannot possibly read this article without commenting. Issues like these are just far too important.

The thought of being with a transgender person... To be honest, I don't even really get why it's an issue. To me, it seems like a pretty trivial thing to worry about. This is someone whose personal, medical condition has caused them all manner of awfulness, so for me to think, "How does this affect me?" ...The notion just gets under my skin.

I'm bisexual and gender really doesn't matter to me -- it's more about "the right person". If the right person is transgender, that doesn't change anything for me.

When someone I briefly dated told me, after anxiously delaying intimacy for a little while, that she was transgender, the first words out of me mouth were, "Oh, wow," followed closely by, "I promise you're safe with me." I wanted to acknowledge that I could see how terrified she was and that I understood that her fear was entirely justified. But everything else I could think of just sounded condescending in my head. "I understand" made me want to punch my own brain =P

Although the dating part didn't last long (it turned out that we didn't really have that much in common), we've remained friends =]

Having survived Anorexia Nervosa for nearly 14 years now, I get that...well, to put it delicately, some people are jerks. MANY people are jerks. Many people say and do stupid and deeply hurtful things without even knowing that they're being jerks.

So I guess my point is... If you're transgender, there ARE people like me in the world who really don't care, haha. We will love you because we see things in your heart and mind that you don't even know are there. We will respect that we can only ever try to understand, but we'll also never stop trying. We'll find YOU fascinating, not just your medical history. You are worthy of love, even if not everyone is worthy of you <3

Anonymous said...

"Should you admit to having a problem with uncontrolled anger? I'm sure many women (and prospective same sex partners) would dearly like to know that last one before getting involved with someone who would go on to abuse them."

While I appreciate that the majority of abusers are men, I think it's careless to leave a tacit sexist assumption in this article.

Otherwise, I like the article, and agree with what you're saying.

Maxx Nyckel said...

Should a trans* person disclose those things? Yes. I think it's probably considerate to. Should it be made illegal for us to enter a relationship without doing that? No, that's absolutely discriminatory. You can't catch being trans*. It isn't a STD. It shouldn't matter as much as it seems. Coding was used once already, in the holocaust. Transgender people have a much higher chance of getting beaten or murdered than LGB or cisgendered people. We can't pretend like we aren't human and don't deserve basic rights to our own privacy.

Helen Wilson said...

Just a thought but.. Should undercover members of the Metropolitan police reveal their true identity before sleeping with people they are investigating?

Plenty of us who are T are also LGB thats something those who want to Take the T out of LGBT fail to consider.

Anonymous said...


I do see your point in some respects

Sadly I see that the LGBT is more like GGGGGGLBT. Gay men get tons of visiblily. Lesbians get a small amount and bi and trans people are off somewhere over there in the distance

Trans people do need more pubic visibility but and maybe (possibly) being part of the LGB) movement might not be the way forward.

However what happens to those who don't identify as trans (or al least strongly)

I am oe of these people, I have attended the trans scrutiny in Brighton and will help out in those functions but my personal identity and moreso my public identity as a trans person is not there (at least its very small), I am a lesbian and that identity is bigger for me i the sense that this will not diminish in the same way a trans idetity can if you decide to go stealth

Kevan said...

Can of worms? The more each minority wants its individual rights considered, the more the convoluted requirements become to ensure that equality! This is just the start of a spiral that will eventually implode as its logical point of exit is the right of everyone to have each of their individual rights considered. A situation that is not logical nor is it practical. Each of us have to give up some of our rights for the benefits of others, this is what society is based on. Something that ALL the minorities seem to forget!

Amber Anne Powell said...

This is one of those issues that is particular for trans people. If you are a gay male, you can have sex with a woman if you wish and since you are a man the matter of your sexuality need never be revealed.

I would pose a question? How many people understand that trans people do NOT have plastic surgery? I mean really understand. If a trans woman cannot grow breasts on hormones (not all that rare) she may elect to have breast augmentation. This is not plastic surgery, it is more accurately characterised as reconstructive surgery. Is a cis female required to disclose what cosmetic or reconstructive procedures she has had to all potential sexual partners?

Contained within this question is the not so subtle discrimination that so many subscribe to - that we are not real mean and women. I wonder how many can honestly say they believe we are. I am certain the percentage believing us to be "real" increases in lock step with our ability to pass and perceived ability to fit into pre conceived ideas of traditional beauty.

So far as safety is concerned the rule is simple. If you pass perfectly in every way and have hidden your past completely it can be safe. But its certainly not relaxing. Anything less than achieving this often impossible goal is inviting trouble - quite possibly a fatal trouble.

And in spite of what one poster said above it is almost exclusively men who are the aggressor towards wome of all types. Not may of those we stand for on TDOR were killed by females, in fact almost none.

So why exactly do we want to consider gay men ass allies with so many common interests? Curious to say the least

Anonymous said...

I am a bi-curious cis-woman. I don't think I'd be freaked out by what any partner I might take to bed had in their pants, but I'd probably prefer to know first anyway. So that i could ask what works for them, what they like and not. Questions that don't always get asked of cis partners because we have a sense that we already know what works, whether that's right or wrong.

Anonymous said...

Kevin: No, human rights doesn't get more convoluted the more people are considered. Human rights means taking people as "moral persons" in ethical terms, as just people. Do you feel threatened because strawberry blonds are considered to have the same right as blonds? Is it a problem for you that Scots, and people of Pictish ancestry, get the same rights as Anglo-Saxons or Normans? Do you feel threatened because some people with a drop of "coloured blood" in their ancestry don't reveal their genealogy before having a one-night stand? Really? If these things don't worry you (and I hope they don't), you may want to question why someone's gender history matters. They are people, like you, and they are either warm, considerate, sensual, or maybe abusive or materialistic, or thoughtless, but that applies to all people.

The only reason it "matters" to people if someone is trans, is because they have may feel revulsion or other negative feelings simply because of trans status. That's not a lot different to people feeling revulsion or other negative feelings because of homosexual status.

The reason trans people are included in LGBTIQ is because all these groups suffer discrimination based on presumptions about sex or sexuality. They are all made "other" by normative heterosexual binary-gendered society.

Human rights is about getting beyond the artificial divisions, and seeing that people, all people, are simply people.

Anonymous said...

I'm in agreement with the article, and with the poster that said "people are just people". Fitting into this or that category only matters to those bigoted in respect of that category. Whether or not we are trans only matters to those who are bigoted about trans people. The fact that the prejudice is common, people grow up with it, and with notions of "gender purity" that parallel notions of "racial purity" doesn't excuse the reaction, any more than racism is excusable.

That said, I see two situations. One is where someone meets a potential partner, but has no idea of whether the relationship may be significant, or maybe isn't interested in a significant relationship. At this point, why should we be revealing of any personal information at all, beyond information about contagious disease? Of course, we do generally share some info, but we're not obliged to, and especially not legally obliged to do so. Trans status should be no more relevant than anything else. Why get into it for a one-night stand? Of course, if the genitals a partner will find are not what they are expecting, things might go badly, so it makes a lot of sense for a trans person in that situation to be open, since a lot of people are transphobic bigots, and get violent about it. But legal obligation?

The other situation is where a relationship looks promising. In that case, openness about trans status may be advisable, because non-openness is interpreted as lying. And in a long-term relationship, it may be as hard to hide trans status as it might be for someone who racially "passes", yet has family that look non-Anglo. Honesty is a good, necessary thing in deep intimate relationships, but people don't reveal everything at the start of a relationship, and may not reveal some things ever (or until caught out). Again, all this matters to the relationship, and therefore to the participants. Does it really matter to the courts?

For trans people, disclosure is a personal matter heavily influenced by the particulars of any situation. Whether or not they feel they should disclose, and when, should be left to them.

Amber Powell said...

The fact that such a case would even be heard or considered by a court in a supposedly civilized country is very telling. So here it is. In any country which counts human rights amongst it values excluding any group of people from enjoying those rights is a moral injustice. No cis person is required to tell anyone about hat surgery they had or abnormalities they were born with. Therefor no trans person should ever be expected to do so. What a load of transphobic prejudice to suggest that "for the sake of honesty" a trans person should tell serious partners about these things. If she is so feminine that their is no sign, then she has no need. Her partner has no right or need to know. You see and heres the thing, she was NEVER a man so she NEVER changed sex. She simply had corrective and/or reconstuctive surgery done prior to the relationship. To imply any special obigation for trans people is to deny them simple human rights and is utterly offensive. Get it?

Anonymous said...

The key point, as someone made earlier, is that while it can be argued that a trans person has a moral duty to tell a partner that they're trans, they should not be a legal penalty for not doing so - any more than there is a legal penalty for not disclosing to a partner that you're married (unless you go through a marriage with the new partner obviously).

Even the moral duty has provisos though in that the duty you have to someone you're in a serious relationship with (or contemplate a serious relationship with) is different from the duty you have to someone you meet at a party and have a one night stand. In the latter case, there may not be any such duty to inform the partner - and certainly less of a duty than there is to inform them if you're married.

Assigning legal penalties for not disclosing that you're trans is transphobia. It stems from a fear of sullying yourself or invalidating your sexual identity by having sex with a partner of the wrong sex.

Anonymous said...

I read a lot of transphobia online from lesbian and gay people which really baffles me. Even when I knew Nothing about trans issues, I could still see little point in persecuting a minority group who had as few rights, if not fewer, than us, the L & G.

Even more strangely a lot of this hatred appears to come from the idea of being sexually 'tricked' or forced into unwanted sexual activity with a trans person.

Now I was a lesbian for almost two decades and I was never attracted to a single transwoman and to only two transmen. I mention this as I can't remember a single trans person attempting to force themselves on me sexually, not even by stealth. Even when I was sexually approached by a transvestite (a person who isn't even confused about his gender) I wasn't offended by his interest, rather I was offended by his lack of respect for my sexuality.

At the same time I've never been attracted to predominantly straight women, women who were born women, and yet I can recall many Many occasions when they tried to forcibly touch, kiss or sexually interact with me in some way. Yes they are attractive, but as a lesbian I'm not automatically attracted to every woman I see whether they are straight, trans, bi or gay. I like who I like and so far that has only been lesbians, bisexual women and the occasional transman.

If I hopped into bed with someone only to discover that she had a penis, I would be furious. Utterly furious. Our time together would be over and she would run the risk of me 'outing' her in my anger. But that is my choice to express my anger and her choice to take that risk. At no point do I feel this is a legal issue. Rather I would feel that she alone had to deal with some personal issues, while I went on with my life.

I don't feel I'm limiting myself by not opening up my panties to others who don't fit my preferred criteria. Nor do I hold any hatred to others for not fulfilling my criteria. That would be ridiculous. What is a queer scene if not for it's wonderful diversity.

For this reason I'm really tired of transphobic lesbians and rad fems. I also really resent them speaking for me and associating themselves with my lifestyle. I didn't become a lesbian because I hated men, rather I became a lesbian as I realised I loved women. Nor do I wish to support a legal system which can so openly punish someone purely for being himself. As a cis-gendered queer female I'm very much against this judgement.