Randy Cohen, the ethicist*, has declared that trans people are ethically required to disclose to their dates. He says:
Getting to know someone is a gradual process. I might panic if on a first date someone began talking about what to name the nine kids she’s eager for us to raise in our new home under the sea. Premature disclosure can be as unnerving as protracted concealment. But as partners cultivate romance, and particularly as they move toward erotic involvement, there are things each should reveal, things they would not mention to a casual acquaintance — any history of S.T.D.’s, for example, or the existence of any current spouse. Even before a first kiss, this person should have told you those things that you would regard as germane to this phase of your evolving relationship, including his being transgendered. Clearly he thought you’d find it pertinent; that’s why he discreditably withheld it, lest you reject him.
So he actually does use the word “panic” in that paragraph, which is kind of ominous. He also compares disclosing that you’re trans to disclosing STDs or whether you’re currently married to someone else.
As usually happens when it comes to trans people and dating, confidentiality and privacy are thrown out the window as soon as cis people insert themselves into the situation. Cohen (who is, by the way, a humorist and not an ethicist, who has written for the historically transphobic David Letterman show) says that it is fine for the cis woman who asked this question to out the trans man she dated to her friends, that her right to process something that doesn’t actually have a serious impact on her supercedes his right to privacy or any consideration for confidentiality.
He tries to soften it by saying “No handbills, and don’t ask him to announce it from the pulpit,” but as many of us have experienced, once someone outs you, the word can spread like wildfire. Cis people seem to think that learning that someone is trans is a particularly salacious and juicy rumor, one that will get passed around from person to person. It just takes hitting one cis person who doesn’t care more about your safety than about hir ability to get a cheap thrill exposing your secrets, and in my experience the majority of cis people are like this. Cohen even describes the trans man in question as discreditable, because he withheld this information until he was ready to divulge it. This is a pretty explicit acknowledgement of how many cis people view trans people: Our transness makes us discreditable. It doesn’t matter when we’re outed (by ourselves or others), once we are, we’re discreditable. Everything we say is doubted – about our competence, about our honesty, about our gender. Everything about us is false except what cis people allow us to have by inscribing upon us, usually against our will.
For an example, remember the trans man who crashed a trolley while texting, and how many responses implied he shouldn’t even be allowed to drive a trolley because he’s trans? How about this cis man who caused the worst train crash in 15 years while texting? Somehow his cisness didn’t serve as a warning sign, right? The first story I linked even implies that Aiden Quinn was hired strictly because he was a minority, and not because he had any competence in driving a trolley. Okay, in both cases? Texting while driving is a really bad idea. Texting while transporting passengers is many times worse. But trans man crashes while texting? Trans people are dangerous. Cis man crashes while texting? Silence.
I read about this story on Bilerico, and Dr. Weiss dissects it pretty nicely. She also suggests writing the New York Times to complain about this:
I strongly suggest that Cohen is in need of criticism and education regarding transgender people, particularly from gay and straight allies of transgender people. He ought to issue a retraction. Here’s the address to write to him: firstname.lastname@example.org Letters to the editor may be addressed to email@example.com.
It is important to also mention the racial element of anti-trans hate crimes when discussing trans panic.
* Not really an ethicist.