Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Don't Owe You A Thang

This is one of those super serious posts I do every once in a while - if you're triggered by mentions of sexual violence, or violence in general, especially against trans people, you're probably going to want to give this one a miss. I try to stay away from topics that I think will be too upsetting for too many people, but in this instance it's precisely because the whole thing is so upsetting that I feel the need to write it.

I want to talk about trans* people, and how cisgendered people treat them.

You might not be familiar with these terms, so let me do some quick definitions for you. I like to use the term trans*, because the asterisk indicates it refers to a wide variety of identities under the "trans umbrella".


See all those different kinds of identity under this umbrella? That's who I'm talking about when I say trans*. Some people use transgender, some people wouldn't count drag performers as trans*...there's as many opinions out there as there are identities, and since I'm not trans* I don't feel like I can tell them what the right or wrong way to refer to themselves is. I use trans*, simply because the trans* folk I know have told me it's the term they prefer.

I, on the other hand, am cisgender. This simply means that I identify as the same gender that I was assigned on my birth certificate. It says I'm female, and I also identify as a female. I've seen some rather inflammatory writers try and claim it's some sort of insult, but it's simply not true. Cisgender is a description, nothing more or less.

Hopefully that makes the two terms pretty clear, because now I have some possibly upsetting things to say. 

In the UK, there has just been a deeply upsetting piece of case law handed down. The case in question was over a relationship between a cisgender girl and a transgender boy. The details of what actually happened aren't particularly clear, but it seems at some stage the girl discovered her boyfriend's trans* status, and at some stage after that, her parents also discovered it. The case ended up in court, as the girl alleged that she had been sexually assaulted, despite consenting to sexual contact at the time. According to the prosecution, if the girl had known her boyfriend was not cisgender, she wouldn't have consented to sexual contact, therefore by not disclosing their trans* status, her boyfriend got her into bed under false pretenses, invalidating the consent she gave at the time.  

I think it's important to note at this point that under UK law, there are actually very few things that can invalidate consent if you discover them at a later date after clearly consenting at the time- in fact age, marital status, wealth, or even HIV status no longer count. But in this case, the judge decided that not disclosing his trans* status WAS enough to invalidate her consent. This means that if you're a sexually active trans* person living in the UK, if you don't disclose your trans* status absolutely and completely to every single person you have sexual contact with, there is a chance they could come back and pull you up on charges.

This is so completely fucked up it makes me sick. 

On the one hand, I understand the girl in question is probably upset, hurt, and confused. Both her and her boyfriend seem to have been 16 or 17 at the time, and that's REALLY young to be dealing with extra confusing shit on top of the already baffling puzzle that is sex and romance. If I'm truly and totally honest, I have to admit that I would probably be hurt too if I realised a partner was trans* after I'd been with them for some time, because I hate feeling like my partners are hiding things from me. If I'm just sleeping with someone, there's very little I feel I really NEED to know about them. But if I'm in a romantic relationship with someone, I'd like to think that they were sharing as much as possible with me, and I would be hurt if I found out that wasn't the case, no matter what it was they were hiding. To a certain extent, I feel like I have a right to know what I consider to be major things about my partner, like whether they're trans* or not. It's a compelling argument, the idea that honestly is always best in a romantic or sexual relationship. And besides, what have they got to hide? Why are these trans* people "sneaking around" if there's nothing wrong with it? Don't we all have a right to know who we're sleeping with, exactly? Don't we have a right to know what's going on "down there"? And let's be brutally honest here, it's always the genital situation that cisgender people want to know about. Is it a vagina? Is it a penis? Is it something in between? What are we supposed to do with it?

(a small side note - it always cracks me up how much cisgender people want to know about trans* people's genitals, because it implies that when sleeping with a cisgender person one always knows what you're going to get when you take the pants off, and this is SO not true)

While cisgender people might FEEL like they have the right to know all about trans* people's genital situation, the fact is that we don't. Sure, it's nice to know. I would LIKE to know. But no-one has the right to demand disclosure, because the person doing the disclosing has SO much more to lose.

What a lot of cisgender people don't seem to get is that trans* people have very good, extremely valid reasons to be very careful indeed about who they disclose to. They're not doing it to upset you, or "trick" you. There are a lot of different ways people can react to someone coming out as trans*, and the stakes are high - sometimes even life and death. If someone you didn't previously know was trans discloses to you, maybe you'll just be offended they didn't come out earlier. That's one of the best case scenarios. Worst case scenario is one where they end up dead in a gutter. I'm not trying to be dramatic here either - it's an appalling but simple fact that many trans* people are fired from their jobs, evicted from their houses, have their children taken away, are gang raped and/or murdered all because they were unlucky enough to disclose their status to someone unsympathetic. These statistics from Australian Institute of Criminology paint a pretty horrifying picture. 

" In 1993, a national survey funded by the Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health examined transgender lifestyles... The study indicated the existence of a major area of previously unrecognised sexual abuse and violence. A total of 157 incidents were reported by 71 members of the sample group (n=146). Almost one-third reported rape by a lone assailant while approximately one in eight reported pack rape. About one-fifth reported some other kind of sexual assault. Similar to other studies, about 40 per cent of victims knew their assailant."

THIS is what trans* people are trying to avoid by not disclosing their trans status to every Tom, Dick, and Harry. This is why making it a CRIMINAL OFFENSE to not disclose it putting trans* people in very clear and present danger. There were 357 recorded cases of specifically trans* motivated hate crimes in the UK in 2010 - and that's just the cases that were prosecuted, AND were deemed to be specifically centered around the victim's gender identity. I have to wonder how many of the cases deemed to be about sexual orientation actually overlap this category. How many went unprosecuted. And how much that number is going to go up by if trans* people really are forced to disclose to EVERYONE.

As someone with a mental illness, I've run into the question of whether to disclose something deeply personal about myself or not with potential sexual partners. Usually, if I feel like I'm probably going to see the person more than once, I do disclose, simply because I think it makes it easier for them to understand why I react the ways I do sometimes. But sometimes, I don't. Sometimes I don't because I get the vibe that I'll never hear from the other person again if I do, and I want to at least hit it before I blow it. Sometimes I don't because the other person says something really prejudiced against people with mental illnesses and I decide I couldn't be bothered educating them right now. But I've never withheld information about my mental health for fear of physical violence. Don't get me wrong, the threat of physical violence has crossed my mind a couple of times while out on dates, but never because of my mental illness. And yet, if there was a law compelling me to tell EVERY SINGLE person I had ANY sexual contact with all about it, I would lose my fucking shit. I would completely lose it. I could not live like that. And we're talking about something that while still stigmatised, is MUCH more socially acceptable than being trans*.

I get that if you're a cisgender person from a relatively sheltered background, encountering trans* people might be disorienting, confusing, even upsetting. But you know what I think? I think you should get over it. I think you should deal with the fact that there might be, hell, probably are trans* people in your life that you don't know about. I think you should read Avery Edison's account of a "normal" night out for a trans person, and ask yourself how keen you would be to disclose if you were trans*. I think you should have a good think about the fact that just walking down the street in a shirt that didn't match her voice in the opinion of a bystander got her punched in the head. Then I think you should consider how much your "right to know" weighs against trans* people's right to survive.


  1. Well put! Cisgender people shouldn't expect the state to engage in gender policing just to appease individuals who are transphobic. Frankly, if the idea of being sexually involved with a trans* person is so unacceptable to an individual that their consent hinges on it, the burden should be on that person to inquire, not on the trans* individual to announce their status.

    And you can bet that the argument underlying this policy won't run both ways. That is: if someone had sex with an individual that they thought was a transwoman but turned out to actually be a ciswoman, I doubt a judge would suggest that consent was called into question. Of course this isn't really about consent, it is about imposing cisnormativity into even the most private aspects of individuals lives. And it really is sickening.

  2. Hopefully that ruling gets overturned quickly, that's pretty terrible.
    I can empathise with the girls hurt/concern/feelings but its something she needs to deal with or live with not something to force on her partner or anyone else. Its ok to feel things its not ok to make that someone elses problem.
    Being both cisgendered and heterosexual turns out to be unusual in my social group which makes it easier for me to understand my priveledge. I also tend to overshare with partners, I like people to understand me. Id prefer to know what I'm getting into and I might be a little put off if I had to find out after . But I rather people be able to have some privacy and control around a really tricky and sadly sometimes dangerous issue. Besides i'd be more upset (probably, never had to test either) finding out a partner was married than trans.


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