My obsession with Dear Prudie continues, and this week she advises a woman who is “concerned” because her cousin is in a serious relationship, and the cousin hasn’t told her boyfriend that she’s trans. Here’s the Q & A:
Q. My Female Cousin Won’t Tell Her Boyfriend She Used To Be Male!: My cousin is a beautiful woman, formerly a man. She has done a couple of modeling jobs as well. She has a lot of guys after her but never had a serious relationship until now. She met my co-worker “John” several months ago and things are starting to get serious. That’s why I was surprised to discover that she hasn’t told him about her gender reassignment. I usually think that the past is generally best left in the past, but this to me is a huge exception. By hiding her past as a man, I feel that my cousin is hiding a big and important chunk of her life. My cousin says that John does not want kids anyway so she has no reason to tell him. I now feel guilty whenever I see John. I know that only a handful of people outside the family know, but expected her to tell John when they got serious. Should I insist on her telling him, or butt out of it entirely?
A. I agree that beginning a relationship does not require presenting your new love interest a due-diligence dossier, nor a cheek swab of one’s DNA. But there is some information that potential partners are entitled to pretty early on; these include one’s marital status, STD test results, interactions with law enforcement, relevant medical conditions (including previous substance abuse problems), questions about sexual orientation, and gender at birth. For some potential partners the information revealed may elicit a shrug: “I have herpes, too.” For others it will be a deal-breaker: “I appreciate you’re telling me you’ve got three kids out of wedlock, but I think we’re just at different places in our lives.” That Juliette was born Jason is just one of those things that will be revealed eventually. Juliette should realize the dishonesty of not telling could itself become a relationship ender. When relationships get serious, that usually leads to visits with the family, and often a look at childhood photo albums. Juliette will either have to keep John away, or ask her family to do an Soviet-style editing of history. It’s just not going to work—someone is going to out Juliette, and surely she knows it. I think you should tell your cousin she’s living in a dream world and that she’s being unfair to John, even if he has a lack of desire for children. Of course, it could be that John flees, or it could be that he says, “She’s more than woman enough for me.” But it’s his right to know the crucial piece of history. You are in a difficult position since you have relationships with both parties, but you didn’t fix up John and Juliette, so you don’t bear that moral responsibility of letting him know. I think you should tell your cousin you will not be the one to deliver the news to John. If he brings up the relationship with you, you can be non-committal and tight-lipped and just say you’re glad to hear he’s enjoying your cousin’s company.
I agree with Prudie that there are many issues that couples should discuss, especially if they’re in a serious relationship. Big identity issues go in that box. Hiding a significant part of one’s history is an impediment to intimacy, and can poison a romantic relationship. So yes, at some point in a serious relationship, you should probably discuss things like your childhood, previous heart-shattering relationships, previous marriages/engagements, serious medical conditions, your family, your political beliefs, any children, the experiences that shaped you, the people who shaped you, and, if relevant, your gender transition. But just because it’s probably a good idea to discuss those things — because not discussing them can mean a less-deep connection, and can also mean that one partner feels betrayed or misled later on — doesn’t mean that a person has a right to know about them.
Also? Trans people have been ostracized, abused, outed and even killed after disclosing their identities (or having it disclosed for them). According to the letter-writer, this is her cousin’s first attempt at dating since her transition. She’s figuring this out at she goes, and I’m sure it’s terrifying and difficult. Maybe cut her some slack. Or, even better, offer her some support in what must be an incredibly tough position — wanting the basic ability to live and date and fall in love, but hearing all kinds of poisonous messages about how trans women aren’t “really” women, about how trans women are sexually unappealing unless they’re fetish objects, about how they have a moral duty to disclose what their genitals looked like when they were born. The take-away seems to be that trans women are unattractive to men who typically date cis women, but trans women nonetheless have an obligation to discuss their genitalia and gender presentation with anyone they date. It’s a rough position to put someone in.
I understand the desire to know about your partner’s history. I’m not trans so I haven’t personally faced this issue, but if I had a partner who was, I would want to know, the same way I would want to know a lot of different things about them. So on a visceral level I understand that impulse — but I’m not under the impression that I have a right to know which gender they were assigned at birth. In the context of a serious and long-term relationship, not disclosing big life events and important pieces of history doesn’t bode well for the relationship. But when and how and why to disclose particular things isn’t quite so cut-and-dry. If it’s a physical health issue and one partner is putting the other at risk, that’s a different story. But in this case, it’s “Juliette” who is potentially at risk if her history is exposed. And so she’s the one in the best position to decide when (and if) she tells. Her cousin should probably stop being such a dingbat and think through, for five minutes, how Juliette probably feels and what she’s struggling with.