The trans identity has generated tensions, more in recent times, around social acceptance, playing sports, serving in the military, accessing bathrooms and healthcare. The dating space isn’t immune to these tensions, also. Dating while trans is a dangerous minefield trans people have been – and are still – navigating. What makes it dangerous is the issue of disclosure, a kind of ethical responsibility put on trans communities to reveal to the other party that they are trans. Not just dating but also casual sex, or whatever frame of engagement is taking place. And in a world where trans people don’t have the luxury of safety, these engagements are usually approached with caution on their part.
In many Clubhouse rooms that I have been in where the topic is about trans disclosure, the sentiment is nearly always the same from cisgender people, particularly cisgender men who feel that their autonomy is taken away when trans women ”deceive” them into dating or sex, and aren’t allowed to decide if they want to be with a trans woman or not. Interesting enough, cisgender people seem to understand autonomy and dignity when it affects them.
Now, consent is injected into conversations of trans disclosure to protect the privileged status of cis-ness while simultaneously policing transness. In other words, a cisgender person should be with another cisgender person while trans people should be with themselves. With this logic, a cisgender person can claim they were sexually violated by a trans person if they didn’t know that they were trans before engaging in sexual activity. Undergirding this thought process is the transphobic idea that trans women are men and trans men are women.
Let’s be clear: consent applies to trans people as well. They are not isolated from sexual accountability or upholding views that perpetuate rape culture. Trans people are flawed just like anyone else. But unpacking trans disclosure and consent means we have to look at the power dynamic that already exists between cis and trans people. In society today, cis people have the power and social access, meaning that institutions and systems are set up to benefit them while excluding trans people. Trans murders have been chillingly documented, especially Black trans women who often die at the hands of Black men. There’s also the negative compounding idea that stereotypes trans people as predators. Cis people do not suffer from these identity-damning biases.
All things considered, it becomes clear why trans people would want to maintain secrecy around their identities. The question now becomes: when should trans people disclose this information? From the response I have heard from trans people, they disclose only when they feel safe and trust whoever they are dealing with. If the encounter is looking like it would lead to sexual activity, some might ask, isn’t it proper for the trans individual to reveal to the other party what they are getting into? We can also make the argument: the person has negotiated consent with a trans person thinking they were cisgender and so, isn’t the sexual activity happening under pretence?
Many people hold this contention. First of all, there’s nothing false or deceptive about the trans identity and it is transphobic to think such. Consent obtained under pretence is grievous, but trans people in this scenario paints a complex, nuanced picture. Disclosing that they existed as a different gender at a point could lead to violence perpetrated against them, especially from men who think engaging sexually with trans women has compromised their masculinity. We already know how society looks at men that date trans women.
The workaround to this murky discourse of consent, and not putting trans people in a vulnerable position when they reveal their transness, is to put the onus on non-trans individuals to disclose what their preferences are. Why? Because non-trans people have nothing to lose, at least in the initial talking stages. This way, they can exercise their autonomy to the fullest.
Understandably, this may be offensive to cis women, but then this is indicative of how trans women are seen as an inferior, othered caste of women. Transphobia is at the root of this and it should be dismantled.