When Disclosure Equals Exposure: A Therapist’s Perspective on Outing

Written by Nyle Biondi and published in Our Lives Magazine’s May/June issue of 2012.

 

Recently I have heard several stories from trans people I know about being outed by their peers and allies.  The circumstances I have heard of have, perhaps surprisingly, been situations where the person doing the outing was an LGB person, an ally, or even another transgender person.  The people doing the outing rarely had malicious intentions, yet their actions, in many cases, were harmful.  Respecting the lives of transpeople, and everyone, involves being mindful of how we are sharing stories.

Our personal stories are some of the most powerful tools we have to educate others about our experiences.  When we consciously consider what stories belong to us and what stories belong to others, we begin to create a safer community in which people get to choose which parts of their lives they want to share with the people they encounter.  Separating our own stories from others’ becomes complicated when our stories overlap.  The closer you are to someone, the less space there is between where your story stops and where theirs begins.  This separation is especially hard when you have witnessed transition, are partnered to a trans person, or are a family member of a trans person.

Some questions that may be useful to ask yourself before you disclose someone else’s trans status are: Is disclosing this information about my trans friend relevant to my story?  Does my story make sense without this information?  And if my story wouldn’t make sense, do I need to tell it?  Can I tell it without revealing the identity of the person in the story?  What am I trying to gain by disclosing this information?  Is there a way for me to check in with my trans friend before I disclose their status to others?

The stories I have heard of people being outed have varied from a trans person joining a new organization being given names of all of the other trans people in the organization, to being called upon in class to speak on behalf of trans people, to sharing gender history to make another person at ease knowing that the trans person may have been socialized differently than their gender presentation suggests (i.e. “I know you don’t really like men but my friend is trans so I think you’ll like him.”).  In all of these instances, people have good intentions but do not always recognize why their behaviors may be problematic.

When someone outs a trans person to other trans people, they send the message that anyone’s status could be disclosed at any time.  The person doing the outing may presume that all trans people will want to connect with one another and that their trans status is the thing that would connect them.  Asking a trans person to share a “trans perspective” on a particular topic in class can feel violating if that person was not out to the entire class. We all know it’s unreasonable to expect one person to represent an entire community.  Disclosing status to make another person feel at ease can make the trans person in question feel ill at ease, and like their gender is not seen as real or valid.

Other reasons to not out someone without their consent:

  1. Safety:  Not all trans people are out to their families, employers, landlords, teammates, friends, sexual partners, etc.  Outing them may put them at risk for losing family, jobs, housing, friends, etc.
  2. Invalidation and objectification: Once a person is outed, their status often becomes the focus of others’ attention.  Frequently, trans people are asked to explain the transition process or other personal medical information about their bodies to people who are curious.  Outing them discloses some of this information to others without their consent.
  3. Respect: While you may see your friend as safe person to talk about trans people with, it doesn’t mean that your trans friend will find that person safe—even if that person is also trans.
  4. Differences in identities: most of us are aware that gender identity and sexual orientation are different.  Sometimes LGBQ people out people to each other as a way of indicating who may be in their dating pool.  Outing someone as trans ignores the unique safety and privacy concerns of gender variant people.

Asking permission around when and whether to out someone may lend itself to valuable and in-depth discussions with the trans and gender variant people in your life.  I hope we can all feel encouraged to ask questions and listen to the stories of the people in our lives in order to be better allies and advocates for each other.

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