But the need for such a guide is still present, which was made clear by a recent letter to Randy Cohen’s “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times magazine, entitled “When to Out a Transgender Dater?”
This letter, chosen for its titillation and its transpanic-inducing narrative, hit a universal nerve. When does one disclose important issues that require sensitivity and dare I suggest love the very love one is seeking as a result of dating anyways?
The Orthodox woman who authored the letter was set up on a date with someone she initially liked. After being concerned about a reticence to discuss his past, she used her professional research skills to discover that the man she was dating is a female-to-male transgender person. Anecdotally, there seems to be a growing number of transgender men attracted to Orthodox Judaism.
After immediately breaking up with him, she wondered whether she should urge her rabbi to out him for the sake of the community. Can we say transpanic?! Also, were there things about her life that she did not disclose?
The disappointing letter was dwarfed by an unusually poor response. Cohen’s insensitivity to the needs of transgender people and the pain (physical and emotional) that society inflicts upon them was harmful, as was placing his primary concern upon the author. He offensively compared the need for disclosure because of being transgender to disease and infidelity. In these analogies no one is infecting another or breaking a commitment to another person. Furthermore, he never mentions to her that by disclosing this information that she could jeopardize this person’s (whom she liked) physical safety, emotional well-being, job security, housing, familial relations, and religious community. Most things she and many of us take for granted.
Cohen wrote, “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 transgender. Clearly he thought you’d find it pertinent; that’s why he discreditably withheld it, lest you reject him.”
This makes it unclear what any of us should disclose early in dating. What should we disclose in the name of being “germane” at the beginning of dating? Our credit scores? Genetic histories? Our past sex partners? Previous childhood abuse?
If we strip away our discomfort of gender expression outside a narrow binary than the real focus is about two souls connecting on some level? I have always approached dating like running cross-country: it’s an endurance sport requiring patience and persistence. One has to warm up before revealing one’s soul because it’s a great risk and to open ourselves up to another person and in doing so, to the possibility of rejection.
Often we rush to expose our bodies long before our souls. That is a privilege of cysgender abled-bodied people who don’t have to think about how people might react to our bodies as an extension of our souls.
While many of us cysgender people can only begin to understand or compare what it might be like to date as a transgender person, all of us have things that represent our core identity or our soul that we may be reluctant to share for fear of rejection. Once on a date a guy said that I was much shorter than he remembered and he was not really into “short” guys.
Things like that make me laugh and have not been hurtful. However, when I was 22, a guy I was dating saw me on television demonstrating with ACT UP, and refused to go out with me again because I was “too political.” I was crushed. My activism was a core part of who I was and I felt rejected. The more integral that an aspect of our identity is, the more it hurts when that is why we are rejected – and in turn can make it sensitive for us to reveal those parts to strangers immediately.
I have used Match.com in the past as a way to date. In my on-line profile, I did not mention being a rabbi and rarely, (unless they recognized my name or my appearance) did I tell someone before meeting because I knew that people had preconceived notions and that I at least wanted a chance to be rejected for another reason. Though I could never (nor want to) hide that I was a rabbi longer than a date or three, I did have enough prior bad experiences to make me feel wary.
I went out to dinner with a guy from Match.com and who quickly made note that I had been evasive about my job earlier on the phone. “I like to get to know someone a little bit before discussing my work.” He laughed and responded, “So you’re a stripper!” Yes, that is a bit of a stretch to think I might be a stripper, but I was in training for a body building competition so perhaps it was not impossible.
Dumbfounded, I was silent and didn’t respond. He quickly assumed that this meant assent and started freaking out. Before I could correct his misplaced assumption, he kept talking about it, spitting out questions. I finally interjected that I was not a stripper. “Well, that’s a relief,” he replied. “So what do you do?”
Pausing and debating my answer, “I am a rabbi.” He laughed even harder. “Seriously, stop pulling my leg, a stripper, a rabbi. Just tell me.”
I said still not used to the disbelief, “I really am a rabbi.”
Silence. The waiter came and left noticing the awkwardness. He said, “You’re a rabbi?! Seriously? A man of God?”
“Yes. I mean yes, a rabbi. I don’t see myself as a Man of God because”
Cutting me off, he stood up and said, “Frankly, I would have preferred if you were a stripper. Sorry I can’t do this.” He walked out.
Mortified, I was near tears. In the moment, the humiliation and the definitive rejection felt like a blow. This kind of crushing blow reinforces one’s negative esteem. I can now laugh at this story and the other disclosures of my avocation, but there have been numerous negative and embarrassing responses. Numerous times I have heard that “organized religion is morally bankrupt and that by association I condemn LGBT folks” and I have heard the opposite, “how can I be a sinner and a rabbi?” No wonder it is something I chose to withhold right away. Talk about confusion and a sad way for one to view one’s own sexuality.
Shouldn’t we all be able to be compassionate to the timing of people’s disclosure of aspects that shape their identities and their very souls. I recognize that I can actually laugh at some of my experiences because even though they were emotionally painful at the time, neither my life nor livelihood were affected and so it is only a pale comparison.
Sure, not every soul is compatible, but when a part of one’s identity inspires visceral fear in another it is a hard thing to be in the presence of, particularly when dating well requires risk and vulnerability. Can we be patient with each other, if we are acting responsible? I think it is hardly fair to expect immediate vulnerability, particular in the cases when the results, like of a transgender person being outed, could lead to losing a job, housing discrimination, and being verbally and physically threatened. Eventually all of us have to grapple with our self love and discover that no matter another’s reactions that we are all worthy of being loved and accepted for our fullest selves and that seeking that is worth risking being vulnerable.
Dating can be hard. We entertain vulnerability to seek compatible partners, but if we are open to the experience of dating, there is a great deal we can discover about ourselves and the world. Most importantly, in dating as in anywhere else, we need to learn to treat people how we would like to be treated.
Expressed Jewishly, we should bring our fundamental teaching to bear. We should not do unto others what we would not want done unto us. That would be an ethical Golden Rule of Dating, now there should be a dating guide about that!
Joshua Lesser has served as the Rabbi at Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, Georgia for ten years. As an LGBT civil rights activist and as a life long learner, he is proud to be one of the editors of Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. He is the founder of The Rainbow Center, an organization to help address gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inclusion in the Jewish and greater community. An interfaith bridge-builder he is a past president of The Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta.