20. Philosophical Reflections on Being Out

Some Reasons I Chose To Be Out Rather than Stealth

Other than deciding whether to transition in the first place (or, indeed, whether one is trans*), one of the hardest, and most profound decisions a trans* person has to make is whether to be out about hir trans* status. It's an extremely difficult decision. I've noted before (like in my post on my recent teaching experience) that trans* persons face terrible workplace discrimination and widespread harassment and violence. It's dangerous being a trans* person: and it's most dangerous for out trans* persons.

lgbt_butterflies_web.jpg However, there's no safety in being stealth, either. If one is found out, there's been a historical defense (or a mitigating defense) against murder called the "trans panic" defense (parallel to the "gay panic" defense). Essentially, in many jurisdictions (though, no longer california) one can mitigate a charge of murder (down to manslaughter) by claiming that one suddenly found out that a lover (or whatever) is trans, and that one couldn't control oneself, and killed hir.

I made a conscious decision to be out, and I'd like to share some of my thinking that went into it. I'd like to begin by covering some basic ethical theories, and some subsequent principles, that inform many of our ethical judgments: egoism, utilitarianism, and deontology. I choose these three since they strike me as most salient in considering the question about whether one ought to be out rather than stealth, and they were particularly salient in my own thinking about whether to be out. And while the next few paragraphs may come off a little dry, I promise that there will be a big payoff coming.

Egoism is the view that one ought to do only what is in one's own best interest. Essentially, it asks the question, "What's in it for me?" That is, "Which action will maximally benefit my interests?" Egoists don't consider the effects of their actions on anyone else: other people are irrelevant to the evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of some action. That's an oversimplification, though. Sometimes how our actions affect other people impacts our own well-being. For example, my partner's well-being figures into my own happiness.

Egoism is typically not a view that philosophers think is a good, broad principle for guiding our actions. Descriptively, at least, this does seem to describe how some people reason in their practical decision-making. However, while some have argued that it's a company's duty to maximize its profits (a form of egoism), we negatively view people who are only concerned with their own well-being in this way. Think of gift giving: someone who accepts nice gifts on holidays, but gives very poor ones hirself, is not viewed as a very nice person. Sure, s/he does better by giving poor gifts, because s/he gets better gifts than s/he gives, but we don't tend to think that they're acting very appropriately in doing so (we assume, of course, that s/he can afford to give better gifts).

Utilitarianism is a more sophisticated relative of egoism. It asks, "Which action will maximize everyone's overall well-being, while minimizing pain?" This is when we perform a type of cost/benefit analysis when considering alternative courses of action. Most importantly, we consider the effects of our actions on everyone, and not just ourselves. By way of example, consider the famous trolley cases. You're standing by a track with a switch. A run-away trolley is coming down the track towards five innocent people tied to the track. You have the option of pulling the switch, which will cause the trolley to veer onto a spur (side track) which will kill a single, innocent rail worker. You won't get into any trouble for deciding to pull, or not pull, the switch. Do you pull the switch?

Pulling the switch kills the worker, but saves the five people. Not pulling the switch kills the five people, but saves the worker. Many utilitarians argue that the right decision is to pull the switch: five of the six people survive, and that's the best we can do. Of course, there's considerable debate over this, but let's not let the details detain us.

Both egoism and utilitarianism are known as consequentialist ethical theories: intentions are irrelevant to the evaluation of actions, and only the outcomes matter. (This is a bit of an oversimplification, of course.) A different theory, broadly known as deontology, considers only the motivations for action and whether the reasons for action have certain features. One version of this theory requires that we consider whether it would make sense to take a proposed course of action, and think that it's a good idea if everyone also did the same. If supposing that everyone else acted similarly in a given situation leads to serious problems, we consider the act unethical.

Take lying, for example. Suppose that I would really like to lie about something: maybe you've confronted me about my trans status. Would it make sense for me to wish that, as a general policy, everyone always lied in this given context? Well, the goal of lying is having someone believe what you say. But lies only work if someone doesn't know that you're lying. If we made it a general policy that everyone should lie when answering questions about one's trans status, this would make successfully lying in these contexts impossible: people would expect you to be lying. Consequently, distinguishing between truth-telling and lie-telling would become impossible, and people would simply doubt whatever answer one gives about one's trans status.

So lying fails this "universalizability" test. The relevant ethical principle here is that in considering whether one should do something, we consider whether it makes sense to wish that everyone also did the same in those circumstances. This will be extremely important in my arguments for why it's a good idea for someone to be out about hir trans status.

There are many costs and benefits to a trans* person's being out. They're mostly costs, though. I've already discussed the employment discrimination, and it's easy to find data showing how disadvantaged trans* people are. These studies are typically about "out" trans* persons, or at least trans* persons who aren't in deep stealth (i.e., no one knows that they're stealth). I had to make a choice about whether to try to be stealth, or be out.

Taking an egoist perspective, it's hard to say whether there will be a net gain or loss from my being out. I've been asked to participate in some cool projects because of it, but I'm very concerned about my job prospects. Philosophy isn't the best field for hiring women, let alone trans* women. For a field that studies topics like implicit bias and critical thinking, I think that our practitioners are pretty bad at it when it comes to issues like this. I also think that people in my home department underestimate the discrimination in other departments: perhaps they forget that not all institutions are as tolerant as [Philosochick's university]. Yeah, maybe lots of departments in Canada will be fine, but there are so few jobs in Canada: it's more likely that I'll have to find work in the USA, and departments there, not to mention the general lack of state and federal protections for trans persons, are not so tolerant.

So the jury's out on an egoist analysis on my being out. I get to be open about my identity, which is a benefit, but there are certainly costs. So what about the utilitarian perspective? Might not my being out be an overall benefit to other people, even if it's a cost to me? Yes, probably. The trans* world needs more vocal and visible role models. The popular media portrayals of trans* people are terrible. I've touched on this before. My point here is a little more specific: the real trans* people the media tends to interview or portray are a very narrow kind. This news story is all kinds of typical. Generally, the news focus on older male-to-female trans people who don't "look" female. It's the "pathetic tranny" trope I've discussed before.

The problem is that there aren't many voices representing the rest of us: and "the rest of us" isn't a monolithic group. It's very rare to show the story of someone's struggle who "looks" female (for male-to-female trans people, of course). The Jenna Talackova case is a rare exception. (Oh, and that interview is all kinds of fail on Barbara's part. I'm going to write a post very soon on how to interview or write about trans* people.) But as a friend of mine noted, it's just not worth it for the rest of us to put ourselves in the public spotlight. Even if we're out about our trans* statuses, it's such a high personal cost to take on being a public advocate, that very few of us do. And this is true even if the personal cost would produce an overall benefit for everyone else (the utilitarian perspective). So while the utilitarian perspective suggests that one should be out, few of us think that way: the cost is just too high for the trans* person hirself.

My reasons for being out are entirely deontological. I don't think that there will be a clear net benefit to myself (egoism); I don't think that the overall benefit to everyone else justifies the potential (and real) costs to me in my being out (utilitarianism); it's that I wanted there to be resources just like me in my deciding to (and proceeding with) transition. Most trans* women I could identify in academe transitioned either before they finished their PhD, and so had time before hitting the job market to get everything in order, or transitioned after obtaining tenure.

I couldn't find anyone who transitioned while *on* the job market. It's also worth sharing that I don't share the "traditional" trans narrative. I didn't think that I was trans beginning at approximately age three; I'm not heterosexual (that is, I'm lesbian); and I didn't experience a life-long perception that I was a "woman trapped in a man's body." I found it very difficult, in coming to understand myself, to find trans persons, particularly trans women, with similar stories. Most news and popular coverage, including memoirs, of trans persons, and specifically trans women, involves only people with this "traditional" narrative. (We're finally starting to understand that this traditional narrative is more of a construction than a true representation of trans people.) I know that these people are out there (I've met many), but their voices aren't being heard, either because they aren't speaking up, or others aren't listening. This made me actually doubt, early on in my deciding to transition, whether I was actually trans.

So, I think, if I wanted there to be people like me making their stories known, in order to be a resource for others, then I should be willing to be one when it's my turn. Suppose that we tried to universalize the maxim: "Use other people as a resource, but don't be one yourself." I think that this would fail the universalization test for deontology. If everyone acted this way, there'd be no resources for trans* people. (OK, this doesn't quite follow, but it's close, I think.) And since I wanted there to be resources for myself, willing that this maxim be universalized would undermine the very thing that I wanted. So to avoid this, and to make my actions consistent with my desires, I'm out as a trans* person: I'm willing to be a resource for others.

There it is: that's why I'm out. There may be some personal benefits; for example, I get to teach these issues from a personal perspective, and I don't have to hide my past or worry about people finding out. But I don't necessarily think that the benefits will outweigh the potential (or real) costs. My being out may be an overall benefit when considering everyone, but I don't think that that's a good reason to let one person bear un unfair burden. Rather, I'm out for deontological reasons.

Yours truly,
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