Is a Transgendered Woman Ethically Obligated To Tell Her Boyfriend That She Used To be Male?

“Is this a bad time to tell you that I used to be a man?”

Sometimes I wonder if Emily Yoffe’s Slate advice column (“Dear Prudence”) is like the old Penthouse Forum, where it was clear to any reader who hadn’t purchased the Brooklyn Bridge twice that a team of giggling writers was coming up with the feature’s bizarre letters about orgies with amputees and people having sex in piles of fresh fish. But never mind: her most recent column makes an interesting ethical assertion is response to a woman who is troubled that her transgendered cousin refuses to tell her serious boyfriend about the jockstrap in her past:

“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.”

I agree with Yoffe that the cousin is deluded if she thinks she can keep her past gender hidden forever if the relationship continues, and that the revelation of a secret of such magnitude is bound to be more disruptive the longer it is hidden. But is she correct that he has a right to know about it? Elsewhere Yoffe suggests that not telling him is dishonest. Why?

I understand the theory that couples shouldn’t withhold personal information from one another in the interest of mutual trust. Surely each member of a committed couple has an obligation to reveal any personal information that has the potential to affect the other. Is there an obligation to reveal personal information that one knows a boyfriend or girlfriend will be shocked to learn, or that will tap into visceral fears or biases? Author William Saroyan left his wife on their honeymoon when she revealed to him that she was Jewish, which highlights the irony of the problem: if a woman knows that a secret may cause a lover to reject her, however irrational that reaction would be, then is she ethically obligated to tell him but not obligated if she is sure he wouldn’t care? In other words, is one only ethically obligated to reveal the secrets that will destroy a relationship?

That seems strange.

We all have a right to some secrets, and I reject the contention that spouses and other committed couples have an ethical obligation to reveal every aspect of their personal lives, including those that risk altering, damaging or ending the relationship. A woman who once was a man is not lying by representing herself to a lover as a woman now: she is a woman now. I completely understand why a woman who has been transgendered would not want a boyfriend to know about that fact, because the vast majority of men today would have a difficult time accepting it. Consider these possible secrets a woman might want to keep to herself based on her assessment of her significant other’s attitudes, desires, biases and beliefs:

  • She is, in whole or in part, a member of a racial or ethnic group that he has biases against.
  • She voted for John McCain.
  • She voted for Barack Obama
  • She voted for Pat Buchanan.
  • She fantasizes that he is Justin Bieber when they have sex.
  • She fantasizes that he is Winston Churchill when they have sex.
  • She fantasizes that he is Lindsey Lohan when they have sex.
  • She fantasizes that he is Eva Peron when they have sex
  • She fantasizes that he is Lassie when they have sex
  • She hates having sex with him, period.
  • She killed someone when she was a teen, and was in prison.
  • She killed her mother when she was a teen, and was in prison.
  • She killed Osama Bin Laden.
  • She was unjustly accused of killing a previous boyfriend, and acquitted.
  • She was unjustly accused of killing TWO previous boyfriends.
  • She used to be a heroin addict.
  • She had a complete nervous breakdown.
  • She was kidnapped and forced to be a sex slave when she was 12.
  • She was once a call girl.
  • She was once a stripper.
  • She was once a porn star.
  • She was once a Communist.
  • She is listed, under another name, as the holder of the all time record for sex partners before the age of 30.
  • She is Wonder Woman.

I don’t think that any other human being has a right to know any of these secrets, if a woman doesn’t want to divulge them, as long as maintaining the secret doesn’t require ongoing deception, lies or deceit, or real harm to the uninformed partner. (Admittedly, Wonder Woman has a problem in this regard.)  Whether a woman would be wise not to divulge them, or to make a lifetime commitment to a man whom she suspects or knows would reject her if she revealed facts about her past or present is a separate issue that involves his character, not hers.

I think.

I admit to having doubts about the ethics of withholding information that shouldn’t matter to a boyfriend when a woman knows that it will matter.  Biases and bigotry are real, and in matters of the heart, an individual has a right to be bigoted. Does that mean that a woman has an ethical obligation to help a man be bigoted against her? If we conclude so, then we must also conclude that there are no aspects of our identity, past life, conducts or thoughts that we can regard as ours and ours alone, once we commit to an intimate relationship. I can’t endorse that.


Spark: Slate

Graphic: 9999 Fashion World

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

126 thoughts on “Is a Transgendered Woman Ethically Obligated To Tell Her Boyfriend That She Used To be Male?

  1. So if a person has AIDS they shouldn’t tell the other person because the risk of the relationship ending is greater? Hell no. Men have the right to know. This is a serious matter—this is not like, oh I used to be a stripper type matter. This is more than that because you’re not what you claim to be. It’s a slap in the face to real women everywhere. Maybe that person won’t want to be with you, so you should be with a person who accepts all of you no matter what the circumstances are. When you keep secrets you destroy the relationship. Most relationships are based on love, honesty and loyalty; do not withhold something from the other person because all secrets come to the light eventually, and the longer you wait the greater the consequences.

  2. I understand that transgender women deal with a lot of discrimination, violence, and hatred and i don’t think this is right. I respect their decision to make themselves comfortable in their bodies and to give themselves the gender they identify with. I also understand it must be hard for them to find male partners who are understanding of their decision to change gender. That being said there is a huge cross section of the population who would oppose sleeping with someone who was transgender because it violates their moral or religious principles and there are more who simply do not feel comfortable sleeping with someone who is transgender. When two people consent to having sex with one another they should not feel violated after the act. If someone has sex and learns that their partner is genetically not a female, they have a right to be upset and while i wouldnt qualify that as rape it definitely isnt consent. Being transgender makes it harder to find sexual partners but that does not mean you should withhold that information just to have sex with someone who you know would probably be unwilling if they knew the truth. That is taking advantage and is immorale.

  3. I won’t go by rights and wrongs here. I have a simple question. Does a person want to be with another person for their whole life(if they decide to get married) when that person might not be accepting at all towards the first person’s self? A trans person’s past is a huuuge part of them and important for THEM, if it doesn’t affect “the usual” then it’s for them but what if the other person is transphobic and one day let’s say for example they call trans people sick or whatever and their trans spouse is right next to them, how would that make the spouse feel? Awful I suppose. So here’s my point: if you want to truly love the other person and “be together forever” etc, you know what I mean, then you gotta tell them dude, whatever gender you are that is just bad towards yourself. You will never be free of ill feelings, whatever they may be. If it’s not that serious and it doesn’t affect the other person then sure keep it to yourself and the people who know it. Sorry for any mistakes, English is not my mother language.

  4. Ok she is as a trans woman currently a woman, but her partner expects children, this conversation should of happened long ago, the gentleman expects things from the relationship ship that are not possible, to lead him on, rather then to deal with the secret is wrong, her fear is losing him, and as the relationship is built without true trust she will eventually. Sorry Jack secrets like this often get revealed unexpectedly, and there will be no comming back from that. This relationship has been built on a shaky foundation. One good shake it is coming down. I wish I could say love concerts all, but it does not, predjudice May end her relationship, but by not being upfront the entire relationship is not on equal footing, and it needs to be! My ex boyfriend looked at me funny when ever he heard I voted republican most of my life, my defense I agree with the republicans on more issues, and I may be a gay man but that is only a part of me. I am currently an independent. And have the problem of hating half the platforms of each party. That and neither party is behaving with class and decorum. I miss being proud of the way we presented ourselves.
    She needs to really talk to him a little at a time to not blow things up, This is much worse then my mother’s secret that my dad never thank god discovered ( she voted for McGovern) only time she ever crossed party lines. Her parents did not understand how they raised a republican.

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