Ethics Quiz (Inadvertent Offense Division): The Transsexual Vote

dancing-with-the-stars-paddlesIn a one of my ethics seminars last week before a large audience, my usual practice of polling participants using hand-held numbered ballots, was unwieldy. The client group did not color code them, and there were over 400 present, as opposed to the Dancing With The Stars panel, which is three. I got around the problem by segmenting the crowd and picking different groups to represent the whole. Sometimes just men voted; sometimes women, sometimes one of the four sections of the hall. In other cases, I asked groups that were involved in the case being discussed: family law attorneys. Government attorneys. Mothers.

One of the cases involved a transsexual individual, and I suggested that the transsexuals in the audience vote. Nobody volunteered. The group laughed.

Today I received a very nice note from one of participants, praising my session but criticizing my judgment in that incident:

“You asked the transsexuals to vote, and said you were sure there were some attending [I don’t recall doing this, and I suspect she is thinking of my comment about another potential group] , which produced laughter. Were I a transsexual, I would have felt ostracized and deeply offended. These are people with congenital/hormonal conditions that clash with our social constructs of gender identity. But most importantly, they are people. You are, of course, statistically right to guess that in a group of lawyers of that size, probably there were not many, probably not any, That does not make it OK to perpetuate their ostracism. This is not about political correctness, it is about acknowledging shared humanity.”

Your Ethics Alarm Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is this a fair complaint?

I responded that I didn’t see the source of the offense. Is just saying the word “transsexual” in bad taste? I’m a pretty consistent advocate of transsexual rights, and I think raising the fact that these individuals are part of the legal profession—this was a conservative venue—is valid and, yes, provocative. Was the laughter unethical? Well, I think the audience might be prompted to consider what they were laughing about—I doubt they knew.

I also said that I didn’t see how simply asking transexuals to vote impugned “shared humanity” and ostracized anyone. The writer said that if he were a transsexual, he would have felt “ostracized and deeply offended.” Here we go again: indignation at presumed offense to others. I wrote that I don’t see how he can be sure how a transsexual would feel, not being one, and in the absence of a transsexual who was present to query, I don’t think such speculation is persuasive. If I were such a transsexual attendee, I wrote, I think I would probably just take the challenge and vote.  But that’s just me, and again, just a guess.

The only kind of apology I could offer would be one of those “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” apologies, and

1. I don’t think this was unreasonably offensive.

2. I hate those deceitful non-apology apologies, as you know, and

3. We all should stop apologizing for offending a few people with legitimate, non-malicious, discourse. The kind of sensitivity being demanded makes spontaneous utterances a mine field. I can’t live, think, speak and work that way, and no one should have to.


37 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz (Inadvertent Offense Division): The Transsexual Vote

  1. Well, in today’s congenitally must-not-offend climate, I’d say you just learned about a funny gag that you can’t use again.

    Realistically, though, it probably wasn’t as brilliant an idea as you’re capable of delivering; after all, if there WERE open transsexuals in the audience the number would have likely been so small as to render any such vote meaningless in the first place. So realistically, you gotta admit that it was intended purely as a laugh line – with the added goodness of essentially featuring a de-facto protected class.

    The complainer needs to get a life; your point about people assuming offense on behalf of others is valid. But I don’t think you should have used the gag in the first place.

    Ethics aren’t part of it. Good showmanship is.

    • 1. It got a HUGE laugh (expected a laugh, but not that). How could that be bad showmanship?
      2. I had voting groups as small as eight.
      3. I also wrote the attendee that since I’m essentially riffing for four hours, I won’t be held to a perfection standard, which is impossible. Sure, it wasn’t my best idea, but I don’t think it was objectively offensive either.

      • And this: It IS a congenitally must-not-offend climate, and I refuse to endorse it or cater to it. This why I tolerated Scott’s vulgarity (to be rewarded by him going off in a huff because I believe, correctly, that the libertarian position on drug legalization is irresponsible, selfish, reckless, and bats).

        • Here’s the difference. Yes, it got a big laugh – were I there, I’d have been laughing along with everyone else – it’s a funny line.

          But you also make your living doing shows like this. I do analogous stuff in another field. Any good presenter ad libs, but we also learn what to say – and not say. One of my clients is almost painfully PC… I love the organization and its mission, but I have to make a point, with them, of saying “you folks” as opposed to “you guys” (which, apparently, has gender stereotyping built in, or so I learned after someone complained).

          Silly? I think so, but corrections on little stuff like that doesn’t cost us much, and it helps us keep getting invited back.

          • If I worry about the one complaint out of 435, I will go nuts…and I do worry, too much. I’ll lose clients rather than feel like I’m walking on egg shells. There are plenty of boring ethics speakers…I’m not going to be one.

            • There IS another alternative, Jack – and that’s a disclaimer at the start. Depending on the audience, I’ve been known to lead out presentations with something along the lines of “by the way, I’m a wisecracking sonofabitch, I often use salty language and I’m old enough that I’ve given up any pretense of stepping away from the possibility of a cheap laugh. I should mention right now that some of you might find something I say offensive. At the end of the presentation, please raise your hand if I HAVEN’T offended you at some point, so I can insult you personally.”

        • Oh, is THAT it? Well, I’d try to fill that spot, but I just don’t think I have the “knack” for making vulgar or angry effective.

          • Thanks for the offer, Steve, but I think I’ll retire that “slot” with Scott, who was sui generis. I confess to being miffed about that. I lost some good and productive commenters because I wouldn’t ban Scott for his colorful prose, and he knew he was getting special considerations in defense of a principle near and dear to him, and then turned his venom on me for expressing an opinion he didn’t like. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Like all absolutists, libertarians ultimately end up making no sense.

            • Uh, you know that was a joke, right? I get mad and I can toss colorful politically incorrect insults (I could throw 40 anti-gay insults and not repeat myself) and profanity with the best of them, but I don’t think I have the gift for making it entertaining, and I have zero interest in becoming the Dan Savage (who really isn’t that entertaining) of the right.

            • P.S. I guess this goes to show that the way the message is said sometimes DOES affect the message, and I suppose I should offer a belated apology for silently cheering on attack-dog tactics and occasionally resorting to them myself in an attempt to drive people I didn’t agree with off this board.

  2. If voting was anonymous, no problem.

    If not, it would be like asking those “passing for white” or openly Negro to out themselves in 1914 rather than 2014.

      • That bad? Yes.

        As you know, I make no secret of my past. I would probably have stepped forward.

        But I’d really have to think about it first.

        If it were a gathering of the general public, no problem. But amongst professional peers who could affect my employment, and who I hadn’t already established a rapport with…….

        On second thoughts, I probably would not have stepped forward under those particular circumstances. Close to a worst case. It would be a step beyond “not keeping it secret” into “openly advertising”, and unless you have tenure or other job security, that would be seen by some as violating the “naked schoolteacher” rule.

        It’s all about appearances,you see. Prevent people from being able to ignore it and engaging in doublethink, and they’ll see it as an attack.

        • I suppose you’ll be wanting some evidence now (grumble grumble). OK, it’s a fair cop.

          Exhibit A – AMA Resolution 122, stating that the traditional and customary denial of coverage for medical treatment of trans people is based on bigotry, not fact:

          Click to access ama_resolutions.pdf

          Exhibit B – DAB No. 2576 – NCD 140 3 Transsexual Surgery . Department of Health and Human Services – Departmental Appeals Board – Ruling that National Coverage Determination 140.3 stating that treatment is not medically necessary and is “experimental” is not based on medical fact, but political controversy (and likely always was)

          Exhibit C – Southern Baptist Conference Resolution #9 stating that such medical treatment is “against their religion” as are all efforts by any governing official or body to validate transgender identity – by, say, allowing them to be employed.

          Exhibit D – Hobby Lobby, and the 6 other cases vastly broadening exemptions from the narrow basis of that case the next day. As long as a prima facie case can be made that some religious sect is agin something, and in light of a mere assertion that a “closely held” company believes in some of those tenets, then absent both a “compelling interest” by the state, and any possible less onerous alternative, however infeasible (e.g. universal free health care), all legal requirements not to engage in discrimination have to be ignored.

          Just as insurance companies are being required to provide coverage to Trans people, we now have a ruling that essentially says that has to be ignored. There is no case law stating that there is a “compelling interest” to allow Trans people the same rights as Blacks or Jews, and a fair bit saying no such compelling interest exists.

          The day after the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, a group of religious leaders sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking that he exempt them from a forthcoming executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT people.

          • I think you are overly pessimistic about the reach of the Hobby Lobby decision. That slope will not prove as slippery as the doomsayers think..or at least are arguing. The latter…the letter…is not going to fly. The decision was about interpreting a statute, not organized religion…nor was it about discrimination. At this point, nothing can stop LGBT from joining the official list of protected classes.

            • Overall, that’s not a good thing, on the grounds that protected classes generally are not a good thing if they become institutionalized or become “favored” classes.

              • That’s the inevitable next step anyway. The same logic behind “separate is inherently unequal”, which is used to say that were a legal definition of “civil union” to be exactly the same as “marriage” except in name only, there would still be a state-sanctioned difference leading to inequality or at least different treatment by society.

                The same is the inevitable result of a “protected class”, they ultimately become a “benefitted class” or a “privileged class”. If a protected class began performing exceptionally on the free market or within the government, any challenger from a non-protected class who begins to overtake them can be quashed immediately for violating their protections.

  3. I wouldn’t have said it, but I would have laughed. It is especially funny, because it’s so opposite of what you’d expect to hear at an ethics seminar.

  4. I am not sure I get the “joke.” Was your expectation that there were no transsexuals? Was your expectation that no one would volunteer? Was the laughter the sort of nervous laughter that you get when your crazy-old-uncle tells an off-color joke? Maybe this falls into the “I guess you had to be there” category.

    It seems to me that, particularly in internet blog comments involving topics about men and women, you will eventually get a comment from a transsexual who complains about being left out of the discussion. In light of that, it strikes me that your comment was meant to “normalize” transsexuals by simply acknowledging that they are out there.

    Yeah, maybe it would be like saying the same thing about gay people in the 60’s or 70’s (where one might be afraid to “out” oneself), but, to answer your question, I don’t think it is a fair complaint.


    • I knew it would get a laugh. That doesn’t mean it was a joke. I indeed wrote the attendee that the comment was a reference to the normalizing of the condition. Why did they laugh? People laugh when they are taken by surprise, that’s all.

  5. I am curious…what part of the Constitution says we cannot offend ANYBODY? A line in one of my favorite musicals, 1776: “It’s a revolution, damnit! We have to offend SOMEBODY!” The simple fact is that in the course of our daily lives, we are ALL going to do or say something that will offend someone. At my age, I no longer care. In fact, I am offended that you are offended (generic “you”, not you, specifically.)

  6. Yeah, I was being sarcastic about the Constitution. However, it doesn’t change the fact that we have to stop being so this-skinned. And, we have to draw a line somewhere. How few people is it required that we NOT offend?
    A million? Half-a-million. In the case of transgenderism/transvestites, 27000? Or, just 1? Seems like this can be carried to an extreme, and we might have just reached that point.

  7. If you are a transsexual, aren’t you either male of female?
    Meaning you would have been voting earlier with the male or female groups.

  8. I don’t think you can talk for four hours without making a comment that someone doesn’t like.
    Esp. in present times when whining about being offended is so popular.
    For instance, I feel bullied when you misspell a word.

  9. Not sure this matters but what was the hypothetical person who is transgendered supposed to be voting on specifically?

    I could see where if the intent was to laugh at the person who is transgendered that someone who is transgendered could take offense. But you asking a question doesn’t necessarily mean you should be considered to be thoughtless in asking the question. And i do not believe you would ask a question specifically to laugh at someone who is transgendered.

    I do understand that people would be more likely to not raise their hands if they know they are not in a known “safe” space. I cannot imagine what it must be like living like that. Perhaps consider the situation in the future. If you expect that asking people in that group to stand up might be considered an attempt to out someone and if you expect laughter consider that might make someone (who is already uncomfortable in their own skin) even more uncomfortable.

    • If you expect that asking people in that group to stand up might be considered an attempt to out someone and if you expect laughter consider that might make someone (who is already uncomfortable in their own skin) even more uncomfortable.

      It’s not about laughter.
      Trans people are (finally!) comfortable in their own skin.
      It’s about losing your job, and never being able to work in that career ever again. Your employer might be sympathetic, but if he’s losing customers, and other firms will no longer co-operate… he may not have any choice.

  10. Maybe this will give an idea of the general atmosphere.

    So. It happens again.

    I play guitar for a group of five kids (soon to be six, possibly seven), and it’s a gospel group. The gentleman running it, not related to the kids but a friend (also an ordained deacon in the Southern Baptist church), wants them to play at his church. Though not a Southern Baptist church and supposedly a little freer in their doctrine, their doctrine still comes from that direction. So, of course, we ain’t havin’ no transsexual abominations on stage in MY church, no sir, MISTER.

    But of course, I am specifically invited to attend. No thanks.

    So the gentleman was telling me about it before the kids showed up at rehearsal today. I asked him what MLK would say or do, then mentioned that I thought he might say something like, ‘I look forward to the day when people can be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their clothes.’ I asked him what the kids wanted; he said he would have to ask them, and asked permission to go into the general details of my situation and what was going on with the pastor. I told him sure (the kids already know, I mean c’mon) and that I would wait in the back porch area while they talked about it.

    So, the kids are going to play without me. As a sop to me, the grandmother, who was present through the discussion, said the kids first voted not to play, just so I know (as if that makes a difference). So I said okay, I’ll pack up my equipment, but if the kids voted not to play, did he talk them into it? Yes, he did; ‘it’s about the kids, and we should let their talent shine.’ I told them I was disappointed, but I loved them and would be at next Thursday’s rehearsal, and asked to give them all hugs before leaving. In passing, I mentioned that Jesus’ message was one of inclusion.

    When I said I would pack up and go, I could feel the air being sucked out of the room as everybody inhaled and went, uh-oh.

    It’s not the kids fault. I’ll have to have a word…or several thousand…with the gentleman running the show. There are competing interests, and they’re young teenagers, the oldest being 16. The father figure talked them into playing. That was wrong of him, but, as I tried to do today, I have to show grace, love and forgiveness. I hope to do that, as well as sharing that being transsexual isn’t a sin. (If you think it is, un-friending me is one of your options). I hope to share the line about the color of one’s clothes.

    The trick, of course, will be to do it with forgiveness and love, and FROM forgiveness and love. Wish me luck!

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