It’s virtually a hazing ritual, being introduced as ‘my transgender friend’. One I personally never had done to my face, but have sometimes discovered when meeting people through mutual friends. It’s a risk of being out and open; be it by necessity or by choice, the information gets away from you. It’s sort of what it means to be out: we lose control of the information.
“I’d have thought you would have studied something to do with gender studies,” a lady at the pub said to me. At this point, I was explicitly out to this person but only because the person next to her (whom I was not out to) turned around to showed me the picture of a woman on her phone.
“This is my trans friend. She’s doing a PhD in something transy.” I paraphrase, but it actually didn’t matter what the person’s name was or what the PhD was in. I was deeply embarrassed; this lady wasn’t someone I’d seen more than once or twice. I certainly never spoke to her, and now she decided I was someone she could out her friends to. Which, by extension, outed me to anyone in earshot: why else would a random person I don’t know show me picture of a transgender person and try to tell me about them?
As it happens, the others in the pub were folks I either knew or was going to end up knowing well enough to be at least implicitly out to. Being forced to endure the faux pas formed the gestalt in everyone’s minds. Gender was going to be a topic of conversation most of the night at that point. My friend Emma gave me a classic eyeroll — the saving grace of the evening.
There are many problems with what went on there. One might assume that outing someone is just a no show, but apparently not. Besides that, what connection can I claim once someone’s done it? It’s a bit like people turning around to me and saying they know someone from Chicago because my dad lived there for a long time. How does that help? I never lived there. I only visited a few times. Even if I had lived there, the odds that I’ll have any personal connection with someone they happen to know are remote: a few million people live there.
The only context that I can imagine someone outing another to being useful is if somebody is in early transition, vulnerable, and needs to feel a little less alone. Even in that case, don’t do it! Let the established queer person know that another needs help. This is a thing we do; we’ve got this. Get the person in need’s permission. Do not out them to anyone without it. And permission once does not mean permission all the time, so don’t take that as an open invitation to out them. Just don’t.
In the example above, I can understand how someone might mess it up and out someone. Not OK, but understandable. Someone’s in trouble and we’re trying to help. But in the case of the lady, that clearly wasn’t what was happening.
There’s also the added layer of danger in that you out me by association, ‘cause how else can a stranger’s transgender status be relevant to me? Two kinds of people out people: hate groups identifying a target or people that don’t know any better. Fortunately, I’ve avoided the former. It’s important to understand that raising certain topics implicitly outs me to everyone around me. Or identifies me as a queer basher.
> "THERE IS NOTHING MORE SINGULARLY AWKWARD THAN DISCOVERING YOU’VE BEEN OUTED TO SOMEONE THREE DRINKS INTO A CONVERSATION."
There is nothing more singularly awkward than discovering you’ve been outed to someone three drinks into a conversation. We’re all having fun, bit of banter, sharing a little about what we do and then someone drops a random gender comment. Or they start waxing philosophical about how we should just accept everyone. Ummm, OK? Not sure where to go from there but from the eyes they’re making at me it’s clear they’re trying to tell me they know something without bringing it up. Badly.
Of course, from there I start to reflect on how many people have pulled out their phone to show me ‘their transgender friend’. I wonder how many times friends show strangers pictures of me in the same context. How many times have I been put in harm’s way.
> "THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE: TRANSGENDER PEOPLE ARE NOT SAFE."
That’s the bottom line: transgender people are not safe. The wrong person earwigging on a conversation can put us in the hospital or in a grave. We can lose our jobs, or families and our friends. Outing a person can potentially destroy their lives. And besides that, it’s embarrassing and demoralising to be thought of as ‘that trans girl’ before all other traits. Of all the things about me, my transgender status is the least interesting. Introduce me, by all means, but share the things that make me a friend.
The experience of discovering I’m out to someone is the main thing that has led to my going semi stealth: out to the people I’m out to, but not a topic for discussion unless I raise it. As a rule, I don’t come out to new friends anymore. Of course they pick it up the instant they see my Facebook profile, but it’s interesting how people just don’t talk about it unless I do, especially if I never explicitly come out to them. So far, living on a not-secret-but-by-invitation basis works for me. Kind of the opposite of an open secret. A closed visibility.
Whatever a person’s boundaries with their status, it’s their information to share. Or not. Whatever their needs, we need to let them be the gatekeepers. It’s impolite to share people’s personal information. Maybe it’s not always dangerous, but really, we’re talking about common courtesy: exposing someone’s personal information is uncomfortable for the person you’re sharing with and the person you’re sharing about. If that friend is really your friend, you’ll protect their privacy.