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To disclose or not to disclose The million dollar question PDF Print E-mail

By Charl Marais

There are questions that always seem to come up with transgender people, whether they are pre-op or post-op or at any stage of their transition. Of these, the questions around disclosure seem to be the ones most trans people grapple with: “when do you disclose, what do you say and how much do you disclose?”

Disclosure for a transsexual person can often be fraught with anxiety, fear, shame and guilt. These feelings are due to the fact that more often than not, their disclosure will be met with negative reactions such as rejection and abandonment and possibly even a sense of betrayal , or, on the other hand, their need for non-disclosure creates within themselves feelings of guilt.

It therefore goes without saying that the question of “When and how do I disclose?” is often debated at length. When does one disclose one’s status?

Disclosure, within the context of human dignity and a democratically free South Africa should not be seen as pre-requisite to engagement with others. Nor should it be seen as a tool to gain acceptance of others. Moreover, the person should never feel the need to disclose due to a feeling of insecurity and/or guilt created by an ignorant society for an explanation not required within one’s freedom of expression of gender and its non discriminatory clauses. Disclosure is not as easy as one might think, especially in the work place or in a romantic setting. It is all about timing – your own personal timing and readiness. “Weigh up the risks and benefits to you as you consider disclosure,” Dr Marlene Wasserman, clinical sexologist better known as Dr Eve, advises.

 She adds that the first person to whom you actually have to disclose, is yourself. Consider that your own transition has happened in your head and heart from the time you can ever remember there was something like gender, when you realized there was a boy/girl world. So your first disclosure is to yourself. And that can take tremendous time and courage. In your unique transitioning journey you will develop a sense of vigilance, a sense of who feels safe, and based on your own instinct you will know to whom you can safely disclose,” she adds.  

She goes on to say, “In a work environment it remains your choice if you need to disclose at all: ask yourself who will benefit from this knowledge? It will be terribly difficult for you to work in a prejudicial environment and this may impact on your general well being.”

“Within the workplace, disclosure is at your own discretion. As with HIV or gender related issues, you are not legally obligated to disclose your status within the workplace.  Your right to privacy is protected by The Bill of Rights,” Charmain Hulme, mother of a transgender child says. 

Robert Hamblin, a transman previously advocacy manager at GDX and currently an indepemdent transactivist, agrees with Dr Wasserman when he says it all depends on what the goal of disclosing is. “If it is in the workplace you need to only disclose that which will protect you legally.” However, Joy Wellbeloved, transwoman and co-editor of the book, Trans: Transgender Life Stories From South Africa, feels it should be done on a ‘need to know’ basis. To not disclose, she maintains, is to tell a blatant lie.

Transman Munir van Reenen will disclose only once he knows the job is his. “I know I would have to submit documentation and I still don’t have an identity document that classifies me as male, so, yes, for me I would have to disclose. As for a possible romantic interest, I would be upfront because I’d like to ensure that the girl wants me for who and what I am and not because of whom she assumes I am,” he says.

An important group that needs full disclosure is the family, says Mrs Malani Arendse, sister of a transman. “I suppose that this depends on the family dynamics but I think that it would be best to inform them as soon as possible so that they can get on with the job of either accepting/rejecting or denying your “status”. This would also be a clear indication of the type of interaction you can expect in future and prepare you for dealing with whatever situations may arise”.

From an employer’s point of view, Nathan Marais, Director of Coastal Property Management and brother of a transman, feels he would like to be told upfront. “I don’t think it would make a difference to me, and not just because of my association with a transgender person. To me it would be about the prospective employee’s abilities and qualifications for the job,” he says.

Dr Thamar Klein (PhD), Research Associate at the Somatechnics Research Centre, Macquarie University in Australia, and herself an androgynous person, doesn’t mention it when applying for a job. “When I get the job, they will get my Social Security card and my tax card. Through these they will automatically know that I am married and that we are both legally female. I have never hidden my partner from colleagues or bosses,” she says. When other people speak of their partner, she speaks of hers, she says. She adds that at her current workplace she talks of her partner as her wife and not husband. And at her old places of work a few old and close colleagues knew that they are mainly trans-identified. That depended on friendship and trust. “At the Max-Planck-Institute I think everybody knew that we are trans and everybody addressed my partner by his chosen male name.” Coming out there was easy, as many people were quite open-minded and knew that she did research on transgendered people. She also came out as trans-identified to the students of a queer theory class she taught. “I found it important to be a possible role model for trans/queer students and to show that this is not an abstract topic but concerns people in the environment,” she adds.

As for her partner? “I was fortunate not to have to come out to my partner as we met for the first time at a trans and queer social. So everybody knew that if you were there it would mean that you are a transgender in the broadest meaning of the word. Before I was married, I have always looked for a partner in queer and trans friendly social surroundings. Thus I never needed to come out – because everybody was already out to everybody,” she explains.

 “However, given the context, there are times when disclosure is required, such as in the connection of a possible love interest which could lead to sexual interaction or for legalities when documentation is incongruent,” Simone Heradien, transwoman and chairperson of Gender DynamiX Management Board says. “If you have to disclose, weigh up the situation objectively. If it's a personal disclosure ensure that you are in a safe space like a public area, always a good defence in the rare occasion of a feared violent reaction. Preferably one should only disclose when one has gained the other party’s trust and respect as a human being first and foremost," She added.

Dr Wasserman agrees that there is a need for caution. “If you see red flags popping up in your head warning you, then respect these and be cautious about hanging out in such an unsafe romantic space,” she cautions.

Mrs Arendse advises, tongue in cheek, disclose before it becomes a romantic interest and then see where this takes you!

If it’s to a lover you have to do it early, be gentle and informative and disclose what the lover asks of you, Robert says. “If, however, it is to a child one should give basic information and not burden a child with too much nitty gritty, but rather give simple answers to questions gradually.” If it is with friends – well, that will depend on how important your medical past is for a friendship...

Mrs Arendse also feels that prior to disclosure to friends you would probably have surrounded yourself with people whom you can identify with, no matter what their persuasion. “They may have already guessed, so tell them and give them the facts!”

On the other hand, Mrs Hulme feels that when it comes to more personal relationships, in order to maintain a caring and honest relationship it may be necessary to disclose to your partner but this can be done at any stage in the relationship.  “Obviously, the sooner the better, as the longer you wait the more risk you run of being accused of hiding things and being dishonest.  Your partner or loved one may feel betrayed if they are not informed early on in a relationship,” she says. Obviously it is best to wait until your partner has gotten to know you for who you are and a real or serious relationship has developed before disclosing.  Honesty in this instance is always the best policy but at the right time and in the right context, she advises.

For Dr Nic Theo (PhD), Women and Gender Studies department at the University of the Western Cape, disclosure is not cut and dried and for him the simple answer would be 'it depends'. “I don't believe there is a stock answer true to all people and all circumstances. Each person must gauge their situation and behave in accordance with that,” he advises. For some people it will be more important that those around them know sooner rather than later, so they can get the best support. In that case, they must be careful that they aren't automatically assuming they will get this support and acceptance, and must be prepared for rejection and problems. For others, it will be more important to remain 'under cover' for as long as possible, so as to protect themselves against hurt, problems in the workplace etc. In that case they will not want to disclose until the last possible moment. “I think the key is for people to recognise that not everyone will accept them and be supportive, and that ultimately it is their responsibility to deal with any fall-out. So people should carefully choose when, where, how and how much to disclose in a way that will serve them best, and in a way that faces up to their circumstances in the most realistic way,” he cautions.

Mrs Hulme also maintains that it is a personal issue whether to disclose or not. You can decide if and when you would like to disclose that you are transgender or merely leave things as they are.  But, she warns, should you decide not to disclose, it is very important that you are prepared in the event of someone finding out by pure accident. You need to ensure that you have a mental list of responses ready and to remember that all parties have a choice in how they respond; both you and the person/people who found out.  At all times you need to react calmly and know your rights. 

Furthermore, she adds, the issue of disclosure brings up a very real ethical dilemma as well.  There are those who feel biological sex, or identity, is a matter of personal privacy and are adamant that disclosure is not an obligation, and then there are those who feel they are morally obligated to disclose at any cost to themselves or their respective relationships. “However, each individual will need to navigate these dilemmas based on their own person feelings and conviction as there is no right or wrong decision here.  It should therefore not be based on any cultural, religious, family or social pressure as to when and how you should disclose, whether it be disclosure to a loved one or to colleagues in the workplace. A decision to disclose should always be based on your personal terms.  Your own safety and privacy is paramount to any disclosure”.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

The Gender DynamiX view is that it is important for the trans person to first build a safety net by coming out to friends and family who could give the necessary support when coming out to a wider circle which includes employers and colleagues, Ms Liesl Theron, Executive Director of Gender DynamiX said. “Without that safety net rejection would be that much harder to accept, especially when it affects your income or the vulnerability of a romance,” she added.    

Gender DynamiX offers workshops for employers and staff, while some private health care providers as well as the Gender Clinic at Groote Schuur offer counselling to a transgender person and a partner and/or family.


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