The New York Times’ “Ethicist,” Chuck Klosterman, offered a disappointing response to a transgender reader on Friday. The reader wrote in to explain that she was beginning to transition to living as a woman, but she was struggling with how the transition might impact her wife and three children. Klosterman suggested that it was a question of happiness, and that perhaps the reader was better off not stressing her family with the news:
You believe you will “find happiness” only by being your true self — but that’s not exactly accurate. You describe your marriage as happy, you love your children, and your career is (at the very least) satisfying enough to make you worry about how a gender transition might complicate things. There is happiness in your life. Now, I realize what you’re referring to is a deeper, existential version of happiness that all people crave (and which goes far beyond having a good relationship or a good job). There are, however, many people who never experience that level of happiness, regardless of how they view their sexual identities. Even if you become someone else, you may never find it. So what we’re really weighing are the ethics of taking an irreversible gamble that will potentially improve your own interior life while significantly reinventing the lives of those around you. […]
Is your psychological damage from gender dysphoria greater than the psychological damage that its restoration will inflict upon the lives of any (or all) of your children? If the answer is yes, proceed. If the answer is no, don’t do it. Your sadness is tragic, but at least it’s confined to yourself.
This unfortunate response does little to affirm the experience of this reader or transgender people in general. Ami Kaplan, a New York City Psychotherapist who works with trans patients, wrote this thoughtful response:
What is really happening? As a therapist who has specialized in Transgenderism for the past 18 years I know that people of this age come to see me when they can no longer live with their Gender Dysphoria. It’s not about happiness; it’s about no longer being able to continue as they have in the past. Gender Dysphoria is an intense, psychologically painful and anxiety laden state which can intensify over time to the point of being intolerable. Gender is our first and most intimate identity, and to have that be wrong in some way is deeply disturbing. I have had many people say some form of: “there is no choice, it’s either this or I kill myself”. Furthermore, transitioning is a process of becoming who one authentically is. I think that’s a pretty good lesson for kids.
The ‘problems’ inherent in all this is that there is significant stigma and discrimination around being transgender in our society. The only way to combat this is for brave people to acknowledge and be who they are and try and maintains good relationships with those around them. I think if we envision a person in other (and now less) stigmatized groups in Mr. Klosterman’s article, the issue becomes clearer. For example — an African American man in, say 1940 wanting to marry a white woman, or a gay person of the same era wanting to be an “out” school teacher… all things that the individual’s family would have not been too happy about. Transgenderism is at the point in its own unique history of discrimination evolution where these groups were 30 years ago. Is it easy to have a family member who is a member of a stigmatized group? No. Is the answer to have that person disavow their membership and suffer in silence in order to not embarrass anyone? I don’t think so.
Kaplan’s comparisons to past forms of stigma are compelling. Klosterman applies ethical implications to coming out as trans where there are none, merely because societal acceptance of the trans community continues to lag behind the gay community and other groups. What is unethical is when people condemn a trans person for simply identifying as they are. What is unethical is forcing people to live decades in secret shame while they deny their true identities. What is unethtical is blaming trans individuals for their own sadness and the pain they might cause others by choosing to finally be authentic.
Klosterman could not be more wrong that the reader’s tragic sadness is “confined” to herself. Indeed, she is the only person who is not responsible for her turmoil.