If you started dating in the 1990s, as I did, odds are you’ve never been asked, “Would you date a trans person?” To their credit, Millennials and Gen Zers have far surpassed their elders in welcoming trans people into the American cultural mainstream. Because of that progress, younger people will grapple with sensitive questions many of their elders never contemplated in the era before widespread trans visibility, when a cisgender person might never knowingly encounter a trans person in daily life.
Late-20th-century film and television did occasionally feature trans characters. And the hostility of many Hollywood portrayals is one reason why some trans-rights supporters remain hypervigilant to perceived slights, particularly when they concern straight men encountering trans women. In the Netflix documentary Disclosure, a chronicle of Hollywood portrayals of trans people over the decades, the actress and writer Jen Richards, who is transgender, reflects on movie scenes where a character in a romantic entanglement with a straight man is revealed to be a trans woman with a penis. In both the 1992 drama The Crying Game and the 1994 comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective—which spoofs The Crying Game’s climactic scene—a straight man retches in disgust. In some other films, the men erupt in violence. Without film representations of trans people, Richards reflected, “I might not have ever internalized that sense of being monstrous, of having fears around disclosure, of seeing myself as something abhorrent, and as a punch line and as a joke. I might be able to go on a date with a man without having the image of men vomiting.”
When you start watching trans clips back to back, you see how often all the people around the trans character feel betrayed or lied to. But frankly, I kind of hate the idea of disclosure. And the sense that it presupposes that there is something to disclose. It reinforces their assumption that there is a secret that is hidden and that I have a responsibility to tell others. And that presupposes that the other person might have some kind of issue or problem with what’s to be disclosed, and that their feelings matter more than mine.
Hollywood has seldom portrayed the issue of disclosure from a trans person’s perspective. But such a conversation did happen in 2016 on the show Horace and Pete. In one scene, Horace, a heterosexual man, meets Rhonda, a woman. They have mutually enjoyable sex. At breakfast the next morning, they get to know each other. Horace notes that he has two adult children who are the same age but not twins—an anomaly that prompts him to reluctantly admit that years earlier he had an affair with the sister of his then-pregnant wife. When it’s Rhonda’s turn to talk about herself, she makes a comment raising the possibility that she was “born a woman in a male body.” Horace cannot tell if she is kidding. That makes him uncomfortable as he questions her:
Horace: You would have to tell somebody a thing like that.
Rhonda: Well, but you didn’t ask me before we had sex. You just told me about your big, special penis and invited me upstairs.
Horace: But you don’t have to ask people which one are you before you get started. A person has the right to assume certain things.
Rhonda: Did I have a right to assume that you aren’t a sexual deviant who did the unthinkable with his special penis? In some cultures what you did in your family is considered a crime punishable by death. So did you have an obligation to tell me what kind of man I was getting intimate with instead of springing it on me like the morning paper over some eggs?
Until very recently, very few people would have shamed a man like Horace for wanting to know if a prospective sex partner was trans or for feeling that he wouldn’t want to have sex with a trans woman for inarticulable reasons. “A 2018 study showed that only 1.8 percent of straight women and 3.3 percent of straight men would date a transgender person,” The Advocate reported in 2019. “A small minority of cisgender lesbians (29 percent) and gays (11.5 percent) would be willing. Bisexual/queer/nonbinary participants (these were all combined into one group) were most open to having a trans partner, but even among them, just a slim majority (52 percent) were open to dating a transgender person.”