03 December 2009

Mike Penner and Christine Daniels

Last night, I checked out
Eva-Genevieve's blog and was shocked to find her post that linked an article about Mike Penner's apparent suicide.

You may recall that about two and a half years ago, Penner, a well-respected sportswriter for the L.A. Times, "came out" as a trans woman. She took a leave of absence and, after returning, wrote a number of columns as Christine Daniels. But then, last October, he quietly returned to living as Mike Penner.

I know that some people will take Penner as proof that trans people are indeed neurotic, if not perverted. Others will see it as proof that all trans people will suffer "transition remorse," if you will.

In the rest of this post, I will refer to Mike Penner by his given name and the gender assigned to him at birth only because he was publicly identifying himself by them at the end of his life. However, I hope that you will not read it as my own judgment about his identity. Not having known him, I cannot say whether Mike was indeed transgendered, much less whether the transition was the "right" or "best" idea for him.

However, I more or less agree with Eva-Genevieve when she says that his death is a cautionary tale about one peril of transition: taking it too lightly. It's not something one can "try on for size." At least, most people in most situations can't do, or at least would have a very difficult time of doing, that.

The transition itself is jarring enough for the one making it and his or her family, friends and colleagues. It almost invariably has some unanticipated cost or another, no matter how well one prepares for it. The one in transition might not lose his or her job outright, but colleagues who were previously thought to be allies may undermine his or her work and reputation. Family members and friends whose love and companionship seemed unconditional may decide to end their relationships with the person in transition. And, of course, there are the financial costs.

I am not complaining about any of those things. Yes, I had a few surprises--but some were pleasant. And what I've lost seems in retrospect to be,if not inevitable, at least not so surprising. Most important of all, I now have the strength to continue after those losses.

On the other hand, one might say that I had less at stake than Mike Penner did when I started my transition seven years ago. The number of people who knew me was much smaller than his circle of acquaintances, and although I have been a journalist, the combined readership of every publication for which I've written is probably much smaller than the LA Times. Plus, I had practically no cyber "footprint" as a male. Also, at the time I started, I had been away from academia for a few years, so I was out of contact with my former students and colleagues.

Furthermore, Tammy and I had just split up and I'd moved. Penner, in contrast, was married and had children.

So Mike Penner, at the time he became Christine Daniels, was entangled in a wider and tighter web than any I had ever spun. That meant not only was his transition more complicated than mine, "going back" was even more treacherous than it would have been for someone like me.

I think now that "undoing" his transition must have been, in some ways, even more difficult than the transition itself. He had known almost nothing but success in his life; to return to living as a male was surely seen by some--and possibly himself--as a failure. I would suspect that he might have gotten even more opprobrium than he did when he was making the transition from Mike to Christine.

What's even worse is that he could not have returned to the life he had before his transition. By the time he returned, he was divorced. Most likely, he had lost other relationships that helped to sustain him during his pre-transition days. I do not know whether or not he developed new friendships and other relationships during his time as Christine, but I would guess that if he had, at least one of them wanted to be friends with Christine, not with Mike. And, perhaps worst of all, he was probably seen as something less than a man (any woman--cis, trans, manque or otherwise--is seen that way, at least by some men) in the overwhelmingly male profession he practiced. And, finally, not only are most of his sportswriting colleagues male; so are most of the subjects of his and their work.

What his story exposes is how rigidly gender roles are defined and how little room there is for one to find out who and what one actually is, much less live by it. Most people never have gender identity conflicts; few understand what it's like to have one. And what even fewer people understand is that the only way to learn how to live with it--whether that means some form of sublimation, going for the surgery or something in between--is to live "as" one sees one's self, whatever that may be.

As it happens, in some ways I do fit into most people's notions about a woman of my age, more or less--and, almost as important, a straight woman of that age. That is one of the reasons why I haven't lived in what I call the "gender underground": I can interact with cis people as if I were more or less one of them. I am also very fortunate in that, even with the difficulties I've encountered, every step I've taken on the road from my previous life and in my current one has felt right. Plus, most important of all, even though I have lost relationships and other aspects of my previous life, I have gained new ones, some of which are better than any I could have imagined in my previous life. Not to mention that I also now have access to emotional and spiritual resources I never knew existed, much less that were within me.

Now, I don't know whether Mike Penner would have had such experiences had he continued to live as Christine Daniels. But I suspect that he never had the opportunity to learn what it really would have meant to be Christine Daniels--or Mike Penner. If that is the case, that may be--at least for him--the worst thing about his life and death.