30 March 2010

Penner Agonistes

Last night, Gunnar sent me an article about Mike Penner/Christine Daniels.  I guess it was supposed to be a sort of post-mortem.  As such, I guess it's all right.  It does talk about Penner/Daniels' career and gender identity conflict.  

(From this point, I will refer to Penner/Daniels by male pronouns and his given name.  I do not mean this as a judgment of his gender or identity.  I never met him, so I cannot even form an opinion about that.  Plus, I don't think it's my place to decide whether or not someone is "really" trans, or gay, or anything else.  I am referring to him as male only because he was living as one, and by his given name, at the time of his death.)

However, the article shares the same flaw with just about every news story I've read about transgender people:  It focuses on the ways in which its subject fits into the traditional narrative about transgender people--almost to the point of making the subject a caricature-- and why that is ultimately the subject's undoing.

One thing the article doesn't do is to discuss the role the Los Angeles Times--whom he served as a sportswriter for 23 years-- played in his coming out, transition and decision to return to living in his former identity.  I guess that's not surprising, given that the article appeared in that same newspaper and was written by one of its staff writers.

I'm not saying that the Times is responsible for his suicide.  What I do believe, however, is that they treated his plight as any media outlet would:  as a sensational news story.  And just about any print newspaper is desperate to sell copies these days.  What could be more of an attention-getter than having one of the newspaper's more prominent writers--who covered sports, which is the most "macho" of beats with the possible exception of crime--"come out" in full view of the public?

If nothing else, it gave the newspaper "creds" with a good part of its readership.  The "quiet, circumspect" Mike became "ebullient and outgoing" Christine under the tolerant auspices of the nation's second-largest newspaper.   What newspaper wouldn't want that sort of publicity, especially in a place as cosmopolitan as L.A.?

On the other hand, Mike wanted to "quietly" transition into becoming Christine. I can fully understand why:  My own social worker, himself a female-to-male, warned me about making my transition "too public."  Turns out, he was right, in some ways:  Transitioning publicly, even for the smallest of audiences, puts you under a microscope.  Everything you do becomes evidence that you've either "gone too far" in living in your "new" gender or that you're not really fit to be part of it.   Sometimes the very same people will make those seemingly-contradictory judgments!  And, if you haven't yet developed a strong sense of who you are, it can destroy you.  Something like that happened to Mike Penner.

Also, when you are transitioning in a very public forum, institutions as well as people will try to "use" your transition for their own purposes.  One minute you make them look good and feel good about themselves for having "tolerated" you or, worse (at least when you're just starting to live in your "new" gender), you become a tool for whatever other purposes or causes they may have.  And, sometimes they'll publicize or simply expose you in ways for which you're not yet ready.   Worst of all, those people and institutions start to act as if they're entitled to use all the details of your life in whatever ways they see fit--and in ways they would never tolerate anyone using their lives and secrets.  

And everything they say about you has an undertone or overlay of sex.  That is, of course, the reason why they'll shun you or stab you in the back later on.

In brief, they build you up so they can use you and tear you down, stab you in the back or cast you aside when you've become "too big" or when you're simply no longer the flavor-of-the-month.

I have experienced everything I've described in the two preceding paragraphs--in the place where I was working during the first two years I lived as Justine, but also with an LGBT organization for which I was a volunteer.  Somehow I got through it:  I guess that my sense of who I am developed, along with the thickness of my hide.

And that is what, it seems, didn't happen to Mike Penner.  I can't say exactly why; from what I've heard and read, it seems that he found himself living as Christine before she had a chance to develop and she had a chance to understand her.

That is what people like the writer of the article never seem to understand:  The "new" gender is an identity that is developing, not just a costume to be stepped into.  Anyone who's being born and goes out into society for the first time--at whatever age--is embryonic, a work in progress or whatever you want to call it.  The way I see myself now, not to mention what I've become, is in some ways different from what I envisioned when I first started my transition, not to mention what I foresaw when I was "crossdressing."  

That, of course, is one of the reasons why we have a "real-life test."  But I think some trans people need even more than that.  I feel sometimes that transgenders are expected, and expect themselves,  to take over the role of a full-formed, full-fledged member of their "new" gender, whatever that may mean to them.  So living full-time in their "new" gender is a sort of bullfight that has to end in the death of the person in the "old" gender.  However, as we've seen, it sometimes ends--as it did for Mike Penner and Christine Daniels--in the death of both selves.  

What is needed, then, is room for someone who wants to live as the "opposite" gender not only to do so, but to really find out what that might mean for him or her self.  That way, if someone decides that he or she has a different idea about his or her  gender identity--or what living in the "new" gender may mean--he or she can modify his or her course, or abandon it altogether.  There would be no shame or accusations that he or she "flip-flopped," and it would be possible to live enriched by the experience of both selves, even if one is aborted.

These days, most people-- even most sportswriters, at least in this country--don't care much for bullfights.  So why should they encourage someone to live one--or try to live one themselves?