Mike Penner (once known as Christine Daniels), a transsexual sports writer, has committed suicide, and I find myself heartbroken at the news.

April 2007 was a time of huge uncertainty in my life. I had just started hormones and was working through the horrible fears I had about being judged, abandoned, and hated. I was also beginning to get glimmers of self acceptance and was beginning to discuss my situation with Mary Jo, my doctor, and my therapist. I began to feel that I might survive GID (gender identity disorder), but I couldn’t picture just how I would go about surviving it.

Then, on April 26, 2007, I read an electrifying piece in the Los Angeles Times, “Old Mike, New Christine,” a story about the sports journalist Mike Penner who was transitioning into a woman named Christine Daniels. Here was a heroic trans*woman who had outed herself on the front page of the newspaper, a woman who was able to describe her gender distress and her subsequent decision to transition to sports readers, a woman who was instantly celebrated in her LA Times transition blog.

Two months earlier, on February 21, Susan Stanton was outed on the front pages of her newspaper. The way Stanton, the city manager of Largo, Florida, was outed in a way that frightened me to no end, and I could easily imagine my firing and destruction if anyone ever found out about me. But Christine Daniels’ self-outing felt completely different: she was taking control of her life, told her story to millions, and kept her job as a sports writer. This was someone I wanted to be like — her poise was an inspiration to me. I thought of her often, read her transition blog weekly, and even studied her coming out letter as I grappled with finishing my own letter on Christmas, 2007, only a few months away from the date I eventually mailed out my letters to the world.

It was quite a jolt, therefore, when Christine decided to de-transition in October 2008 (read here , here, and here for more information). Detransitioning is a huge thing (I wrote about it in February 2008), and there was a lot of speculation in the trans* community about Mike’s decision. Was the real-life experience not going well? Was Christine finding it difficult to continue doing sports writing? It was suggested by those in the know, i.e. those who attended Los Angeles transgender support groups, that Christine’s transition was going well and that she was happy.

Still, this decision to return to being Mike Penner spoke volumes to me, not because there’s anything wrong about figuring out your gender in the way that you need, but because I wondered if Christine had come out too early, perhaps burned bridges that could not be fixed once her public coming-out story was printed. Or was it the case that Christine felt the deep sadness of loss as she began to settle into her new life, a sadness with which I’m quite familiar. Who knows why she returned to being Mike. The derision in the sports pages was intense — if there had been sympathy among the LA Times sports readers at her earlier coming-out, this switch back to Mike was greeted by jokes about “women changing their minds,” about the “penis being mightier than the sword,” and worst of all, doubts about the legitimacy of the trans* phenomenon at all.

Christine / Mike meant a lot to me for all of the above reasons. S/he was my age and had to face a very public coming out. S/he, like myself, managed to transition and maintain her job. S/he managed to transition (and then de-transition) without dragging all her neuroses in front of talk-television, without writing a best-seller. S/he seemed to me to be a very complex, very powerful, and very frail human being. Reading the news of the suicide today feels like a kick in the gut, not just because of the terrible sorrow surrounding a life cut short, but because of the reminder of the torment attached to gender variance of all sorts, whether “classic” transsexualism, crossdressing, or gender-queering. I wish there were balm that could have been given to Mike/Christine to sooth the pain.

I wrote a short piece called Dark Places in July 2008 about another trans*woman who committed suicide, and the feeling I have now is equally wrenching. It’s too late for this online friend, just as it’s too late for Mike Penner. But it’s not too late for the rest of us — life is too short and the hurdles from outsiders too high for us to harm ourselves. Better to accept ourselves, to open up channels for outreach to those who are alone, to tell our stories. We need to tell stories of success. We need friends, families, and co-workers to tell stories of acceptance so the imagined terror is diffused. And we need to hear stories of pain and failure, as well, to remind us of the stakes involved. When we list the names of transgendered people harmed by violence every year during the Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20), we should also recall our own violence —physical and mental — that we foist upon ourselves.

Farewell, Mike. Farewell, Christine. You were brave and well-spoken. Your story was both an inspiration and a cautionary tale for the rest of us. You will be missed.

Early this morning, I was just reading one of my online forums and saw a horribly sad piece of news: a member of this particular forum, a 50-year-old transsexual who’s at the same spot in transition as me, died yesterday of a drug overdose, a suicide. She posted infrequently, but I remember her avatar with glasses, face against a tree, inquisitive and wise. Her posts were thoughtful as she grappled with her transition and how it impacted her two daughters, her spouse, and her job. She had written in the springtime of an amicable divorce and a date of July for her workplace transition — she had been talking with her HR department in anticipation of the big announcement.

I don’t know what to say. I didn’t know her, but this news feels so personal it might be me. I can imagine the despair.

Dear readers, I know that sometimes it seems that your transsexual friends or colleagues or family members are going through life in a self-absorbed trance like beauty queens with their emphasis on makeup and shopping and physical changes.

And perhaps we are.

But when we’re by ourselves, when the computer is turned off, when the upbeat facade is removed and put away on the shelf, there’s nothing to hold back the demons. There are very dark spaces in trans*people’s heads, and I worry about all of us sometimes. As much as we beat our chests in defiance and celebrate our gender freedom, I fear we’re an awfully vulnerable lot.

Is it possible that what some people call “transphobia” involves a fear that if you deal with transpeople (or even the topic of transness in general) something will rub off on you? I’d like to take a few paragraphs to play around with this concept of the transfer of unsavory characteristics on others. We might playfully spell it trans-fer and treat it like cooties, which everyone knows that kids of the opposite sex can give you if you touch them.

Even though I’m not condoning various phobias about groups, some of the stereotypical origins of these fears is fairly easy to imagine.

Xenophobia is a fear of strangers, and I suppose these strangers might steal your stuff or hurt you. Or they’ll overthrow your ways and make you adhere to new customs, foods, and languages. In any case, like the saying goes, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” and I would imagine you can extend the idea of “being with” to “looking like.”

Homophobia is a fear of homosexuals, and I suppose the most obvious stereotypical fear is that they might jump you and make you do unnatural sexual things. If it’s not about sex, but about gay culture, then we’d be back in the xenophobia camp, wouldn’t we?

I’m not sure what sort of threat trans-people pose to “normal” folk, whether it’s real or imagined. I think, though, it has to do with a combination of the xenophobia and homophobia mentioned above. Trannies are foreign, with foreign ways. They do not adhere to the norms of bi-gendered society, and thus threaten those who live by this code. Like gays, they do unnatural things to their bodies, but even go further to surgically alter their bodies. Furthermore, they’re like foreign spies — they dress deceptively and fool you into thinking they’re something they’re not, and no one likes to be made a fool, right?

Broadly speaking, transsexuals don’t live up to the man/woman binary that everyone else supposedly does. Not only that, but they willingly violate these norms of dress or manner or body.

Ok, good enough. But how would that affect a “normal” person? I think what’s at the root of this trans-fear is the possibility of a trans-fer of loose sexual identity to others so that they might become sissies, or they might want to learn about these freaks, or they might reveal a tiny weakness in themselves that they find transness interesting, and if they opened themselves up to inquiry, there would be a social trans-fer so that everyone else would think they weren’t normal. I keep typing the word “normal,” and I think that what xenophobia and homophobia and transphobia have in common is that normal people feel assaulted — their local/national identity is under attack, their strong sense of sexual orientation is under attack, and their very clear understanding of what’s male and female, or masculine and feminine, is under attack.

It’s the dogma of normalcy itself that’s under attack, and if you believe it and have been indoctrinated into it and you know that God ordained it, then it doesn’t surprise me that you feel attacked. And I’m sorry you feel that way, because being under attack, physically, mentally, or emotionally, is no fun.

But here’s my problem. If you are that certain of your dogma, what are you afraid of? Meeting a transgendered person shouldn’t rock your faith. Shaking hands with a foreigner with different voice, skin color, religion, or dress shouldn’t rock your faith. Having a homosexual colleague or friend shouldn’t rock your faith.

And yet well-meaning people in news stories and blogs and books repeatedly describe a slippery slope brought on by the onslaught of undesirable people and their ways. If we allow a “man in a dress” to use the ladies’ restroom, it will be the undoing of all gender norms. If we let the Arabs into our country, it will be the undoing of the Christian society. If we allow gays to have their way, it will be the undoing of straight society.

It’s an easy step from phobia to hate, it seems to me. And once you’re there, it’s not about getting cooties, but about eradication.

I was reading today’s list of events, and was reminded of today’s Boss’s lunch that our secretaries throw for us yearly. I suddenly remembered, and I had completely forgotten this incident, last year’s Boss’s day at a local restaurant. I was just beginning this terrible slide into self-awareness of my transgenderism, and Mary Lou, as part of her ice-breaker technique during lunch, said something like, I know something about one of our bosses that no one knows. She paused and everyone at the table leaned in, ready for juicy gossip.

I was mortified — what if she somehow knew I was transgendered? Why would she do this to me? I got an adrenaline rush, my body flushed, and I anticipated being terribly embarrassed. I steeled myself to quickly think of a joke, an intellectual observation, something or anything that would deflect attention away from me.

As it was, it was related to me, but nothing that caused the earth to swallow me up — something like “two of our male bosses have pierced ears and used to wear earrings.” Shawn and I both confessed, which everyone knew, anyway, and we mumbled something about graduate school and youth, and that was that.

But that dread, that sense of impending doom that I felt at being outed, is something I’ve felt my entire life. I think it created a lot of my persona, secretive and guarded, that I don’t think would have been a part of me otherwise. It’s easy to focus on the obvious, and funny, changes that one undertakes when dealing with this problem — because they’re so present and so different that they demand attention. But what’s really also interesting is the impact of this secret on one’s development, and that’s not nearly as visible to others because you are already who you are and you can’t reengineer the past. As we work on ourselves in therapy and in reflection, it seems to me that equal attention ought to be paid to the past, as well as the future, not that you can change the past, but you can have moments of insight when you suddenly see a pattern or a reason for the way you are.

It’s not helpful to think of a “real” you that needs revealing and that there’s a “fake” you that’s been an imposter in your body for all your life. I suppose some might find comfort in that, but I don’t — I am completely real and my life experiences have brought me to this point. Perhaps there are hundreds of alternative universes with different versions of me in them, and while it might be a fun mind-experiment designed to blow the lid of one’s sense of pre-destination, I don’t know what else you do with it except mourn those alternatives that have you happier, healthier, or wiser and breathe a sigh of relief about those alternatives that found you dead, sick, down-and-out, and generally more miserable than you are in this reality.

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