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.