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.

I wrote a couple of days ago about growing up clueless and about how my life seemed to be a race against gender dysphoria until it finally caught up with me in 2006. I’d like to tell you about what happened after GID caught up with me, and what has happened to my life-long enemy.

Something really interesting has happened to me since I started what the Standards of Care call the RLE, or Real Life Experience, which means living in your target sex full-time. I have noticed that I don’t have any distress about gender at all — no waking up in the middle of the night wringing my hands about being a woman inside, no fear of being utterly consumed by this nasty feeling, no shame about how I’m made, and no fear about my “secret” being discovered.

This is not to say that I don’t care about a bunch of little projects involved with becoming myself, including clean up electrolysis and laser, smoothing out relationships with neighbors and old friends, working on my voice, going to therapy with Mary Jo and the boys, and trying to build a suitable wardrobe. No, all those things are still important and I still feel annoyed at how fumblingly clumsy I am about so much of femininity. But what’s missing is an urgency or a desperation to simply DO SOMETHING, to take steps to quit hurting so much. In fact, it’s remarkably calm inside my psyche, and it’s an unusual feeling for me — it’s been a really long time since I felt something like this inner calmness, and I have to confess that I’m a bit confused about what to do with it.

I don’t believe I’m sad, and I don’t think this feeling is grief, although a member of my support group suggested it might be grief. It’s a kind of loss, yes, but the loss of something I am happy to see leave my life. It’s possible that I grew close to my torturer, as in the Stockholm Syndrome or as partners in an abusive relationship sometimes do. Maybe Gender Identity Disorder gave me an edgy quality, teaching me to be defensive and secretive in my youth, but ending up ruthlessly driven to try to survive in these past few years. It was not only a tormentor, but a motivator (a creative one, at that), and it drove me to do and think all sorts of odd thoughts that people without GID probably never have, like “If I win this solitaire game, then maybe I’ll magically be turned into a girl,” or “If I hit 5 yellow traffic lights in a row, then it’s a sign that I should change my sex,” and that sort of thing.

As GID has faded and left me, I guess I feel depleted and a little tired. I am fairly certain that the happiness of being free at last to be myself will fill those empty spaces, but at the moment, they’re just little gaps rather than white-hot crises. A let-down of sorts might be inevitable.

In my “Clueless” post, I described a life-long race to try to stay ahead of GID, lest it caught me and destroyed me. But what I ultimately learned and began to realize about a year ago was that no amount of running or fighting or struggle would defeat this beast. The only way to destroy it was to give in to my transsexual nature, and in accepting it and loving myself for being made thus, the power of GID over me would be wiped out. The paradox that simply baffled me for months upon thinking these thoughts was that to defeat Gender Dysphoria, you had to embrace it, deflecting its energy, Kung Fu-like, instead of trying to butt heads with it in a direct battle.

In picturing this metaphoric fight, I am reminded of John Donne’s Sonnet that begins “Death, be not proud” and continues in Donne-like logic to explain to Death that although he thinks he wields great powers, he always loses because in dying, we (Christians, in Donne’s case) live again, thereby robbing Death of his imaginary powers. Logically and ironically, Donne’s last line proclaims, ‘Death, thou shalt die!” It’s typical Donne, logical and clever and pleasant to read and enjoy.

Go read it and, just for fun, picture GID where you read “Death.” It works almost without modification and it expresses the triumphant, in-your-face feeling that transsexuals get when they finally discover what do to about their life-long distress. You can almost hear their collective self-whisper, “I figured it out — if I “surrender” to these feelings, then the distressful feelings will have nowhere to grow and they’ll leave me alone.”

Suppressing and repressing your true gender is really hard on your psyche. I have been quite a wreck at different times in my life as I tried to grapple with just who and what I was. When did I know I was different? I knew something around age 4 or 5, but what that ‘something’ was shifted during my life, probably because an understanding of that “something” was confined and constrained by experience, education, and culture. The more I experienced the world, the better I understood what “IT” was.

When I was young, I just thought I was different — I didn’t have a word for what I felt, and thus my self definition was only that I felt weird.

When I found the library, both in high school and in college, I found books on the subject and learned that I was probably a garden-variety crossdresser, and knowing this label actually brought me a degree of comfort since the books and articles had statistics about how prevalent this feeling is, and knowing I wasn’t alone was important to me at the time.

However, after meeting cross-dressers, attending support groups and social groups, and wearing the label of “cross-dresser” for a while, it began to dawn on me that I didn’t really feel that I fit in with those girls. They seemed to get a great deal of joy out of wearing a dress as if it were a special Halloween costume, and while I myself also felt a lot of initial excitement about clothing, that feeling wore off quickly, and I realized that I probably really needed to a woman in a more essential way, whatever that might entail, instead of just being happy dressing like a woman.

Bear in mind that I think one can be a perfectly happy cross-dresser — it’s a harmless and healthy activity that channels gender dysphoria into safe and fun places. I would never knock CD’s, believe me — I remember as recently as 9 months ago telling Mary Jo that I wish I were a normal crossdresser, which was a pretty funny utterance when you think of it, but at the time, it seemed as if being a transsexual was so awful that I’d settle for anything else.

In any case, I found I needed a lot more than just clothes, and that’s when it began dawning on me that I probably wasn’t a CD, but something more, or different. I began to hope that maybe I was some kind of socialite trans*person, not quite full TS, but more social/psychological than a CD. I hosted dinner parties as Joyce, went to the theater as Joyce, went for coffee as Joyce, and began telling friends about the new me — and this new self-definition worked for quite a while.

But after marrying Mary Jo, having Lane and Ezra, and changing professions, I put Joyce away (she wasn’t needed, wasn’t even interesting), and my self-definition became something like “a non-dressing transgender person,” which is a little like the idea of the non-drinking alcoholic, a person who is always biologically alcoholic, but who can choose not to drink. And this was a viable self-definition for 11 years, during which time the trans* part of me was safely folded on a shelf like a heavy sweater you know you’ll never need because you live where it hardly ever snows, almost forgotten up there with the other never-worn clothes.

But even this highly-functional self-definition eventually fell apart, and when it did, it was a mighty tumble, everything I’d done and believed simply crumbling around me until all I was left to define myself was “wreckage.” You have read the blog posts and know that I have somehow managed to reclaim a self-definition that combines “transsexual” and “father/parent” and “husband/spouse” and “brother/sister” and “professor” and, much to my surprise, finally “human” again.

I’m not saying my evolution is complete or my self-definition written in permanent ink, but it’s a nice place to be, here in this spot of calm, enjoying life and friendship and work and family.

When you research transsexualism, particularly theories of its origins, severity, and course of therapy, you will run across a couple of terms that used to be a lot more. The literature categorized transsexuals into “early-onset” and “late-onset,” sometimes called “primary” and “secondary” transsexuals. This distinction tried to describe the difference in people who knew of their gender dysphoria very early and those who slowly became aware of its severity over a longer period of time. Although the literature does not assign a particular age to these categories, it seems to me that early-onset covers youth through the 20’s, and late-onset covers 30’s onwards.

Current therapeutic models generally agree that if you feel you’re transsexual and you don’t have any personality disorders or mental illnesses, then you probably are a transsexual and, as an adult, you can determine the speed and direction of your life. It is a very progressive philosophy, one I’ve come to appreciate, especially in my early forays into the medical and psychological establishment, fully expecting to be thwarted at every turn, only to discover that I have been in control of my transition at every step.

Lately, there have been several newsworthy cases of very young transsexuals seeking to come to school as the opposite sex, or to simply be accepted pre-school as the opposite sex. There was the case of the 8-year-old MTF transsexual student in Colorado. Then there was a 2-part series on NPR (Part 1 and Part 2) just last week.

Google “transgender children” and see how many hits you get. I think one of the next big waves will have to deal with “childhood-onset” transsexualism and it will intersect therapy, school-access issues, bathroom policies, bullying issues, to name a few. Besides the obvious starting points (PFLAG, Family Equality Council, COLAGE, and TransYouth Family Allies) Here are some of the sources that might be useful in beginning to think about our transgendered children:

Alex Blaze’s piece in Bilerico.

Mercedes Allen, 3 Models of Transsexuality, also on Bilerico

Shannon Garcia’s “Transgender Children for Dummies,” also on Bilerico

I have tried to articulate how I have felt about my torment during this transition, but I really haven’t attempted to delve into my history or the specific existential or spiritual nature of that pain very much. It’s still on my “to-do” list, but until I get around to writing it, I would like to point you to an intelligent and meaningful articulation of these feelings over on Allyson Robinson’s blog, Crossing The T.

I wish I could have written these words, but having abandoned all bible study when it became clear to me that I wanted nothing to do with a God who would torment me in this way, I find that I now return to the question of existential and spiritual pain untrained, undereducated, and inarticulate.

What happens to a transsexual when she has transitioned, is living in her target gender, and then begins to think she’ll never fit in, never feel safe, never be recognized as her target sex? In the transsexual community, when you turn around and begin undoing all your work on transition, it’s called “de-transitioning,” and it’s not a course of action that anyone seriously wants to entertain. Here’s a blog post from gallinggalla, who analyzes de-transitioning in light of the cultural oppression that we all feel because of rigid gender roles.

What I find interesting about gallinggalla’s post is that she realizes that the cost of de-transition is not only the return of GID, but also an acknowledgment that gender and sex-role oppression would still be with her.

This is the original post, which doesn’t capture the oppression of gender

What happens to a transsexual when she has transitioned, is living in her target gender, and then begins to think she’ll never fit in, never feel safe, never be recognized as her target sex? In the transsexual community, when you turn around and begin undoing all your work on transition, it’s called “de-transitioning,” and it’s not a course of action that anyone seriously wants to entertain. Here’s a blog post from gallinggalla, who asks herself whether she should de-transition or not.

What I find interesting about gallinggalla’s post is that she realizes that the cost of de-transition is the return of GID, and I would certainly agree with that. While some might be able to weigh the GID against a better physical fit with social norms in a personal kind of social/psychological cost-benefit analysis, the thought of going back is, to me, a nightmare.

I’ve written elsewhere how frightening and lonely this situation is, this gender identity disorder and the decision to change my sex. And I’ve got love and support! I daily read 3 discussion boards dealing with transition (Susan’s Place, BeginningLife, MyHusbandBetty), and several more every week or two, and after a while, one begins to notice similar themes that come up over and over. There’s the “my hands are shaking because I’m writing this for the first time” email. There’s the “my significant other has given me an ultimatum: if you transition, then I’m leaving.” There’s the “I’m at X stage of transition and I’m feeling depressed and wanted some support.” And probably 50 other common themes.

The one that Mary Jo and I watch for is the initial post that says, “My SO, after a few months of anger and fear, is now OK with this and we are working through the transition together and we’re going to manage to keep our family together because we love each other.” Or even better, the initial post that comes from the SO: “I discovered that my spouse is a transsexual and I’ve joined this board because I want to understand him/her because I love him/her dearly and want to support him/her.”

Just when you think you’re the only person in the world with a particular set of circumstances, you run across a story just like yours. It’s humbling because you realize you’re not that special. But it’s also encouraging because you realize that you’re not alone and someone else out there has been through (or is currently going through) what you’re going through.

I’ve written about Jennifer Finney Boylan and how I believe she is my doppelgänger, so I won’t repeat that theory. But there are many others in the same situation. Today, for example, as I was reading the various news stories I subscribe to, I encountered Lori Anne Davis, a MTF transsexual in Arizona, and her story in Colorez: Southern Arizona’s GLBTS News Magazine. She writes of her Gender Identity Disorder:

[My wife and I] silently decided to just sweep it under the rug. Still, though, that dang beast loomed underneath. In fact, like what happens to the majority of transgender people who don’t deal with the issue, that little beast grew into a monster.

I’ve done it, and you see it all over the transsexual literature–this personification of GID as a voracious beast you can try to hide, but which will resurface, meaner and hungrier than before. Lori Davis’ story follows the good version of this story, which is the one that goes “and when we realized it would never go away, we began seeking out professional help.”

I often find myself buoyed by this type of story. I feel connected with my brothers and sisters who are facing a similar situation to me, even if the specifics are different. As abnormal as I feel most of the time, when I read this type of writing, I myself feel normal.

But sometimes I feel quite sad because these stories that are published online must represent only a tiny fraction of all the stories out there. Where are the others? I suspect most of them aren’t told because they’re harbored in secret, pushed down into the recesses of the mind, or never allowed to bubble up into consciousness, much less written into an online forum. Do these transsexuals struggle with their condition utterly alone? When the crisis gets large, do they feel trapped, forced to choose between sanity and suicide?

Where are the songs of winter? Aye, where are they? Lest I start feeling connected with all my fellow transsexuals, I think it bears noting that we don’t know how many of us there are, how many kill themselves before ever seeking help, or how many drink or drug themselves trying to bury the misery.

The stories we read are written by whoever is left standing.

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