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.

What’s it like one month before genital reassignment surgery (GRS)? As everyone points out, it’s a big deal. Oddly, I really don’t feel excited or nervous. I think I’m concerned about upsetting my health and our family’s summer plans.

When I tell people I could take it or leave it, they’re amazed, and I guess the general public equates transsexualism with body dysmorphia, so of course it’s perplexing for the to hear me say I could live without it.

For me (and everyone is different), my transsexual condition is/was about self-acceptance, feeling a part of things. As I took various steps to revise my identity, I felt more and more normal with each step (removing testosterone, adding estrogen/progesterone, removing body hair, removing beard, telling people, venturing out as Joyce, eventually being Joyce socially, psychologically, and physically. To my mind, I’ve finished the job, as I no longer feel any distress about sex or gender.

But what about genitals? Why do people (and other transsexuals) feel genital correction is so important? I can think of many reasons, and perhaps expressing them will help clarify. First, sex is a normal part of being human, and being a woman with a penis or a man with a vagina may not promote a healthy sex life (at least one that doesn’t involve being labeled a hermaphrodite or freak). However, there are also wonderful sexual relationships possible for all sorts of body-identity types, and there’s no inherent reason why genitals need to match psyche.

Second, general body-dysmorphic identity: some people strongly identify their sex/gender with their genitals, and thus could never feel legitimate without all body parts matching. And this is a fair argument, it seems to me.

Third, even without seeking “normal” sexual relationships or a “normal” genital match, one might want their parts to match for others in public and semi-public places like the emergency room and health clubs. A woman with a package may distress others in these places. Their distress is their problem, of course, but it’s the transsexual’s problem if their distress leads them to withhold medical care or call the police. And while I think it’s not my job to fix other people’s biases, I *do* want to live a healthy and relatively hassle-free life.

There must be many sorts of legitimate body-identity-types for different people, and the trick is to listen to your heart to see what you need to do (how you need to be). What is the transsexual community puts pressure on you to have genital surgery when you feel deep down that it’s not necessary? That’s almost like the pressure you used to feel from general society to be your birth sex, isn’t it?

I find myself wondering where body dysmorphia ends and cosmetic change begins — because I can certainly see my upcoming surgeries as entirely cosmetic: no more worries about packages, a whole range of pants and tops I can wear, cleavage, and so on, and there’s no doubt that I expect to feel more legitimate, more at ease in my shell. But is it necessary? No, I don’t think it is.

As Slade’s words began to sink in and I tried to process what I was feeling in between the gulps of grief and the reminiscences of our youth, I found myself feeling, then understanding, two different kinds of loss.

Putting myself in Slade’s head, I can imagine having a range of negative feelings, but with his repetition of my word “loyalty,” it seems to me that the predominant feeling must be betrayal, the feeling that Caesar feels, knives in his body as he turns to see his friend Brutus plunging his knife too — and the pain in his voice saying et tu, Brute?, not the pain of the knife inflicting mortal blows, but of the betrayal of a trusted friend, one who, in today’s lingo, was supposed to “have his back.” The loss Slade feels is permanent, painful, and personal, and it topples a fixed and happy memory of our relationship, sitting on his mind like a dark ink stain on the front of his Armani dress shirt. And I can relate to that, and am tempted to feel the same way about Slade’s rejection.

But I am also aware of a second type of loss, not one that falls into a nostalgia of the past, congealed in our minds like the Jello that remains uneaten at a dinner, where things are either quite right or are terribly wrong, but rather one that provides an occasion for possibility and promise, tinged with sadness but also pointing towards an integration of past, present, and future where we are whole and free from pain.

As a vision of this second type of loss began to materialize in my mind in the hours and days after Slade’s email rejection, I became aware of an accompanying soundtrack: the Grateful Dead’s “Cassidy,” in which the singer comes to grips with his friend’s death, recalling various epic deeds, but finally picturing his loss as a flock of birds that all take off simultaneously, each a particle of a larger flock. He ends the song by letting go, letting the spirit of his friend go:

Fare thee well now. Let your life proceed by its own design –
Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I’m done with mine.

The Grateful Dead have lots of songs about letting go — “Bird Song,” “Box of Rain,” “Looks Like Rain,” “Black Peter,” “Brokedown Palace,” “He’s Gone,” and “Cassidy, to name just a few that come to mind. These songs always manage, beat or hippy-style, to spin their losses philosophically, as either the release from pain or the setting free of a spirit. In these songs, loss could be a death (of Cassidy, of Phil Lesh’s father, of an original band member nicknamed Pigpen) or a breakup of a lover, and the sense of both missing someone and of letting them go runs through their lyrics. The singer celebrates the loss even as he cries over the grief — we cannot hold someone against their will, and we cannot hold back their life’s journey to satisfy our sense of possession, grief, or anger. Our memories of the one we’ve lost serve as a meditative starting point, rather than an ending, and these Grateful Dead songs are the beautiful results of losses.

This philosophy feels a bit to me a bit like the end of Kerouac’s On The Road, a story of beat-generation writers and adventurers. And perhaps this is not surprising, for not only was Kerouac’s footloose roadster Dean Moriarty based on Neil Cassady (as Kerouac experienced him and wrote him), but Cassady’s death is also the inspiration for the Grateful Dead’s “Cassidy” song, and the vastness of the imagery is evident in both works.

On the last page of On The Road, the narrator recalls his friend Dean walking away from him, not looking back, and is propelled into a reflection on the vastness of America and its industrial and agricultural and natural wonders, his narrative point of view pulling upwards like a giant aerial camera shot in a movie.

Dean, ragged in a moth-eaten overcoat he brought especially for the freezing temperatures of the east, walked off alone, and the last I saw of him, he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again…. Old Dean’s gone, I thought, and out loud I said, “He’ll be all right.” And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever and all the time I was thinking of Dean and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me.

So, in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now that children must be crying in the land where the let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old. I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found. I think of Dean Moriarty, I think of Dean Moriarty.

This cinematographer-philosopher’s vastness and the his recollection of Dean Moriarty — his loss of Dean as well as his vision of their adventures across America — are tied together in a mutual cause-and-effect relationship, for not only does the act of reflecting on Dean call to mind the immensity of the country, but thinking about the vastness of America also causes the narrator to think of Dean Moriarty. In other words, the loss isn’t a self-contained, festering sore, but rather it’s an expansive feedback loop that occasions philosophical grandeur.

Which, in my own grand stream of consciousness of loss, brings me once more to Walt Whitman, master of similar poetic techniques that tie together both the tiny and the vast. At the end of “Leaves of Grass,” the narrator bids the reader farewell and dissolves into the very landscape that has formed the fabric of the poem. This loss of the narrator is not to be mourned, but instead creates an opportunity for the reader to look everywhere for the poet — in the air, the dirt, the water, the rocks:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Am I over-thinking this? Am I grasping for a more philosophical, expansive explanation of this loss than is called for? Perhaps. Perhaps it’s just a plain old rejection.

But my feelings are my own, and I own up to them, and I know that these feelings about Slade’s rejection do not necessarily have to involve despair or depression, and I believe that life’s downward twists have more meaning than simple explanations convey. Make no mistake, my sense of loss feels like a hole in my body filled with a stinging emptiness, but I think it also serves as a catalyst for reflection and understanding and hope.

Maybe the only thing that will come from my reflection is this essay. Maybe this experience will serve to keep me honest and educate me as to the likelihood of future acceptance and rejection. Or maybe these words will be diffused into the air and water and rocks and become part of the fabric of vast narratives.

And when you see the birds wheeling to the sunrise-orange sky at the beach, when you think of the small towns and universities and plains and mountains and islands and country roads and highways that have defined the geography of your life, when you contemplate the thousand tangles of fate and fortune that bring us together and split us asunder, when words fail you as you lie on your back in the grass, scanning the skies for the planets and stars and comets and satellites in the deepening dusk, perhaps you will catch yourself thinking of me and looking for me underfoot.

I will wait for you.

My friend Allyson suggested I order a copy of for the Bible tells me so as a way of understanding biblical literalists’ objections to homosexuality and, by extension, transsexuality. I had read some reviews of the film in a couple of other online forums, so it was in the back of my mind, but since Ally seems to have the knack of knowing what’s right at any given time, I didn’t question her advice and ordered a few copies of the DVD (you can order copies from the film’s website or from Amazon for approximately $20).

Right off the bat, let me say that I love the movie and feel an even stronger sense of calling (which I’ve written about) than I did before. The issues of family acceptance that face transsexuals are virtually the same as for homosexuals, and the message of families coming to accept their loved ones is incredibly powerful and moving. The film uses 5 families of various sorts and various denominations to anchor the concepts of guilt, denial, grief, love, and eventual acceptance, and this is its strong suit. Aimed at a moderate audience who is interested in figuring out how to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between religion and homosexuality, the film is quite successful, and ought to provide moderates from both camps with ample materials with which to start building that bridge.

I recommend the film highly.

However, as a piece of persuasion to be wielded on a biblical literalist or fundamentalist, I think the film has flaws. I had initially hoped that this would be the kind of thing I could send along in an initial coming-out letter to family and friends who rely on the fundamentals of scripture as a way of softening the blow of my news for them, but I think that would absolutely be the wrong thing to do. Since my field is rhetoric and argumentation, I’m coming at this film as an argument — a series of claims linked with a certain logic for the purpose of convincing one’s opponent of the correctness of those claims. And as an opening argumentative move, this DVD is inappropriate for the following reasons.

First, I think it muddies the trans* waters with the gay/lesbian message — and I’m afraid as much as I hear the message of “acceptance of family” as the film’s message, I’m afraid the person to which I’m coming out would only hear the “acceptance of homosexuality” message. Practically speaking, if someone is homophobic, I don’t see any reason to try to pry them off this position at the very same time I’m trying to gain acceptance as a trans* person. One step at a time.

Second, if the film started with the introduction of the cast of characters, I think it would get off to a better start with fundamentalists. The opening images of gay pride and the issues around homosexual marriage set up the viewer for a confrontation, even though the message is a quite a bit more moderate than that. I’m afraid the fundamentalist would turn off the film after the first 5 minutes, and I don’t think I’d blame them.

Third, I wish the film didn’t occasionally have that smart ass attitude that it occasionally foists on the scriptural literalist. There’s a cartoon that adopts a patronizing tone and several scenes that cut from an assertion of biblical literalism with an expert that says such a reading of that passage is childish, to recall a couple of examples. A steadily straightforward and respectful focus on faith and families (which is already a strength in the film) would be more persuasive for fundamentalists.

Fourth, there’s an argument advanced at the very end of the film that should either be fleshed out more because it’s important, or should be omitted because it’s a bit off the mark of the central message of the film. This argument is an analysis of where homophobia comes from and how IT IS THE PROBLEM for society, rather than homosexuality. The film argues that the intolerance and scapegoating of the OTHER is common in societies and that fear, coupled with an identifiable OTHER leads to violence, discrimination, and hate. I think that’s very reasonable and has been argued successfully in different contexts. But after this point, the film gets into an interesting and worthy assertion that needs to be fleshed out–namely, that underneath homophobia lies misogyny in a number of guises, not the least of which touches home for us, dear readers. The problem men have with homosexuality that they have to picture men having sex with each other, and this picture requires them to imagine themselves (or another man) behaving sexually like a woman. And as we all know, being called a sissy or a woman or effeminate, or being treated as such, is the WORST thing in the entire world for a man and is suitable grounds for hate and violence. The film doesn’t go any further than this micro-point and it seems to me that it’s worth fleshing out much more fully and theoretically, perhaps in a different setting. A quick Google search turns up a few things that tie together hypermasculinity, homophobia, and misogyny, such as “Homophobia and Misogyny,” “The Stranger,” “Gay Spirituality Blog,” and possibly the book (or at least the introduction) Hating in the First Person Plural, Ed. Donald Moss, much of which is sample-able on Google Book Search.

There you have it. I believe the DVD is inappropriate as a starting move in loving and gentle persuasion for family members and friends, but I also think it’s a wonderful item to be watched together later in the grieving, negotiating, hand-wringing process if these family members and friends are interested in trying to adapt their fundamentalism to their acceptance of the transsexual transitioner. If nothing else, this DVD would (in those situations) open up lines of discussion that might form the basis of acceptance that would not threaten religious beliefs.

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