Mike Penner was a male sports writer for the LA Times who publicly transitioned to become Christine Daniels in 2007. With the visibility afforded a columnist for a national newspaper, Daniels became one of the world’s great “celebrity” transitions almost instantly.
But, we know now, Daniels struggled with life as a celebrity trans person. She struggled with her appearance. And most of all she struggled with the loss of her spouse, someone who utterly rejected her transition and filed for divorce her first day at work as Christine.
After some initial success Christine eventually de-transitioned, going back to being known as Mike in the summer of 2008, telling close friends it was a last ditch attempt to reconcile with his ex-wife. A little more than a year later, he took his own life (a very well written article about this story appeared in the LA Weekly last weekend).
There is a lot to ponder about Mike’s / Christine’s story [editorial note: Normally I would use the post-transition name only, but in this case the primary person asked to go by each name at different times. I’m trying to respect that. – D]. Certainly this is not someone who handled transition perfectly (does anyone?). Because of the tragic ending there will always be nits to pick about how things transpired, with plenty of finger pointing opportunities. But it’s a little disturbing to see people far removed from the situation trying to draw broad lessons about transitioning from this case.
As an example, some are implying that Mike’s / Christine’s death is attributable to the transition decision. Had Mike remained Mike, so the implication goes, none of the intense transition stresses and relationship struggles would have ensued. “It is not transition or die,” one prominent commentator insisted. “Sometimes it’s transition and die!
Of course sometimes it IS “transition or die.” And sometimes it’s just “die,” because you’re already too emotionally damaged to make it either way. Living a long life repressing your inner gender identity is like that sometimes.
Those of us who came out on the “transition” side of a “transition or die” decision find our advice on the topic often ignored. It’s treated almost flippantly, like the “die” part of the equation is a rhetorical flourish rather than a serious option. But it’s not empty rhetoric. People can and do choose death over transition because they would rather face down a gun barrel than face down the ostracism, shame, and isolation they associate with transition (and witnessing Mike’s / Christine’s treatment by her spouse post-transition, these fears are not irrational) … but they simply can’t go on being someone they are not either. Those quick to trumpet cases like Mike’s / Christine’s as some kind of proof that transition is dangerous seriously under estimate the opposite danger. For many people transition is quite literally their last grasp at life.
It is sometimes asserted that with enough support we should be able to live without transitioning indefinitely. And you know, some people can. Not all transsexuals feel the need to transition equally. It’s incredibly urgent to some, while comparatively mild in others. In those milder cases, they may never feel trapped between transition and ending their life.
But then at one point in my life I would have told you that I was such a case. That… didn’t turn out exactly as planned. The urgency increased the longer I put it off. By that point I was stubbornly – almost desperately – clinging to denial. Even when I got past the denial stage, I was pondering how to make my suicide look like an accident on the one side, and trying to work up the courage to see a therapist on the other. And it was a close call. A very close call. I would never advise another person to let things get so desperate before dealing seriously with their inner gender conflict.
A lot of the things that made the decision so hard were the impacts I knew the decision would have on others. Like Mike Penner I was married; had a good job; had a less than ideal physique; and on top of that I had three young children. I didn’t choose to transition because I didn’t seriously think about these things. And I think it’s terribly unfair and disrespectful to presume Mike didn’t think these things through either. The fact that the emotional trauma overwhelmed him/her is not evidence that he/she hadn’t considered the possibility that it might. It’s also not evidence that things would have turned out better if Mike had remained Mike.
Sorting out one’s gender conflict is difficult, painful, and fraught with peril – and that’s true whether you transition or not. Doing so in the glare of the public eye, as Mike / Christine did, increases the difficulty ten-fold.