Prodigal

Michael Penner committed suicide a couple of weeks ago. I found out about it when this post was linked off of one of our Self-Promotion Sundays.

It is normally wrong to refer to a trans person’s assigned-gendered past as though it lay at the foundation of life, or to place so much emphasis on becoming rather than being. It negates a lived reality, and forces a trans person to bear the burden of marginalization. It fragments a life, and implies that fragmentation is the only way to conceive of a life in or through transition.

Michael Penner’s story is unusual. Michael Penner was a well-known sports writer who worked for the LA Times for more than a quarter-century. In 2007, Michael Penner became Christine Daniels. After coming out, he worked to educate people through his column and other venues. In October 2008, Michael Penner began publishing articles under the Michael Penner byline, although he never wrote the re-transition version of the coming-out article he wrote when he became Christine Daniels. A couple of weeks ago, Michael Penner killed himself.

I can’t call Michael Christine. Changing a byline in the same paper that published your coming-out column is a pretty public step back towards a former name and identity.

Ambiguity has been used to nullify definite trans identity so often that no halfway measure can be respectful either, or even accurate to the purpose. I can’t refer to Michael as “‘Michael,’” or “‘Christine,’” or, “Michael, who called himself Christine,” or “Christine, who called herself Michael,” or, “Michael, who became Christine.” All that means is that I don’t respect him. Michael had a self, even if it was not always rightly named–or ever rightly named. Whoever he was, he was not false.

Whatever his reasons, he did make a choice, and I believe I should respect it. So I am using male pronouns and the name he used when he was a man. However, I agree with everything Gudbuytjane has said about the weight of transphobia and transmisogyny. I agree that it may well have contributed to Michael’s despair at the time he took his life, or helped to turn grief and fear into despair. In other words, I may be using “he” and “Michael” to refer to a woman who killed herself because she could not stand that word or that name.

When he came out as Christine Daniels, he wrote,

I am a transsexual sportswriter. It has taken more than 40 years, a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy for me to work up the courage to type those words. I realize many readers and colleagues and friends will be shocked to read them.

That’s OK. I understand that I am not the only one in transition as I move from Mike to Christine. Everyone who knows me and my work will be transitioning as well. That will take time. And that’s all right. To borrow a piece of well-worn sports parlance, we will take it one day at a time.

When he became Michael Penner for the second time, he wrote nothing at all. As The Sexist puts it,

Then, in October of 2008—with none of the fanfare that accompanied Penner’s original gender transition—the celebrated sportswriter resumed the public persona of Mike Penner, reclaimed his original byline, and scrubbed the L.A. Times‘ Web site of all work attributed to Daniels.

Of course there was no fanfare. Who celebrates a divorce? Did Princess Di?

Gudbuytjane describes her own decision this way:

Transition is an effort many of us expect to ‘fail’ at, not because there is anything inherently flawed about trans women, but because our culture actively works to keep us from existing. The narratives we have forced on us from our earliest age tell us repeatedly that to transition is to lose all – friends, jobs, lovers, relationships, and most of all our hopes for a life in the way we want to live it – and we have those narratives repeated to us our entire lives. My own decision to transition came with a handful of pills in one hand, having decided that if it all went as horrible as I had been told it would then I could go back to the option of those pills. I’ve heard similar stories from many other trans women.

In Michael’s coming-out column, he wrote,

For more years than I care to count, I was scared to death over the prospect of writing a story such as this one. It was the most frightening of all the towering mountains of fear I somehow had to confront and struggle to scale.

How do you go about sharing your most important truth, one you spent a lifetime trying to keep deeply buried, to a world that has grown familiar and comfortable with your façade?

Transition is constructed as loss–burning bridges, stepping off a cliff. It isn’t seen as necessarily healthier or more responsible than suicide. This definition is enforced by a culture that forces transitioning people to give up so much just to protect their lives, authority that makes transsexuality a status crime in so many ways, but it’s more than that. It’s this idea that you’re throwing your birthright away–and that the only compensation you can offer is to turn that prodigality into a sacrifice.

The initial medical criteria for a proper transition–the conscious amnesia, the celebration of estrangement, the constant humiliation, the constant proofs–it was designed to cordon off transsexuality from normalcy. But it was more than that. It was designed to weed out dignity, to teach people to accept indignity as a matter of course. This is what you deserve from us. This is all we owe to you. It was the performance of specialized cruelty as well as the command rehearsal of a specific kind of gender. When trans people agitated for self-determination, they were demanding respect where they had been given none.

As Michael’s own actions indicate, a certain amount of movement is necessary. Transition is change, and it’s welcome change. But there’s a difference between moving forward and being thrown away.

You walk out that door–

It’s not something you just walk away from.

It seems like it would be simple, simpler for people who have already crossed over once. Count down. Take the same directions in reverse. Walk forward again. Come back. Straightforward, if not easy. But for me, it felt like loss upon loss. I didn’t believe that I had anything to return to, and I didn’t believe I could take anything with me. I thought I was finished on the one hand and ruined on the other. I didn’t know how to cross over altogether. I didn’t know how to keep myself on one side of the line, and I didn’t think I had any right to be there. What amount of womanhood could I get back? What was left? All I wanted? All I deserved. I had to nail it down again and learn to walk around inside it. I had to figure out which parts to change. There were all these people telling me how. I had to figure out which ones were right. I hoped they would give me all the help I needed. I didn’t want to let them down.

I had been breathing that toxic scrutiny in like air. You’re doing great! It’d be so much better if wouldn’t it be easier if but shouldn’t you can’t you why don’t you when will you did you have to By the time I went back, I had forgotten what it was like not to have that approval held out to me.

I had never done this before. I was completely unprepared, couldn’t even see what was happening. All I understood was that I’d been an insider once, but had somehow become a petitioner. I’d been a woman for a long time, but never on probation. I wanted to prove myself, but I couldn’t see how. And I was meant to be settling in and shaping up nicely, because this was the right choice, and everyone was being so patient, and of course I was a woman. Comfy? Happy now?

I did have people in my life who couldn’t see me as anything but a woman, because they never had. My parents, some of my older friends. But accepting their version of events–of me–meant cutting away three years of my life. It also meant forgetting any dissonance I experienced, even weeks after I started my period again, months before I had breasts again. Even when no one else saw me as anything but a man. You’re doing just fine. You’re a beautiful young woman. It was easier to quit my job. I took that deal, of course. I was eager. I was so grateful. I didn’t know what else to do. They didn’t know how else to see me. They didn’t know how else to make me happy. It was easier to move out. I’d been planning to take some time off.

It was a couple of years before I thought of myself as anything but you fuckup. It was a couple of years before my journey was anything but don’t fuck it up again. My presentation was one long plea for forgiveness. It’s still difficult to think, let alone write, about this last part of my life. It’s humiliating and terrifying. Not the memory, but the fact that it happened, the fact that it sits there in my memory. You’re not supposed to be that afraid of anything you are. You’re not supposed to approach it from that kind of distance. You’re not supposed to go away, and you’re not supposed to take that long to come back.

Alongside shame and fear is grief. Because that fear sectioned off a part of me. I dismantled a life and a body. These days, it’s like walking into a burned-out room. I have accumulated enough time and space that I have other places to live. Still, every once in a while the door swings open in its unthinking way, and I remember something that isn’t supposed to be there. Something I wanted, could even say I loved. I lose my place.

It feels irresponsible to speculate about what Michael might have wanted or might have become. He shut off that line of discussion forever, and we cannot even know how best to respect his memory. He won’t be. It does seem that he was confronting the idea of becoming Michael again, and of leaving Christine behind. He may not have wanted to stop being Christine. He may not have wanted to move on without keeping Christine’s life or self intact in his mind. He may have been desperate to run. He may have been welcoming a different life back again. I don’t know what was taken, or given away. I don’t know what he wanted back. But it is clear that he was unhappy, and that he believed he had nowhere to go from there.

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23 Responses

  1. Amanda in the South Bay
    Amanda in the South Bay December 16, 2009 at 1:34 am |

    I wimped out-I couldn’t bear to read the story. I barely had enough courage to scroll through your piece.

    Suicide, having problems transitioning, the possibility of de transitioning-its all stuff that bubbles beneath the surface of my mind, and reading about what happened. Usually, I think of older transitioners as having certain advantages over people who transition earlier, like in their 20s. A more stable job and income, perhaps, for starters. And here I am, struggling to make it happen. Sometimes living in escapism is better than dealing with real world news.

  2. Willow
    Willow December 16, 2009 at 3:07 am |

    I don’t quite know what to say, so just: dang, this is a really fine piece of writing, piny.

  3. Natalie
    Natalie December 16, 2009 at 4:18 am |

    It was a couple of years before I thought of myself as anything but you fuckup. It was a couple of years before my journey was anything but don’t fuck it up again. My presentation was one long plea for forgiveness. It’s still difficult to think, let alone write, about this last part of my life. It’s humiliating and terrifying.

    I think you’re brave to write about this so honestly, and I think Penner was brave too. I know people likely will, but I don’t know how someone could look at someone who made such hard decisions twice as flighty– it seems to me that it would take so much courage to transition a second time when one has already had to field so much ugliness around the second one. That shows resolve, I think.

    I don’t think re(or de)transitioning should be held against the person doing it. If anything it’s an indictment of the gender binary and how impossible it makes feelings of complete belonging and authenticity.

  4. amandaw
    amandaw December 16, 2009 at 7:26 am |

    It’s not even as though you’re just being shut out of the rest of the world. It’s that the rest of the world is so thoroughly dedicated to negating your existence that you can’t even take refuge in yourself. It’s not being left out of the club, it’s having the club rip pieces out of you moment by moment, day by day. Having them determined to inhabit you, to take back control of this transgressing body, so completely and totally that you can no longer inhabit yourself. You have nowhere to go. And is there even a “you” to go anywhere anymore?

    I have a little bit of that. A little. Due to a childhood where I had pieces of me ripped away by my family. But I did not have the same thing happening with my teachers, my classmates, my neighbors, my doctors and nurses, the clerks at the corner store, the tellers at the bank, my elected representatives….

    I wonder, sometimes, whether there is a “me” at all to inhabit this body anymore. But my community still largely allows me to inhabit it. I am able to escape my family. But what do you do when there is no escape, because anywhere you might go is where you’re trying to get away from? And every person who passes you on the street feels the right to rip away a piece of you as they go?

    It’s painful.

    I don’t know what else to say.

  5. Alison
    Alison December 16, 2009 at 10:43 am |

    thanks for sharing this piny

  6. Marlene
    Marlene December 16, 2009 at 12:05 pm |

    Thank you for writing this.

    Some people are brave enough to open their mouths. Some people write well enough to tell a story like this. That you are brave enough and write well enough is stunning, literally. It has taken me ten minutes to write this. I am in awe.

  7. Tina
    Tina December 16, 2009 at 4:15 pm |

    It takes a LOT of emotion and strength for someone to transition. As a trans woman, I hear it now and then from my friends, but it doesnt *feel* like I’m strong at the time. Now and then it does – but it takes a tremendous amount of emotional support, of sometimes courage and sometimes sheer willpower…life is made thousands of times easier with supportive people who would otherwise not concern themselves with me.

    Support and be friendly towards your trans friends. Even if they don’t pass. Even if sometimes they’re an emotional wreck. Even if sometimes they piss you off, at least respect them.

  8. Q Grrl
    Q Grrl December 16, 2009 at 7:51 pm |

    I think you are a very brave and beautiful person Piny.

  9. belledame222
    belledame222 December 16, 2009 at 9:40 pm |

    Honestly I think this is the best eulogy for Penner that I’ve read. I also think this is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read from you, and that’s saying something, considering that you’re a hell of a writer.

  10. E
    E December 17, 2009 at 6:52 am |

    Thank you for writing this. It’s sometimes hard for me to read stories about detransitioning, as someone who’s standing right now with one foot in deciding to transition and one foot in deciding not to, but I’m so grateful for the ways you’ve put your stories and thoughts out there. This is the best piece I’ve read about Penner by far, and it is beautiful.

  11. Wednesday
    Wednesday December 17, 2009 at 9:23 am |

    I’m really glad to see this discussed on Feministe.

    Thank you for this incredibly moving and educational piece on (re)transition. (Not that it’s your job to educate me.)

  12. estrobutch
    estrobutch December 17, 2009 at 6:34 pm |

    Your walking a thin line of comparing your detransition to a trans woman’s death.

    If you were a trans woman it would occur to you that maybe she had too much shame and self hate to call herself Christine but couldn’t live with other people calling her Michael.

    Instead your pronoun and name choice shows that you have more sympathy and respect for a hypothetical detransitioned cis person than a closeted trans woman.

  13. estrobutch
    estrobutch December 17, 2009 at 7:27 pm |

    Ok, well personally that possibility makes me really uncomfortable using that name or male pronouns.

  14. estrobutch
    estrobutch December 17, 2009 at 7:30 pm |

    and I meant someone like you who detransitioned back to their gender, not back to the closet.

  15. annaham
    annaham December 17, 2009 at 7:44 pm |

    This is an incredible piece, piny. Thank you.

  16. Jill
    Jill December 17, 2009 at 11:08 pm | *

    Piny, please write books or other things for all the world to read.

  17. piny
    piny December 18, 2009 at 7:16 am |

    Sorry–I’m late with this:

    Thank you, everyone, for the kind words. They are really, really kind words. I’m grateful for the opportunity to write here.

  18. estrobutch
    estrobutch December 19, 2009 at 11:13 pm |

    I didn’t conclude shit.

    Look Piny its a lot easier to be a cis man than a trans woman. Its also a lot less likely that a cis man would come out publicly as being a woman.

    And I’m not insisting that you use a name or pronoun. I’m telling you that the fact that the name and pronoun you are really comfortable using could have been connected to this person’s suicide would make me really uncomfortable using it.

    Probably a trans woman is dead and your gushing at the applause from a bunch of cis cheerleaders for your unsolicited eulogy. Thanks for making it clear who this is really about.

  19. piny
    piny December 20, 2009 at 3:48 am |

    You didn’t talk about your comfort levels, certainly not at first. You talked about my motives, like you are now. You also described one possibility as real and one as hypothetical. That’s a conclusion:

    Instead your pronoun and name choice shows that you have more sympathy and respect for a hypothetical detransitioned cis person than a closeted trans woman.

    And then you said this:

    and I meant someone like you who detransitioned back to their gender, not back to the closet.

    You’re talking about one possibility here, not the other.

    It’s really unlikely that a cis man would come out publicly as a trans woman. It’s really unlikely that a trans woman would come out publicly again as a cis man. I don’t think there’s a statistic to rely on. I don’t think there’s enough evidence either way.

    And again, I’m not any more comfortable using Michael Penner than the other unsolicited eulogizers who used the name and pronoun he was using when he killed himself. I think it’s the best out of a bunch of lousy options. I don’t think I should resort to solutions from the unsolicited eulogies written for people who were certainly trans. When this person died, this person was using he and Michael Penner: those are my marching orders. I can write about how familiar this story seems. I can’t misgender or unname someone, however bleak that choice might be.

    This is what I am saying: if Christine Daniels killed herself because she was a woman but could not bear to keep on living as one in this deeply transphobic culture, then I understand. If Michael Penner killed himself because he was a cis man but could not believe that he had any way to go back to living as one in this deeply transphobic culture, then I understand.

    It is much easier to remain a cis man than become a trans woman. It is much easier to become a cis man than become a trans woman. I don’t think it’s easy to look back at what does seem like permanent ruin. I think that the same transphobia leads those thoughts into despair. These two plausible stories have the same actual outcome: suicide.

  20. estrobutch
    estrobutch December 22, 2009 at 3:01 pm |

    “It is much easier to remain a cis man than become a trans woman.”

    If you believe trans women used to be cis men then you just proved you don’t have a fucking clue

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