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.