Mike/Christine: My cautionary tale

Mike Penner and Christine Daniels: Life got to be too much in either gender.

Mike Penner/Christine Daniels, the Los Angeles Times sportswriter who underwent a very public gender transition three years ago, has been my cautionary tale for the two years-plus since I had my own epiphany about gender identity.

(S)he was such a story for me even before I knew I was headed down this path. And (s)he became even more of a warning to me a year and a half ago, when (s)he very quietly decided to chuck it all and retreat into the closet. And (s)he resonated loudest and clearest when (s)he committed suicide the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend — as I was going through a round of internal hell over the transition.

And (s)he has remained a cautionary tale for me as I inch along — sometimes warily, sometimes not — in my life change. Since the Times ran this story on him/her as a Column One piece on the front page earlier this month, (s)he has given me a lot to chew on. And it hasn’t been very tasty.

*****

In April 2007 — three years ago next week and 10 months before I had the talk with myself — Mike returned from a long leave of absence and, in a column, reintroduced herself as Christine. It might literally have been a short page-two column in the sports section, but it was a figurative front-page story. Hers was one of the highest-profile gender transitions to date. And she was continuing to work in a traditionally macho field where, despite great advances in cultural awareness, even genetic women are still faced with inordinate bullshit for just being who they are.

I know this story well. Mike/Christine and I had a lot of parallels.

We’re from the same generation; (s)he was four years older than me, a taller and (considerably) skinnier version. (S)he, too, had had a Catholic upbringing; (s)he had nine years of Catholic school, while I was an altar boy for eight years and did four years at a Catholic high school.

We were both big music fans; (s)he was fond of The Clash, and while my tastes run all over the place, The Clash were a big part of my formative years, too. I, too, was a sportswriter, for six years at my hometown-of-sorts paper in the ’80s, and I remember the times I would feel I was living two distinct lives — kinda flirting with the androgynous look going out to clubs (especially before I started putting on weight and losing hair at 27-28), but being a button-down-shirt guy in my sports life. (Well, as button-down as I could be with rock’n’roll hair and an earring …)

I recognize myself in the above photos of the sad Mike/ebullient Christine. And I fully recognize the change of attitude.

Mike was, according to the recent Times story, quiet and circumspect; Christine was very outgoing. She plunged quickly and deeply into her new public identity — a  Woman in Transition blog in the Times, a feature story about her on NPR, talks to LGBT groups. While I had a relatively high profile (newspapers and radio) in a much smaller pond in my male life, I often described myself as the world’s most extroverted hermit or the shiest extrovert, and I know depression and self-esteem problems much more intimately than a human should. In coming to grips with who we were, both of us enjoyed a certain resulting freedom — an exhilaration, if you will.

Once I came out, as did Christine, my friends saw a female half that’s very outgoing, very funny, a bit less inhibited, a lot less fearful, with a lot more self-esteem. Not to mention much better looking. I can’t tell you how many times friends have told me, “This is you.” Or “You’re beautiful!” Or “Oh my God, you make a much better woman!” When I showed the blackmail pix to my recently departed friend Tom on our last long day together in December, he said, “This is where you should be. This is where you belong. You look much happier here.”

And Mike/Christine and I have known the dark side. But that’s where the parallels stop.

I’ve never had a marriage — let alone a 20-year one, let alone to someone I worked with — to come crashing down. I didn’t have the public scrutiny that came with working at one of the world’s largest papers — and in a field where there are still, and will be, a certain percentage of ignorant Neanderthals, among athletes, fans and media members alike. (S)he transitioned on the job, and while she had the support of her colleagues and bosses, she did catch shit from not only sports fans, but some writers. My coming-out really took flight after my layoff from a job where I was behind the scenes for five years.

And while I’ve entertained the thought of killing myself on and off since my adolescence, I never wanted to actually go through with the suicide. I’ve always been scared to death of death — y’know, it’s like the song where Peggy Lee’s been disappointed her whole life, and I know, you’re asking, why doesn’t she just end it all? “Oh, no, not me — I’m not ready for that final disappointment.” If that’s all there is, my friends, the let’s keep dancing

But when the news came out about the transgendered sportswriter three years ago this month, I thought, “Wow. That really takes a lot.” I knew I wouldn’t have had the balls to do that. (At that point, suffering from a brutal and worsening case of sleep apnea that saw me become a 320-pound insomniac/narcoleptic, I really didn’t have the energy to even think that deeply about it.) I never read her blog, but I just thought it was cool that one of us in the journalistic family mustered up the inner strength to say fuck it — it’s my life and I’ll do what I want. I thought it was great that she was able, by example, to help other gender-dysphoric people come out.

And it was great to see she came to grips with it.

Or so it seemed.

(I should say here that, while she became a role model to many transpeople, Mike becoming Christine had nothing to do with Fran becoming Fran. My realization, in January 2008, came after I got my life back following the years-long bout of apnea that should have killed me. Realizing how close I probably came to losing my life was enough to help sway me when the inner voice literally asked me that night, “Can you do this?”)

Over the years of looking at the biggest transgender personals site out there, urnotalone, I noticed something that wasn’t uncommon: the number of gurls who had “purged,” some more than once. Purging is what sometimes happens when T-gurls have second thoughts — they ditch their female identity: photos, Web profiles, wardrobes, whatever. Sometimes it’s because of family or job pressures. Sometimes it’s because they feel they don’t pass well enough. Maybe it’s just depression. But many gurls do come back — re-post profiles, buy whole new girl wardrobes — because they realize how much a part of their identity, of their very being, their hearts’ true gender is. And they can’t just wish it away, no matter how they try.

Purging is a screaming yellow flag that all is not going well. And Christine’s purge — her crash from her lofty Icarus flight — eventually proved fatal. It was a long, steep plunge.

I read an item on an L.A. media blog in November 2008 — Christine very quietly went back to being Mike. No explanation and no response to requests for comment. Even the blog and its archives disappeared — something that never happens at newspapers. And this was as my young chickie wings were starting to unfold and I was starting to experiment without going out as my better half late Saturday nights in the Tower District here in Fresno.

I thought, “Ohhhhhhh fuck — this is not good.” I knew, without knowing any particulars, this was a total shutdown, an absolute 180, a major-league depression. And while I was proceeding very cautiously — ever so slowly having the talk with friends I knew I could trust — this was a warning: If you’re gonna do this, you goddamn well better be sure.

And I was hoping that I wouldn’t be reading what I read just over a year later. Even though I had a feeling it was coming.

I was sitting in my parents’ cellar in Connecticut the Saturday after Thanksgiving 2009. It was not a cheery day, and not because it was cold and damp and cloudy. I was just having this intuitive feeling that, while my family was doing their best to deal with the transition on my first visit home since coming out, they were having a very hard time with it but not telling me.

In the midst of this, about 3 p.m. Eastern, the news came over the Web: Mike Penner killed both selves the night before.

I let out a huge, long, tire-deflation chest full of air, drew a deep breath, and some of the gloom entered and took up residence for a couple of days before it cleared.

Now I really knew what could happen if I wasn’t careful. Not that I didn’t know the suicide rate for transpeople is very high, but this was something that really drove it home. But I also know that each person’s journey, gender or otherwise, is their own, and that hers, despite the parallels, was unique to her and her alone. Still, once again, I truly had to make sure — especially as I was crawling toward possibly starting on hormones.

Well, here I am five months after Mike/Christine’s death. But the past month has been a hard one for me.

All along this gender trip, I’ve encountered mental speed bumps — those moments where I ask myself, “What the hell are you doing?” — and they clear up after a day or two. But I’ve had them almost from the time I saw the story. The weird thing, though, is that I’m not going through any deep depression — just this weird, extended, 12-inch-dance-mix blah. This is unprecedented for me.

I’m thinking some of it has to do with physical changes.

The past three weeks, I’ve been dealing with the fucking pollen. And I do mean fucking! pollen. True, this has been a horrible spring for pollen-related allergies all over the country, but Fresno’s problems are traditionally wretched, and my respiratory health has really gone downhill, especially the past three springs.

I was able to slug it out this year, to fight through it and keep riding my bike — until the middle of last week. I usually ride 15-18 miles four or five times a week, but last Wednesday, I rode the four miles from my house to the mechanic to pick up my car, and every block I was wracked with a cough and hacking up yellowish pieces of lung. The bike riding, which I had done pretty faithfully from the time I returned to Fresno from my last trip home in early March, was keeping my endorphins and my metabolism up. Without that outlet, I’ve been blah — not down, just blah. This afternoon, once the morning downpour cleared, I took my first spin in six days.

(And thank God for blogging, too. That’s helped me keep my sanity — a hedge against both the allergies and the constant inability to get someone to want to hire me.)

Maybe it’s a hormonal shift. My longtime general practitioner had placed me on testosterone a year and a half ago (a genetic hint, maybe?); my natural levels were quite low, and the side effects can include loss of muscle mass and bone density, lack of energy and loss of sex drive. My current doctor was appalled that I had been on the stuff; needless to say, I’m not taking what I jokingly called my “man shots” anymore. My last one was in mid-February. So maybe some of this blah has to do with the hormones.

But the article really gave me pause for thought. Three things in particular were swimming around in my head well before the story, but seeing them in print made me do a lot of thinking. All quotes are excerpts from the story:

  • Christine’s first event as a sportswriter after going public was the press conference where David Beckham was introduced by the Galaxy: “Paul Oberjuerge, then a sports columnist for the San Bernardino Sun, was in the crowd. ‘I hate to be judgmental about these things, but Christine is not an attractive woman,’ he wrote on his blog, noting that Daniels had a prominent Adam’s apple and stood more than 6 feet tall in wobbly heels. ‘It seemed almost as if we’re all going along with someone’s dress-up role playing. …'”
  • “Daniels was wounded by such criticism — and by comments from other transsexuals who faulted her for an excessive interest in dresses, jewelry and other outward trappings of femininity.”
  • The concept of gender fluidity: “In the past, patients with the condition felt the need to pick a male or female gender, but today younger people increasingly eschew hormones and surgery to find ‘an identity that’s kind of in the middle,’ said Chris Kraft, a psychologist at the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore. The path is harder for the middle-aged, because many have a rigid sense of how men and women are supposed to look.”

OK, the first point, besides the sportswriter in question being a total meathead (as if it’s his fucking business just how she looked): As I told my therapist Monday afternoon, and also a couple months ago, I wonder from time to time whether I just have some sort of psychosis and have somehow been able to get almost everyone I know to buy into it.

My friends generally tell me I pass wonderfully, though my current doctor, a post-operative male-to-female, says she can see the shadows of my facial hair. But there are times — especially in the past three weeks, whether it be from the allergies or reading the story, that I really don’t “own” the girl the way I should at this point. I still clean up nicely, and doll up wonderfully, but something’s been missing. Is this just a blah period, or have I really gotten everyone to just humor me and go along with an elaborate dress-up party?

The second point: What the fuck is so wrong with liking the trappings of gender? And why should other trans girls, of all people, get on one of their own for that? I don’t obsess about my makeup (I just make sure I don’t look like a boy or a drag queen) or my wardrobe (some of which was given to me by a female friend who weeded out her closet a couple of times). But I do have an overflowing shoe closet, and damn it all, I love it! Shoes were my first visual cue as a child, maybe around 5 or 6, that I liked things (say, like Mary Janes) that weren’t so boylike. They look great. I make no apologies.

And on rare occasions, I get to go shopping with one of my genetic girlfriends, and I cherish that, if just for the bonding. Three weeks ago, I went with a friend, the wife of an ex-colleague, to Macy’s at the Fashion Fair Mall for her first-ever makeover. She was elated and so was I. She was overjoyed because she never thought she could do her face, and now she knows she can — and she looks fantastic. I was thrilled because we walked around the mall afterward and window-shopped, and it was the first time I had ever ventured into the mall at large as my better half. I heard no snide comments, and as far as I could tell, we got no undue stares.

There are times I do wonder whether I obsess too much about the trappings of womanhood, the superficiality. I know the answer is no — I enjoy putting on cute shoes and makeup, but I don’t let any of those things rule my life. The external wardrobe is just a manifestation of how I feel inside.

I just find it appalling that, instead of finding support from members of her community — our at-large community — Christine was catching bullshit from the very same people who should have been supporting her. We have enough to worry about in the outside world without sniping at each other, children! And many of our egos are fragile enough already, and Christine/Mike was no exception. Some people really should know better.

The last point: I often wonder, the closer I get to possibly starting hormone therapy, whether I’m really girl or boy or both or neither or some weird hybrid. It’s something else I broached with my therapist Monday afternoon, as I talked about the Times story.

Of course, as I’ve been telling myself and everyone else for some time, the plumbing says boy but the heart says girl. But does everything need to be so binary? Is it something we’re just so conditioned to accept that we can’t see another way, or two or three or a few hundred? All I know is that for most of the past three weeks, I haven’t felt like my better half — but I sure haven’t felt like a boy, either. I’ve been twisting in this weird limbo, this suspended animation I’ve never felt for this prolonged a period before.

My therapist agreed that there is a lot of fluidity to gender, and there’s no question that the transgender spectrum is huge and as diverse as any other societal “community.” There are times I just don’t know where, let alone if, I fit in.

Maybe it’s a good thing I haven’t started with the hormones yet. I went to the doctor three weeks ago, fully expecting to start with the treatment. But she put me off. The bloodwork showed my bad cholesterol was too high, my good cholesterol was too low, and even thought I had dropped 15 pounds in the three weeks between visits, I really had to lose a lot more. (Hence, the bike riding.) Mostly, though, she was concerned with the cholesterol — she doesn’t want me doing anything that’s gonna wreck my liver, and I don’t either.

So I’m looking at this as another cosmic speed bump.

All I know is each time I doll up, each time I put in the effort to look great, I feel better. The therapist suggested this was narcissism, though not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe, maybe not; I’m thinking not. As mentioned, the look is the manifestation of the beauty I feel inside. It just doesn’t feel real sometimes because while the feelings are authentic, let’s face it — the boobs are birdseed and Baggies, and the hair is synthetic and attached by elastic.

And there’s really no upside to living the boys’ life at this point. At 48, I don’t think my brilliant football career is happening. I never had a vertical leap of more than three inches. At my skinniest, I always got shin splints when I ran. I still can’t skate. And I was the worst player in the Prospect (Ct.) Little League growing up, to add to all the other depressing trappings of loserhood that was my childhood. And I invented the 90-degree slice off the tee — the ball goes out straight 50 yards, then takes a sharp right turn and then heads 50 more yards into the woods. Plus, I was always sensitive, I was never macho, and I came to grips years ago with the fact that I’ll probably never have kids. So what do I need the excess testosterone for?

There’s no reason to stay in the gender assigned to my body. Actually, there is one — a comfort level, a familiarity. It’s where I’ve been my whole life, It may be miserable, but it’s home.

But then again, I moved away from my physical home six years ago for something new, and it’s taken time to get used to life in California. Just as it will take time to get used to my new gender home. But in the end, it will all be good.

I’m also at a weird point because of my very nature. I’m too social an animal not to eventually become high-visibility on some level. I think wonderful things are in store if I do this transition thang right. The job will happen soon, I think — then again, I’ve said this before. I see a book and/or a one-woman show coming from this when the time is right. And, like Christine, I’ll be a public figure of sorts. But Christine came flying out of the closet with a huge flourish — with equal parts adrenaline and recklessness, it seems — and quickly became a public figure, then was faced with a whole new set of problems that proved insurmountable.

Am I ready for that? Will I be ready for that? And if it all came to that, would I be ready for life as a — gulp — role model? I can’t be Charles Barkley about this — it’s inevitable that if I become successful at something, then I will be one, whether I want to or not. I’ve been pretty cautious, with or without Christine’s story looming over my shoulder, but will I be able to evade the pitfalls that destroyed her?

Hell, at this point, I can’t just stuff the genie back in the bottle. The gender thang is out there. At this point, it would take me more energy to suppress myself again than it did to come out — energy I really don’t have anymore. Besides, I spent so much time and effort just coming out in the first place, then getting nearly everyone in my life to come on board. I guess it’s just time to man-up and be the best woman I can be.

I’m lucky — blessed is more like it — to know how big a circle of support I have on both sides of the country. Few transpeople have the circle of friends beyond the trans community that I have, even if I don’t see my friends on a daily basis. It took a hell of a lot of fear and a lot of tottering baby steps to find that out. It’s been a great life lesson, and because of that, I at least think I’m strong enough to withstand whatever bullshit is waiting in the world at large.

(And I should say this here for posterity, and just in case something happens. One of the saddest things about the end of Mike/Christine’s life was that there ended up being two memorials: one for Mike’s family and friends, one for Christine’s friends. Christine’s trans friends were excluded from Mike’s memorial. The family has clammed up about it. I want none of that bullshit should something happen to me. I’m not ready to go at all — and I’m afraid I’m jinxing myself just by writing this — but if I happen to die prematurely, I want my family and friends to mingle, perhaps to get to know each other, to celebrate and cherish each other, because all of them have had some big role to play in my life.)

But, as I asked myself that night in January 2008, can I do this?

Am I truly ready to go forward?

I was talking with my ex-Bee colleague Rick Bentley as we were setting up for Tom’s memorial two weeks back, and I told him about this blah I was starting to face, and he boiled it down to its bare essentials: “As I asked you before: Are you happy? That’s all that matters.”

He’s probably right. Maybe I’m overthinking it.

In any event, I wish I could’ve sat down for coffee with Christine. With all we had in common, we probably would’ve had a great time talking. Ah hell … that’s just speculating at this point …

I didn’t look to her as a role model, but by the same turn, I wish she wasn’t a warning sign, either. While I didn’t know her, I’m certain she wanted to be known as something much more than that …

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9 Responses to “Mike/Christine: My cautionary tale”

  1. blake Says:

    You write powerful stuff. You have a lot to offer this world.

    And plus you’re a kick and you know how to talk about garage rock. Why should I care what you wear? But any friend would want you to find that spot from which you are comfortable to operate from. It just might take some time.

  2. jmucci Says:

    Very powerful article Fran. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through, or what Mike/Christine must have gone through, especially in those last few months.
    I’ve always had enough trouble being comfortable in my own skin, in the quote/unquote “normal” way. I couldn’t even imagine what it would feel like being uncomfortable within yourself because you realize the gender you are physically is not the same as the one you feel mentally. It must be a living hell.
    I imagine there will continue to be many difficult days ahead for you, but never forget your true friends and the people who are behind you, whenever you are feeling at your lowest. We would never want you to end up feeling like Mike/Christine obviously felt, and going down that final road. Wish you all the best Fran!!

  3. Pam Says:

    Beautifully done, Fran, but that is no surprise. You are a person of uncommon strength and grace.

  4. Raina Says:

    Wow Fran! Very moving indeed. It really does boil down to what will make you truly happy in life. But you have to look beyond how you will look on he outside, ’cause it’s all much deeper than that. I mean really look nside your heart and soul and ask yourself what this is all really about. It’s nobody’s decision but yours, so take some time to think about the skin you want to live in. Which is seems you’ve already been doing.

    We’re all behind you, know matter what. Much love!

  5. Joe Says:

    I have faith that your bad cholesterol will drop and your spirits will rise.

  6. lexy Says:

    yo! i read to your times article link, then read the times article, then finished reading yo shit! very niiiiiiiiiiiiiice! i like your to the point attitude and honesty, sista! lotsa love, doggie and otherwise, heading your way from connect-i-cut! big hugs too! keep writing, seems like there’s a book here that’ll help other genderly fluid people. love you mucho! hookworm for the allergies, i think you might be crazy enough to do it… 🙂

  7. Gary Says:

    Fran,

    I love you as Fran.
    Be true to yourself, not anybody else.

    Gary

  8. Well, here goes nothing … « Franorama World Says:

    […] wrote in my previous post about transitioning about how I’ve been going through an extended blah; some of it may be pollen-related, some of […]

  9. The Super Bowl (and the blog), a year later « Franorama World Says:

    […] transition — dealing with coming out combined with chronic joblessness. And reading the story inspired me to write about it. And as I was writing that post, and probing my own emotions, the “Duuuuuh! […]

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