Nina Smith

Back to Mike: Money, Career, Transitioning and Tolerance

Filed By Nina Smith | November 09, 2008 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Christine Daniels, LA Times, Los Angeles, Mike Penner, transgender, transitioning

"There is always more to be learned about tolerance." - Mercedes Ruehl, commenting on her Lifetime movie role as the mother of transgender child

Before starting Queercents, I had never interacted with anyone from the transgender community. Perhaps, it's just a by-product of living in a conservative area like Orange County, CA. I used to see a transgender woman walking regularly around the Back Bay, a nature preserve near our home. Once, I saw her waiting for take out at our favorite Mexican restaurant and I considered introducing myself. But then I couldn't think of an appropriate next line after telling her my name. As you might suspect, I never was the one picking up others in my bar-going days. I always needed a friend to provide an introduction.

My Queercents blogging has actually taken on the role of a friend doing introductions for me and even though I still haven't met anyone face-to-face in the trans community; I've done plenty of interviews and feel like I have a better understanding of our brothers and sisters in the trans world. E.g. Donna Rose, Jamison Green, Alexandra Billings, Jennifer Boylan and next Friday (11/14), I'll post an interview at Queercents with Nina Poon - the model in the Kenneth Cole ads if you'd like to stop by.

What I've learned from these interviews (and now from Ashley Wilson's posts), is that coming out as a transgender person often times has a much greater impact on one's finances than coming out as a gay person. In a way, it seems like the workplace treats the trans community today much like the treatment of the gay community thirty years ago. In the words of Jamison Green, employment issues are still a challenge for many:

I've met scores of highly educated, otherwise successful people who have either lost everything when they couldn't retain their employment or find a new job once their trans-ness became known, or who have limited themselves and avoided opportunities because of their own fear of confronting the world as a transgender person.

Or as Donna Rose explained to me why under-employment is still a significant issue facing transgender people:

It's actually a very simple answer. Discrimination. Transgender people often make others uncomfortable so they're not given opportunities to do jobs they're well qualified to do.

Our society has expectations for men and women - how they look, act, and are supposed to "be" - and it doesn't treat ambiguity in that regard kindly. Often, transgender people necessarily challenge that binary and have difficulty fitting into these neat little molds. This often manifests itself in unfortunate decisions that are made when it comes to hiring or retaining qualified talent.

I have many friends who held significant corporate roles prior to announcing their transition who ended up unemployed for many months to several years afterwards... In order to make ends meet many of us find ourselves forced to take jobs (if we can get them) that are significantly below our skill level, at a significant reduction in pay. The impact that this has, not only on our ability to pay our bills but on our overall psyche, is often devastating.

Knowing this, I was pleasantly surprised back in April 2007 when the Los Angeles Times was incredibly supportive about the transition of one of their own: Mike Penner, a well-know sportswriter, made a very public transition to Christine Daniels. She had positive things to say about her employer and taking on the role of spokesperson for the trans movement:

Yes, I was prepared for it, and it has come to pass. I am fine with it. I believe this is my calling -- to help provide some sorely needed education about a natural but vastly misunderstood condition. I believe I was born trans and reached this life intersection for a reason -- I am a high-profile writer already working within the "testosterone sports culture," I have communications skills, I have a powerful platform at the Times with which I can help disseminate an important message that is long overdue.

Fast forward to today. Christine is back as Mike. Helen Boyd of My Husband Betty fame writes:

As far as I know, this is the most famous person to de-transition I've ever heard of, and it's surely going to cause additional confusion to people who are just starting to get why people transition in the first place. So - why do people de-transition? I've met people who did because they couldn't find a job as a female, especially if/when there were dependents in the picture. Others realize they weren't transsexual - and that is the point of RLT, after all, & that means it's working.

Joe Moag at the GaySportsBlog.com though brings up an great point about work:

I think the story here is a happy one. Mike went through whatever Mike needed to go through to try and do what we all need to try and do: become a happier, healthier human being. That voyage took Mike to Christine, and now has taken him back to Mike. All the while, the L.A. Times accepted him, paid him, employed him, and supported him. No one came unglued (oh, I am sure that Right-Wing Fundamentalists all over the place came unglued, but those assholes come unglued if it rains, so who gives a fuck?), and Mike was allowed to take his voyage on his terms. He did his job, he did it well, and he didn't get fired or hassled.

So kudos to the Los Angeles Times for accepting, paying, employing and supporting both Mike and Christine. And all the while, Times readers haven't skipped a beat. More companies should take note. I'll end today's post with the hopeful words of Donna Rose and how we can continue to promote change in the workplace:

Education. Gradual cultural acceptance. Continued visibility. Persistence. All are important to spotlight what is happening and to lower the barriers of discomfort that prevent many of us from realizing our career potential as transgender individuals.

As usual, your thoughts are welcomed below in the comments section.


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I have to ask.......how do you know you didn't interact daily with a woman of transsexual history? Most of us don't wear "Transsexual Menace" T shirts, or dress or look outlandish and certainly do not run around telling people about our background.

She might have been a clerk in a favorite store, a waitress in an eatery or coffeeshop you frequented, the receptionist at your doctor's office or even the bank teller you deal with.......

What I'm saying is there still is this assumption out there, and apparent in your entry, that most of us stick out and that simply isn't true.

Oh my salts!

I think this is the first time you have said something not vitriolic, full of classist, and/or essentialist/reductionist rhetoric and said something that I agree with word for word.

Is the bitter hatred of the trans community wearing off in your old age?

Good show!

Cathryn: You make a valid point and you're right, obviously I don't know for sure. That said, when I tell someone that I'm gay for the first time, I typically hear that they already knew or figured so. I would argue that I don't "look gay" or "act gay" (whatever those mean anyway) but people often say they could tell even when I've never been seen in my "Lesbian Menace" t-shirt.

I wasn't implying that trans people stick out, rather, in my opinion, I think people are intuitive when it comes to both sexuality and gender. But this is just my opinion...

..and my personal experience has been the opposite. While I've often been read as lesbian, (I'm actually bi) when others have learned my background it is commonly met with disbelief. My experiences here are not unique among women with my background so while I will agree with you about sexuality, I do not regarding gender.

This is easy to forget given the visible trans-activists who specialize in sticking out and rant and rave about Barney Frank and HRC etc. at the drop of a hint. Me?.......my day to day life revolves around Goddess spirituality, feminism, a living women's history project I'm in the middle of making a reality. Trans doesn't enter my life other than online commentary.

and of course you needed to make sure you insulted me as part of the compliment........typical.

All in all rad fems are much better company..LOL

Directed at A.....didn't link properly for some reason

You ridicule people who disagree with you constantly, what do you expect?

Cathryn - A is a RadFem. Trust me on this. Just not the Bindel kind.

We became "lesbian and gay", but soon bisexuals shouted, "Us too". Transsexuals, having received short shrift from heterosexual society, asked to be included in our rainbow alliance, followed by Queer (anyone who is into "kinky" sex), then Questioning (those having a think about who and how they might shag in the future), and finally (for now) Intersex (those born with biological features that are simultaneously perceived as male and female).

It is all a bit of an unholy alliance. We have been put in a room together and told to play nicely. But I for one do not wish to be lumped in with an ever-increasing list of folk defined by "odd" sexual habits or characteristics. Shall we just start with A and work our way through the alphabet? A, androgynous, b, bisexual, c, cat-fancying d, devil worshipping. Where will it ever end?

This is a journalist in a national newspaper who was nominated for an award by STONEWALL, the UK GL (and sometimes B) organisation.

They don't even realise the irony of their name.

I understand, Nina! I've probably logged 1000 times more interaction with trans people (who I knew were trans) online than in real life.

The comments thread reminds me a lot of the story about Carter Cabell Chinnis Jr, the semi-closeted gay male law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell during the 1986 Bowers v Hardwick case, when Powell was the swing vote. Powell commented to Chinnis that he didn't believe he'd ever met a gay person, and although Chinnis tried to educate Justice Powell about gays and lesbians, he didn't get personal. (Lots of detail on this story is available in "Courting Justice" by Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price, much of which can be seen on google book search.)

Gays and lesbians have gained a lot of public visibility and respect since then, and I want to make sure that respect is extended to people of all gender expressions, not just the gay men and lesbian women who look talk and act like Ozzie and Harriet respectively.

I believe the process has started, and I'm optimistic that the internet's ability to make voices heard widely, and semi-anonymously when necessary, will make it faster and easier this time around.

On the other hand, beware: lots of internet users think the internet provides real anonymity, and it generally does not.