Until my father's death almost a dozen years ago I had never had to experience death in people I knew, or friends, or family. There were aunts and uncles and distant relatives who I never knew who died but to be honest any significant emotional impact on me from these passings was minimal. This relationship between with death and me has changed in recent years as brothers, sisters, and now friends, are suddenly gone. I've lost three friends in the last 3 weeks alone - it has become a way of life but never loses its sting.
The most recent bombshell was this past weekend. News spread like wildfire through the transgender community that Mike Penner, who many of us also knew as Christine Daniels, was found dead on Saturday. By all indications, she took her life by her own hand. She was only 52 years old.
In the bigger picture the details of her death are unimportant. What is important are the steps that led to such a tragic demise, what if anything could have been done to prevent it, and what if anything brothers and sisters who follow can learn to avoid facing a similar dark dead-end. Moreover, I'd argue that this sad saga highlights the unique pressures that often plague the transgender journey for many of us and that will continue as the hallmarks of this "hero's journey" for the foreseeable future.
Although I knew Christine I wouldn't presume to say we were friends. She seemed to carefully manage access to her world through select good friends and confidants which, given the circumstances, was certainly understandable. I, like many, had come to know her through her poignant and powerful "coming out" letter in the Los Angeles Times on April 26, 2007 titled Old Mike, new Christine:
During my 23 years with The Times' sports department, I have held a wide variety of roles and titles. Tennis writer. Angels beat reporter. Olympics writer. Essayist. Sports media critic. NFL columnist. Recent keeper of the Morning Briefing flame.
Today I leave for a few weeks' vacation, and when I return, I will come back in yet another incarnation.
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.
One day at a time....
A transgender friend provided the best and simplest explanation I have heard: We are born with this, we fight it as long as we can, and in the end it wins.
I gave it as good a fight as I possibly could. I went more than 40 hard rounds with it. Eventually, though, you realize you are only fighting yourself and your happiness and your mental health -- a no-win situation any way you look at it.
When you reach the point when one gender causes heartache and unbearable discomfort, and the other brings more joy and fulfillment than you ever imagined possible, it shouldn't take two tons of bricks to fall in order to know what to do.
I met Christine in person shortly after. It was at the Esprit Conference in Port Angeles, WA in May 2007 and we had lunch together. She was the second "high profile" transgender coming out in a very short time frame, following on the heels of former Largo, FL city manager Susan Stanton's outing in February. Their two experiences couldn't have been more stark contrasts of each other.
Susan became very public very quickly, appearing on Larry King Live in April 2007, and doing other media. Christine was approached to do that same show and chose not to. Whereas Susan's experience was a very public lynching - being fired after a successful 17 year tenure in Largo, Christine's employer was supportive to the point where they provided a blog to her for her to share her journey with millions of readers around the world. It was a fascinating contrast of two people on similar pathways whose very private journeys were forced into the glare of a very bright public spotlight.
Christine and I met again at the Southern Conference that fall, and in fact I've got a short video chat with her on YouTube. It's from an NCTE fundraising event, and she appears about a minute into the clip.
The last time I saw her was a couple of months later, in December, when we were both honored at the Snow Ball in Seattle. She was visibly struggling at that point and as we parted to go to our cars at the end of the event I couldn't help but wonder what, if anything, I could do to help her to find some peace.
It was shortly afterward that she shut herself off from dear friends and confidants, and then suddenly re-appeared at the LA Times using her original name.
At the time her seeming "flip-flop" from Mike to Christine to Mike again lit a fire under a topic many of us know as "Transition Regret". The fact is that to transition from one gender to another is incredibly difficult - physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, professionally, financially, in every way you can imagine - and there are specific "rules" that those of us who begin down this path must follow in order to pursue medical procedures that cannot be reversed. One of the goals is to demonstrate to ourselves what life will be like in our authentic gender. Sometimes, the price is too high and we can't move forward. Does that mean it's not right for us? No. It simply means that we can't envision brighter tomorrows through the darkness of today.
I argued at the time and continue to argue that there is an element of choice involved in making decisions about our lives. That doesn't devalue the elements that lead us to the point of facing these difficult life decisions, nor does it in any way demean the decisions themselves. That's not to say in any way that sexuality or unique gender realities are choices. However, at some point the question changes from "how" or "why", to "what" to do. That's simply part of the process of self-acceptance.
Too many people seem to feel that there is a right path, and everything else is wrong. The sad reality for some is that there's no good path - or at least it seems that way - it's simply important to come to peace with the decisions you've made. Self-preservation is a very powerful motivator that many of us come to know very very well. Given no good options - that single element will often trigger decisions that are neither right nor wrong. They're simply necessary at the time.
Christine did not abort her transition because it was the "wrong" path for her or because the part of her that made her Christine had gone away any more than because she had some sudden realization that continuing to live as Mike was the "right" one. She buckled under personal pressures that caused her self-preservation instincts to kick in. I know of what I speak - I faced a similar situation and did the same thing. The good news for me is that I got a second chance to head down this path with a clearer head, more support, and more realistic expectations and I found my way. Christine never gave herself that second chance.
There are those who will say that Christine was obviously troubled or mentally ill so it's no wonder she took her own life. I am not one of those people and strongly believe that those who choose to believe that are simply ignorant to our darker realities. To be transgender is a difficult life - that's simply the way it is, even under the best of circumstances. I'd go a step further and argue that it's the continued stifling societal pressures so many of us face that was far more to blame for her hopelessness than anything internal. The pressures others apply on us. is only surpassed by the pressures we put on ourselves.
Christine's life and death have significant meaning to all of us. Many of us arrive at the place of ultimate darkness, where the candle of hope has become snuffed and where an un-lived eternity seems better than the possibility of a brighter tomorrow. My heart grieves that Christine, and many of our brothers and sisters who find themselves in a similar place each day, arrive at that place and make a choice that can't be un-made. I'm hopeful that recognition of her tragic passing helps people make the other choice - the choice of Life.
After each of us passes, a question about Legacy will linger. What is Christine's Legacy? In my way of thinking her legacy remains one of courage in the face of daunting challenges, of a person trying to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges, and who searched but never really reached a point of peace. It is one of poignancy, of humor, of giving, and of human-ness that was quashed by the other pressures in her world. In short, it is a legacy about the paradox of the human spirit - both strong and resilient, yet fragile and vulnerable. It is tragic that a fragile moment has ended it all for her.
Christine's passing, especially at this Holiday Season, is a stark reminder. It is a reminder that tragic fate could find any of us. It knows no boundaries, and it is patient. It is also a reminder that we each need to support one another through the unique challenges that we all face along this path. And most of all, it is a sad reminder that another flame has been extinguished, another soul lost. I yearn for a day when life won't seem so difficult. That day is not today.