Donna Rose

Death Be Not Proud - RIP Christine

Filed By Donna Rose | December 02, 2009 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Christine Daniels, Mike Penner, transgender suicide

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.

As Christine.

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....

She continued:

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.

Snowball_03.jpgIt 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.


Recent Entries Filed under Living:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.


Very poignant, Donna, thank you. I think all of us experience these pressures at times and there is no telling when any of us will be at that vulnerable point when it all becomes too much. I did not know Mike or Christine, but I say there but for the grace of God go I.

Good to see you posting again Donna, and yes, great stuff.

Personally, this story is one I've avoided writing about because it hits a little too close to home in some ways. I survived a suicide attempt more by happenstance and instinct than by actual intention.

I have been to where Christine was. I have looked over the edge and I have jumped. I do not know what demons Mike/Christine was wrestling with but I know this: No matter how dark it gets, there is always, always an exit, but it cannot be discovered or found. It cannot be revealed to us by someone else. Each of us must build that door for ourselves.

If there's anything positive to be taken from this at all, I hope it's that people realize that there's always another way to keep living.

Regan DuCasse | December 2, 2009 8:26 PM

Thank, thank you Donna. I'm learning every day about what life must be like for a transperson. I've had the pleasure of knowing friends before transition and after.
I can only imagine still, what tremendous courage and patience it takes. Having said that, I can only hope to be a supportive and understanding friend.
I grieve with you. I grieve for a talented person lost to us now.

Angela Brightfeather | December 2, 2009 8:34 PM

Donna, I am so sorry to hear of this passing and it grieves me deeply that Christine's journey was cut short and so alone. So much like so many of the people in our community that I have met and befriended over the last 45 years of attending endless support group meetings where the same stories are told over and over again.

Often we hear that people are mad at us for being to radical about wanting change in the Transgender Community. Oftentimes being radical is the only respite and attitude that one has to be able to vent their feelings about some of the atrocities that are experienced by our community. From having to listen to name after name and candle after candle being blown out each year at this time at TDOR ceremonies, to going to another support group meeting and hearing the same stories about rejection, always knowing that those who express themselves and their losses, are living candidates for the same thing that happened to Christine. The sense of urgency that courses through the veins of activists, is pumped by the losses that they have experienced like the one you describe. The senseless loss of good people and successes in every other way, courageous people who are just trying to live their lives, hurts so deeply that given any opportunity to scream out against the unfairness of it, any decent person must do just that.

I have often said that for those who do not understand our angst and impatience about things like ENDA and other aids to make our lives a bit easier and stop the carnage, all they have to do is attend a few Trans support group meetings and sit and listen to the palpable loss told about.

I compliment you in being able to express this loss so calmly. After 45 years of this type of experience, I continue to be anxious, outraged and with just as little patience for this as when I first started. It has always been the driving force and the energy behind my involvement as an activist. I wish it were not that way.

It's a big mistake for "the community" to jump on and mass celebrate high-profile transitioners merely because they're well known. The reality is, they're just in the beginning stages of their transitions, really don't know that much about the realities of transition nor the community and putting them in the forefront in their fragile place isn't fair either to the people who are looking to them for wisdom (because they really don't have most of the answers) or certainly, groundedness or strength. I have to imagine had Christine been able to deal with her transition in a more low-key way it might have minimized some of the stress in her life.

Thanks for sharing some of your own experience with detransition. People approaching this complex passage need to hear more of those messages that detransition isn't failure, mean you're broken or the end of the line.

The thought to take my own life has occurred to me as a viable option, as it did for Christine. I'm guessing about 90% of all married people I know who transition, lose their wives and children. A lot lose jobs. Countless friends are also lost. Ostracizing, stigmatizing, ignoring, and other symptoms of transphobia are other social forces at play. All of this while depleting the nest egg. Maybe the better question is why don't more commit suicide?

I don't know why you refer to Mike as "Christine." At the time of his death, he wanted to be called Mike and he identified as male. Whatever the reasons behind that decision, it was his decision to make. If I refer to a transitioning person by his/her former name and gender identity, it is considered offensive and disrespectful. I don't know why that same standard should not apply to the above post. Maybe there is a separate standard that applies to trans activists.

Also, however nice a person Mike was, I don't see how you could possibly call him a "hero". That word has a meaning and it doesn't cover everyone who takes personal risks in their own self-interest. If that were the case, then everyone is a hero. And if everyone is a hero, then the word is meaningless.

Mike chose to become Christine b/c that is what was right for him, and then he reversed that decision again based on what he felt was right for him. While these may have been difficult personal decisions, they are not acts of heroism.

Dianne wrote:

[quote]
I don't know why you refer to Mike as "Christine." At the time of his death, he wanted to be called Mike and he identified as male. Whatever the reasons behind that decision, it was his decision to make.
[/quote]

To me saying that seems to be greatly insensitive to the reality of what often happens to many who transition later in life ...

That pressure can be enormous and no all can deal with it. I certainly have heard of many cases where someone detransitioned because of outside pressure situation for survival... only to find that they really could not survive that way anyways and do it again...

And over the years I have heard too many cases where they did end it all because of the pressure... some I knew a bit and it hit me hard. Not everyone is made of steel.

So no we can't know for sure where this person was at ... but the experiences of many others, some who made it and some who did not live through it, argue strongly that probability was high that Mike was Christine.. ,,

And regardless talking about this bring the who issue of how hard this can be for some, even who are truly women. And that is the most important fact/truth.

I don't see her as a hero... I see what happened as a tragedy with no heros, but society as the villain... a situation that elements of get repeated all too often..

And that is why, regardless of if we are stealth or not, we should care about the public acceptance of those known to be TS as woman. In he end at some point we all have to be somewhat out and face all the issues that transition can bring... It really should not have to be as hard and dangerous as it is.

Those who indicate a total insensitivity to the tragic loss of Mike / Christine know little about the personal nightmares and struggles gender dysphoria imposes on a person. Mike / Christine was, indeed, a hero for having the courage to bring to light a heart wrenching, life destroying (and life giving)demon that would never go away, never quit.

S/he was a hero with guts to use the public platform of a well-circulated mainstream newspaper to reveal a core lifelong secret that often leads to losing everything held dear. Having 20 + years with the same employer was both a blessing and a curse. To be so public as one walks through the fires of healing can be more than any one reasonable person can bear. May God comfort Mike / Christine and the family, friends of this unique and special human being.

There is a choice in starting to transition. That choice usually is to either live or to die. I decided to live. It appears it may have been Mike's choice as well.

The tragic part of Mike's death is not Mike, but the fact that no one seems to learn from his death. Trans people don't learn because they continue to ignore the signs in others, so more follow Mike's path. GLB and straight allies don't learn, because they refuse to listen to why ENDA, health care and hate crimes are so important to our survival. The churches don't learn, because they continue to preach intolerance from the pulpit, giving religious permission to shun and reject members of their own family. No one learns, and more will die.

Mike wasn't the first to take this path and he won't be the last. And as Dianne said, he's not a hero.

rapid butterfly | December 3, 2009 8:34 AM

I don't want to turn this reflection upon the life and death of a person struggling with gender into a a dispute about who is and who is not a "hero."

Mike, I choose that name and the male pronoun to honor what seems to have been his choice, and if I have erred it is certainly not because I am trying to erase anyone's true gender - was certainly a brave person who like almost all of us tried to juggle personal needs with the needs of others (family, colleagues, friends). I think it is reductive and trivializing to say "all" Mike did was try to make the best decisions he could in his own interest. Isn't that all any of us do?

He struggled bravely to resolve what is surely one of the most difficult life situations a human being can find him / herself in. He did it publicly and under heavy scrutiny. If that isn't heroism, then, I would suggest, it will do until the real thing comes along.

~mina

Thank you Donna. You're experience with Mike was similar to mine.

As you no doubt recall, I waw in that video too, right next to Mike. This has been a very tough loss for me on a personal level, and I'm sure it has been for you too.

Ginasf, total agreement on your first paragraph comment, it's a "big mistake".

I prefer the collective story of us all, rather than the continuing desire to find that one person, that one story or incident to explain it all.

Donna, that was a very good article on Christine and for others who just don't fit into other peoples way of life. She made people uncomfortable and in a job that is in the public eye, it has more pressure. I had pressure to stay in the gender that the doctor said I was but I can't imagine the pressure that some go through, being in the public eye and especially in a more male dominating job. I have known other celebrities that have died, maybe not directly by their own hands but it might as well been. I knew a girl in High School, who became a singer, and in order to keep up what they expect from female singers she became anerexic. She wasted away and finally her organs shut down. We need not to judge people in the public eye for how they look or live. They do a service for us and we should appreciate the work they do and not their public image.

FYI, I referred to Mike as Christine simply out of trying to imagine her at the point she felt the need to detransition back to him. I think it's hard to know what to learn from Mike Penner's experience because we have a very incomplete view of what actually happened. Suicide is a complex act usually made up of multiple strands of stress and personal conflict. Whether his journey was "heroic" or not is kind of irrelevant.

While I overwhelmingly heard support and empathy from the trans community for Mike's decision to detransition, I still think many if not most transpeople want to distance themselves from the intense feelings of shame and failure which some detransitioners go through. Perhaps it's having gone through enough shame and feelings of failure themselves or maybe cold fear they could end up in that place and do what Mike did. Or the idea their outward womanhood (which people have worked so hard to attain) could be quickly removed, like a costume. Perhaps it's being linked to some socially oppressive feeling that "if transwomen would just come to their senses, they could live once again as men." There needs to be more of a "village" for people who are actively going through this passage but, even then, there will be those who sneak out of the village, want to put on a brave face or feel they no longer belong for a variety of reasons and it's certainly their right to leave.

Angela Brightfeather | December 3, 2009 3:52 PM

I find some of the comments regarding referals to Christine as being incorrect to be very incorrect themselves, and they point out one of the big problems that we have in this community.

That of having to be gender specific.

No amount of transitioning and all the things that go along with that depending on the individual and their circumstances, justifies having to declare that one person has to be one gender or another and it leads to the internal minimalization, segregation and intolerance that achieves only one thing. That of telling people that they have no choices about gender, it's got to be one of or the other
This attitude is coming from one place and that is from people who have transitioned and need to justify their new position is society as women. I do not hear this a lot on the men's side of this because they seem to be more accepted, and that is really the crime in it that drives people to desparate acts. I also do not hear it in Donna's words either, because she addresses this as a friend talking about another friend and human being. Something that she has a habit of doing, judging people by who they are not how they look.

By drawing those lines of comunication that are dependent on a person's expressed gender at the time, and not considering that Christine can no longer be called Mike, or that Mike cannot be called Christine any longer because of detransition, is like telling every gender diverse person who is not planning on transtioning that they cannot ever be all they wish to be. No one has the right or should have that right, because it hurts people and it hurts them so deeply sometimes that they feel they have no other choice but to give up on themselves ever being who they want to be. And in some cases that just might be both genders, even though others think they must commit to only one or the other becasue that is what they felt they had to do. Placing those kinds of pressures on people, to choose or be wrong, is exactly what leads them to their premature end.

Angela-

I really respect your work with TAVA- but must disagree.

I don't know Mike- never did - but with everyone - I try to respect their individual decisions - so I will refer to Mike as Mike, because that is the last wish I know from her.

that said, how common is de-transitioning? Are there any statistics?

I had never heard of it- but several trans friends have mentioned that it is not "un-common".

Great Piece Donna!
This happens way to often! Any and every death of someone going though transition is a major loss! Any Suicide is a just wrong! maybe if ENDA Passes then it might make it better?

I wonder what Christine was going through? It must have been overwhelming to lead her to take her own life.

While I don't plan on transtioning, I know people who have. It's a journey with perils and life changing decisions.

Transitioning is something you have to be sure about. Transitioning is as much emotional as well as physical.

The issue of suicide in the trans communities needs more attention. A few of us in MA, with leadership from MTPC, Samaritans, Fenway, and the Dept of Public Health, published what seems to be the first brochures specifically addressing suicide in our communities. They can be downloaded from this page: http://www.masstpc.org/publications/suicideprevention.shtml

@capitalist piggy: I've never seen accurate statistics about detransition and I doubt reliable ones exist. On the MTF side (don't know about FTMs) I've always heard 1-2% regret among people who've had SRS (and, again, many transitioners don't have SRS or can't afford it). Most of the people I've known who detransitioned did so either within the first year of their transition or at the one year mark. This makes total sense— they're experiencing the new realities of what their transition brings. The first year is also often the hardest in terms of integration, not-passing, dealing with personal loss, unemployment and job stresses and being overwhelmed by the financial and personal costs of transition. It's not for the faint hearted and can often feel like being between a rock and a hard place—damned if you do and damned if you don't.

One of the other key reasons I've heard for people detransitioning is, on some level, transitioning for the "wrong reasons" (according to therapists, anyway). The biggest issue I've found were people who transitioned as a way of finding love (ie being attracted to men and thinking it would be easier if they did that living as a woman). Other people come from the crossdressing community and mistake transition as a more extreme form of crossdressing. They quickly learn there are profound and core differences. I've met some people who transitioned because they didn't feel comfortable as men, but then learned they weren't comfortable as binary women either and, perhaps, tried to find some middle, Genderqueer place. I think there are others who just break from the social pressure and condemnation... perhaps they look somehow "identifiably trans" and have a hard time dealing with the realities which, sadly, come with that.

What isn't often discussed is how many people attempt retransition again after detransitioning (as Donna did). There are many who ultimately transition after several prior attempts. I've heard people detransition trying to save a long-term relationship, because of financial fears, as an attempt to regain custodial visitation of their children, concerns over personal safety, getting involved in *ahem* certain religious groups and, of course, just not initially feeling 'it's right.' But, as I suspect happened with Mike Penner, detransition usually doesn't eliminate the original identity issues which drove one to transition in the first place nor the frequent suicide ideation which often (but not always) accompanies the need to transition.