Wednesday, September 15, 2010

That Damned, Unnerving Uncertainty of It All
— A Miniseries (Part 3 of 4)

Old Mike, New Christine, Same Demons
It was...a curiosity when I first discovered on that morning of April 26, 2007, the article Penner wrote, proclaiming to the world that he was finally coming out of the closet. He was a transsexual, and would in fact shortly thereafter be officially transitioning from male to female; from Mike Penner to Christine Daniels.
Penner/DanielsAlex’s former L.A. Times, Orange County Edition colleage, as Mike Penner (left), and in 2007,
as Christine Daniels (right). (Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Times)

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.”

Oh yeah, I was shocked. And my first thought was obvious: “Did Alex know?”

So I created a PDF of the story and emailed it to Seraph.

She said that she too had no idea but didn’t seem to be too surprised, from what she could remember of Penner’s demeanor in person. However she was ultimately saddened for the obvious anguish he/she must have experienced over the course of living, breathing, and being attached to what was decidedly a “boy’s club” atmosphere in his profession as a sportswriter.

When presented to Alex, she said he offered no reaction. Seraph would go on to explain that as being pretty much the norm for him at that point in his condition, now three-plus years ago. Although still somewhat conversant, he rarely spoke and was constantly distracted. However, as I would witness when I visited him later that September, he was even then, still capable of short bursts of semi-clarity; he may or may not have comprehended the article as Seraph read it aloud to him, but I’m certain that he thought about it, at least a little bit.

Late the next day, in another follow-up email, Seraph recounted a phone conversation she’d had with Alex earlier in the evening, trying to get him to put one of their kids on the horn to discuss dinner plans:

Seraph: Hi baby.
Alex: Good!
Seraph: How are you?
Alex: Yes!
Seraph: Who is home with you?
Alex: Uh, uh, (long pause) Mike Penner.
(ok, so he WAS listening)

Public triumph, private torment
To their ultimate credit, Penner’s peers and bosses at The Times were as completely supportive as could have been imagined. The respect he had gained as a writer trumped any difference of worldview he might have otherwise encountered in a different workplace or setting.

Penner’s family at the paper didn’t abandon him, but embraced his decision to embrace his inner reality.

Christine Daniels arrived on the scene just a few weeks later, and all seemed well. The transformation from Penner-to-Daniels was in full bloom, appearance-wise, aided by hormones and electrolysis. However, the surgery necessary for completion of her physical transformation would have to wait a full year. Transgender-related law specifies that prospective trans-surgery candidates must live as their new gender, full-time, for twelve months prior to the surgery being conducted.

In May 2007 Daniels began a blog on (which about a year later mysteriously disappeared, both online and from the Times’ electronic archives) entitled, “Woman in Progress”, in which she documented her journey.

According to Times' writer, Christopher Goffard in a well-written but perhaps unnecessarily harsh essay this past March 27th, Public triumph, private torment:
"Daniels underwent electrolysis to have facial hair burned out at the root, took hormones, amassed a shoe collection and experimented with a variety of wigs: short, long, blond, brunet. She spoke in a soft, high voice, cried frequently, happy or sad. Daniels was "exuberant, dynamic, touchy, hugging, a vibrant, vivacious person," said (Randy) Harvey" (former Sports editor, now an associate editor at The Times).
With the obvious publicity of her new profile on brilliant display, Daniels became instantly adopted as an advocate and spokesperson for the transgender community and had already become close friends with a few trans male-to-females who helped to counsel her through the rapid changes flowing in and around her.

She was an instant celebrity and appeared to be extremely happy with the attention that seemingly followed her every step. She spoke and appeared at Transgender and LGBT conferences, gave numerous interviews, and continued on as an exceptional sportswriter; covering soccer and other sports just as Penner had done previously. And though the recognition seemed to be the tonic that Daniels needed to negotiate her transition, in retrospect, it was apparently way too much, way too soon.

The external pressures exerted by the transgender community as well as those applied internally by her personal life, were greater than she expected and ultimately more than she could bear.

A series of events, including a controversial and highly uncomplimentary characterization of her physical appearance at a press function, written by a local Southern California sportswriter, landed a painful blow to her still-fragile transitional psyche.

Lost in Trans-lation
Later in the fall of ’07, Daniels experienced a disastrous photo shoot for a Vanity Fair feature that was eventually aborted. She would later assert that she was convinced the photographer, “wanted to portray me as a man in a dress, my worst fear, as I expressed numerous times...I felt betrayed, totally abused, and very, very vulnerable and exposed and alone in the world.”

Things would only get worse. The Vanity Fair debacle resulted in Daniels drawing criticism from some in the Trans community for being unrealistic about her femininity; overly concerned about appearance as opposed to being true to who she was and to the political causes for which she was now their poster-child.

This too did not sit well with Christine. In the L.A. Weekly account, according to Friess, Daniels took umbrage to the idea of her being anyone “...who needs to ‘quote-unquote’ represent some undefined community,” and that according to her friends, “[Daniels] said she felt used by the trans community.”

Daniels soon began backing away from commitments, and later, asked The Times to discontinue her blog. She generally began to withdraw from the trappings that had made her an overnight sensation; the speaking engagements and conference appearances that just months before had offered so much confirmation of the legitimacy of her journey, now began to be replaced by depression, doubt, and seclusion.

Things finally came to an end for Christine Daniels, the reporter, in April 2008. She took medical leave from The Times, complaining of abdominal pain and additional emotional stress over the recent death of her elderly mother. She posted her final story under the Daniels byline on April 4th.

In June she entered the hospital and was diagnosed with severe depression. The stress of her previous year’s post-transgender announcement, coupled with the death of her mother had manifest itself in the intense stomach pain she’d been experiencing.

Apparently, it was all too much.

Fifteen months after coming out of the closet, Penner/Daniels began the process of attempting to un-ring the bell. She made the decision to cancel her sex-change surgery. She cut off all of her transgender friends, save for her closest throughout the experience, Amy LeCoe, who had herself been inspired by Daniels’ journey, to embark on her own. Daniels began the process of detransitioning.

LaCoe was closest to Daniels throughout that critical summer of 2008, when Christine’s tower of triumph began its steady and unrelenting crumble beneath her feet.

Friess quotes LeCoe’s recounting of the conversation in which Daniels admits that her life as a woman wasn’t working, and reveals what was certainly the ultimate devastation of her new reality.
Daniels shut out virtually every other transgender friend except LeCoe, who struck a nonjudgmental tone and persisted in demanding that Daniels let her help. Deep inside, LeCoe struggled to reconcile what it meant that the woman who had once been the role model for her own transition was crumbling. But she did her best not to let her doubts show.

“Don't decide so quickly,” LeCoe said. “Maybe you'll reconsider it when you feel better."

“I have been feeling this way for a while,” Daniels gasped through tears. “I can't do it anymore.”

“Which part can't you do?” LeCoe asked.

More silence, then: “I had the perfect life with Lisa, and I threw it all away.”
Upon returning to work at The Times, in October 2008, without comment or explanation, she dropped the Christine Daniels byline and returned to being Mike Penner, both in print and in person.

She eschewed the hormones, electrolysis and high heels of Christine, giving away her clothes, jewelry and wigs, and returning to the appearance, dress and demeanor of a male. However the single most important thing that the ‘new, old Mike’ wished to restore, he could not.

Next: Love’s Labor’s Lost
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