Sunday, November 29, 2009

the end of a troubled life

Mike Penner, the LA Times sportswriter who in 2007 made headlines with a column revealing that he was "a transsexual sportswriter," has died, an apparent suicide.

The article in the Huffington Post is poignant and sad and respectful, as befits the story of the tragic end of a difficult life, and its use of the masculine name in headline and text derives from Penner's own reversion to that name in the past year. Penner never explained why the public persona of "Christine Daniels" vanished, and perhaps we will never know. But after writing

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.

and so publicly transitioning with such apparent support, this kind of an ending simply underscores the hardship that this emotional baggage carries with it. I write from experience. As many of you already are aware, I am a transsexual woman myself.

The report of his death reminds us, of course, of how he lived his life.

"Mike was one of the most talented writers I've ever worked with, capable of reporting on any number of topics with great wit and style. He was a very gentle man who will be greatly missed. This is a tragic ending and a difficult time for all of us who knew him," said Times Sports Editor Mike James.

By all accounts he was an absolutely fabulous sportswriter. But sportswriters live in a rarefied world of undiluted testosterone; it must have been especially difficult for Penner to carry this secret so long, and even more difficult to reveal it.

Making public the transition, he once said, was the hardest thing he had ever done.

"How do you go about sharing your most important truth, one you spent a lifetime trying to keep deeply buried, to a world that has grown familiar and comfortable with your facade?" he asked

I found it fascinating to read the comments thread following this article. (In fact--full disclosure--this diary originated as a very, very long comment for that thread.) Many of them noted that the comments were all respectful. I can guarantee that, if this were not a "fully moderated" thread, that would most definitely not be the case. Sadly, there are many, many people out there who seem to thrive on taking the opportunity to make fun of terrible events like this when they connect to people such as Mike/Christine Penner. And me. I transitioned in a pretty public place too: on the job as a high school teacher in a high-profile conservative district eleven years ago, the first such event to happen in the US.

I can't pretend to know why Christine went back to using the name Mike. It is possible that this was one of the many cases in which the required "real life test"--spending a year living in the gender you were not born into--proves too difficult and the subject reverts because it really was never "right" in the first place. Or perhaps the difficulties were external and specific to the career that Penner was working in, the afore-mentioned hyper-masculine world of professional athletes. We'll never know.

What I do know is that, though I was accepted--officially--as Penner was, the fight did not end there. Prejudice and bigotry do not disappear by executive fiat. Even now, eleven years later, I have to deal with bigoted parents pulling their children from my classes not because of my teaching reputation--I'm known as one of the best in the school--but for my past. The love of my own children, the joy I feel in reaching new kids each year, my church, and my 2.5-year marriage to my husband have helped me through many difficulties. If Penner did not have supports such as these, the internal struggle could easily have led to the result we have so sadly seen.

To those who cannot imagine what that struggle is like, I suggest this:

You know that you are a male or a female simply because you know it. You don't need to look down at your body to verify the fact. That is how I have always known it too. But each time I looked down at my body all of my younger life, I saw the wrong thing. I tried--so hard--to make it all work, but it fell apart. Ask yourself: if you woke up tomorrow and, for some inexplicable reason, you were suddenly in the body of the opposite gender, but still absolutely yourself, and there existed some way you could rectify the situation, wouldn't you take it? I woke up this way every day of my younger life. And there was a way. And I finally did take it.

Penner, when she called herself Christine, was heading there too. It was something--I know--that she had been feeling all of her life. It was a deep, unresolvable pain, an emptiness that never stopped, that could never stop because it was renewed each time she, in that male body, interacted with anyone at all. And then, as it was finally coming to fruition, after she had done the hardest thing imaginable and taken the very public step of becoming herself, something went irretrievably wrong.

That the editors at HuffPost had to moderate the thread to prevent it from becoming overwhelmed by the haters is a sad comment on our society. I can't help wondering, though, if that fact is somehow connected to Penner's suicide. You cannot stop the ugliness of the world, and for some people it is just too much to take.

RIP Mike/Christine.




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2 comments:

Apex said...

A very sad event -- leads to thinking how unfortunate it is that human nature is so harsh, especially considering the evolved world we live in today.

I cannot begin to imagine the ordeal one goes through when they encounter these circumstances, and I won't attempt to pretend that I do. It's just plain awful that society puts such pressure on those who are different from the majority; not only does it cause situations like this, but it suppresses individuality, creating pain for the more expressive types, and a miserable lifestyle for those who don't adapt to the norm.

As a high school student, I'm part of a demographic that displays this characteristic of human nature particularly more so than other age groups. We practice somewhat of an continuous form of "mob mentality". Say a peer of mine hears his fellow classmates calling a kid "gay". He, in all likely hood, follows suit, "fitting in" and avoiding being targeted himself. The target now has his entire demographic attacking him. This isn't limited to students -- this happens to teachers, coaches, anybody interacting with the age group -- with varying effects. Sometimes the kids don't even mean to do what they do, they're just following the group. Heck, I've done it before without realizing it.

For this reason (among others), I hate my demographic. I've seen this kind of behavior lead to things from firings to deaths, quite personally. This isn't some silly joking going on between kids.

I truly hope that our species learns to treat others with respect, regardless of their varying characteristics or what is considered the "social norm". Sadly, I don't see that happening any time soon. The best I can do is just exercise that view on my own, and hope that others do the same.

sunspark said...

What a thoughtful, powerful and honest response, Apex. I've heard these things too, and seen them. We had a teacher at our school--he retired years ago--who was (sadly) guilty of gay-bashing *in the classroom* (as I was informed on more than one occasion). I called him out on it, of course, but I doubt that it did any real good.

Keep fighting the good fight. Change comes slowly. In my lifetime I've seen it happen for black people, and I've seen slow changes for gay people even in high school. Time is the balm here. It may not come "any time soon," but it will come.

sunsparks

it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
unmoving
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be


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