LA Weekly has a very long, thorough and heartbreaking look at the story of Christine Daniels / Mike Penner that is worth reading. The article’s not always comfortable to read.
I’m not going to analyze all of it here, but one thing it touched on in a few places was the effect that “trans celebrity” had on Christine:
Daniels heard from so many voices in those weeks that four days before her piece appeared, she lashed out. In an e-mail to Winter, she griped that she felt “overwhelmed by everything and everyone. I feel as if I am being used as a pawn by the trans community (and maybe the Times as well). I have been close to tears many times. … I am flat-out exhausted.”
Clarifications and the Big Nebulous “We”
I want to be clear on a few points. This pressure isn’t presented as the reason for Penner’s suicide, though it may have contributed to her withdrawal and made it harder for the help she needed to reach her. It should also be mentioned that Daniels’ decision to be public in the first place was the product of many influences, of which we were probably one.
Any discussion about pressures from the community also calls for a bit of discussion about what that community is. “We” are often a reluctant collective of varying and conflicting perspectives, the more visible and audible part of which is often interpreted as the overall community. I refer to “we” at times here, as much an acknowledgment that I’m a part of that as it is a statement to anyone else. But many of the things attributed to “we” are statements or actions of individuals, rather than any collective consensus. We as individuals can’t control how “we” as a community will be ultimately seen, we can only define our own contribution to it.
And finally, I apologize if pronouns are confusing in this article — I’ve tried to use pronouns that best reflect the period of time in question or person’s perspective relative to the subject discussed, but because of the history, that can be confusing at times.
Visibility as a Straitjacket
The story recounts how the trans community latched onto Daniels, and heaped onto her (but was not the only source of) encouragement that she be visible. Her very public position and subsequent acceptance at the LA Times ran contrary to the negativity many trans people face, and people took this as a source of inspiration — but in the process, she felt herself being transformed from Christine, a person, to Christine the Icon. It deprived her of the freedom to be herself, which was the whole point of transition in the first place. One friend remarked to her that “… she was writing a blog about how great it is to dress and color her hair and wear makeup and it was kind of very tranny…”
Daniels didn’t take kindly to the critique, e-mailing back to end the friendship. “I think what I’m doing is correct. If you’ve got a problem with it, it’s your problem. … I’m a real woman who loves makeup and clothes, shoes. A woman, not a trans-anything who needs to quote-unquote represent some undefined community. For the first time in my life, I’m being true to myself, and my true self loves makeup, clothes, shoes.”
And yet as incredibly unfair as the expectations were to her, there was probably some inevitability. As a community, trans people are often starved for mentors and respected role models, hungry for hope and validation, and at the same time very particular on how those public figures “represent” us (or divided on whether anyone should represent us at all), leaving it apparent to the person at the centre of the conflict that individuality is completely out of the equation. If you do something that aligns with the cliches often used to portray us, then you’re misrepresenting; if you disagree with one philosophy or another, then you’re pandering or “not real;” if you speak out, then you’re arrogant or opportunistic; if you don’t speak out, then you’re abandoning people. It becomes a minefield.
Added to this was the pressure of “passing” — of trying to meet the varying standards of physical presentation among society, among her support systems, among her community, and among a carefully watching public… all during those wobbly hatchling -style first months to a year in which most transitioning people are not polished or perfect.
When Penner’s death hit the news, I noted another person visible at a notable newspaper who was transitioning at the same time, and how their paths diverged (the other person reaching a fulfilling benchmark at that time). This person is now gradually moving on, something she clearly needs to ultimately do, with our blessing. If Daniels had not returned to life as Mike Penner, would we have allowed her to do the same when the time came?
If our idols have clay feet, it’s often because we build them that way.
In the end, we wanted Christine to be happy and to be herself. I don’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say that. But a mistake was made in thinking that what we (that collective “we” again, which might not reflect everyone) needed was always exactly what she needed too, and that she had to be a champion of that. In the end, we sometimes push people into a spotlight they’re not prepared for, we’re not always kind to or appreciate the people who do willingly take up our cause and speak, we ignore their personal needs, objectives and limits, and then we forget them.
Challenge ultimately helps us to grow, when we are able to react the way we need to. But to be challenged and then have one’s options closed off by expectations while all eyes are upon them… that is a horribly stacked deck.
Christine’s example presents a challenge that trans people need to face as a community, because as much as we may be desperate for our Chaz Bonos and Stephen Ira Beattys, we have to recognize that it is patently unfair to push a person to take a representative role and then decry them for it. When the Shiloh Jolie Pitts are held up in news articles raising questions about whether they’re trans before they’re old enough for benchmark experiences like one’s first kiss (which, granted, is not our doing), we have to leave the need for representation and validation out of it and let people become who they will inevitably need to be, in their own time, and with whatever journey they need to undertake to arrive there.
More to the Story
There was more to the story than the “trans celebrity” issue. In the end, Mike Penner / Christine Daniels was torn apart between who he was, who she needed to be, and a love who was desperately wanted as a part of that life. This is something that many of us are familiar with, and a conflict that we should have been there to support through, regardless of how he was presenting or how she wanted to express herself.
It’s unfair for the community to take responsibility for the decision that was made the evening of November 27, 2009. I would like to think that our wishes had always been for Christine to do whatever she needed to do for herself, and that our respect of her decision at the time to return to living as Mike Penner illustrates that — if we put her on a pedestal, I’d hope that it was an entirely unconscious act. But even so, this is a terribly tragic lesson we need to learn from going forward, speaking to the need to accept each other as individuals, to limit the challenges we place on each other (especially when those challenges are coming at others from a multitude of sources), and to provide support without condition. Which some, like Amy LeCoe, tried to do:
As LeCoe was leaving, Penner’s brother John stopped her to hug her; he said he doubted Penner would have lived as long as he did were it not for her care.
And then, something startling occurred. As she walked by Dillman, who had never met any of Penner’s transgender friends, the ex-wife halted another conversation to greet LeCoe.
“I know what you did for Mike and I just want to thank you,” Dillman said. She gripped LeCoe’s hand with what LeCoe describes as a “very warm, two-handed handshake.”
“You’re really welcome,” LeCoe replied. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”