The road not taken
In early 2007, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Mike Penner was one of two high-profile transitioners to hit the new. Unlike former Largo city manager Susan Stanton, who was run out of town, Penner's story had a happy ending. The Times stood behind Penner, who rechristened herself Christine Daniels, even giving her a blog to chronicle her transition. While I'm sure neither Stanton nor Daniels wanted to be poster children for the transsexual communities, they nonetheless became ones.
Now comes news that Penner has de-transitioned and quietly returned to work as Mike. The blogs by Daniels have all been removed from the Times' website.
The news has been a bit of a shock to the transgender communities, even if Penner is far from the first person to de-transition. It's left me feeling a variety of things — mostly sorrow. I'm sorrowful that I'm sure Penner's de-transition will be misused by Christianist fundies to argue in favor of discriminating against trans people. But mostly I'm sorrowful for Penner. In interviews and her blog posts, Daniels seemed so happy and full of hope– maybe a little naively — about her future. Whatever has transpired over the past 18 months, Penner must have become pretty miserable to have reached the point of deciding to go back, and even if he has no regrets about doing so, I'm sure he's still hurting at the moment.
If deciding to transition is one of the hardest decisions someone makes in their life, deciding to de-transition is arguably even harder.
But the point of "real life experience," as it's known, is precisely to find out whether living full-time as a different gender is something you want to to do for the rest of your life. Sometimes you only figure things out by trying them. People make life-altering decisions in all sorts of ways. People get married, get divorced, take jobs and quit them, they move cross-country. Sometimes it's a bad decision, sometimes it's a bad decision that others can see but the person involved can't, sometimes it's what seemed like a good idea at the time, sometimes it's was a good decision that had unexpected consequences.
Why do people de-transition? Sometimes male-to-female transitioners can have unrealistic expectations about what life is going to be like as a woman, the sexism they have to live with — in addition to the homophobia they can also encounter if their attraction to women means they go from being seen as straight men to being seen as lesbians. Needless to say the sports world probably wasn't friendliest place for a MTF transitioner. Sometimes trans men discovered that while becoming men bring privilege it also brings burdens they'd never imagined. Likewise, they can under-estimate the hostility they encounter from some lesbians who angrily denounce them for switching teams. Likewise, sometimes people get stuck in being seen as trans woman not women (or trans men, not men). All of which can be too painful to handle. After all the point of transitioning is usually to make life easier, not more difficult.
Some do so because they can't find jobs as their desired gender, especially if there are children involved. Presumably that wasn't an issue in Penner's case, so I'm guessing he had other reasons for doing so. While I don't know Penner's reasons, I know friends of Penner who assure me that it was a exceedingly painful decision he made with a lot of thought and counseling.
It's possible Penner still sees himself as transsexual, but decided other things in his life — such as a relationship — were more important than transitioning. I know people who transitioned at a glacial pace, or who de-transitioned because of this.
It's possible Penner realized that he's a crossdresser, not a transsexual, and living as a woman part-time satisfies his needs. Part of the problem is that it's so difficult to explore gender. Crossdressers easily outnumber transsexuals 10:1, but the vast majority are so incredibly closeted they're the "dark matter" of the trans spectrum. For most crossdressers, life is akin to being gay or lesbian pre-Stonewall. I was exceedingly lucky that 1) I never felt guilty and shameful about my crossdressing like so many of my peers are; and 2) that when the need to express that side of myself that society deems "feminine" came on stronger than ever before in my late 30s — like it does for so many others — I was single, living alone and mostly working out of the house. Which meant I could more-or-less spend as much time en femme as I wanted to. For me, I discovered that after a certain amount of time en femme I hit a saturation point, and I'm happy to go back to being a guy. A friend of mine who firmly believed she was also "just a crossdresser" was in similar circumstances and ended up transitioning after realizing that she was essentially living full-time as a woman outside of work. When you don't have that sort of freedom to explore you gender identity, it can be hard to figure out where you are on the trans spectrum.
I hope one lesson people would learn from this is that it's OK to experiment with your gender; that it's OK to be uncertain about your gender; that being convinced you aren't gender A, doesn't inherently mean the only alternative is to become gender B. Because sadly, even within the trans communities, there's not always a lot of space between.
Crossdressers and other non-transitioners are all-too-often on the receiving end of the same sort of disrespect from transsexuals that bisexuals get from gays and lesbians. We're afraid to commit. We don't have the courage to come out. We're the little sisters tagging along and embarrassing them in front of all their friends. Etc. Etc. Announce that you're planning to transition and there'll usually be a round of "You go girl!" You rarely hear similar cheering when someone says that they've thought it through and figured out that they're "just a crossdresser." Likewise, I've heard comments that "oh, she must just not be ready," or that "she just needs more time." Which leaves me livid. Because it presume to know more about Penner's gender identity than he does, in the same way that some sports fan snarked about Daniels being a "man in dress." In the same way some transsexuals presume to know where I am on the gender spectrum. Sadly it's the people who've made the biggest messes of their own lives who seem the most determined to have their own choices validated in the lives of others, and who are the most vocal in encouraging others to follow blindly in their footsteps.
Which is precisely why I think that regardless of Penner's reasons we should salute him for the courage to make the hard — and I suspect humiliating — decision to change course after he decided transitioning didn't make sense for him. It's his life after all. Because question really isn't about whether one should transition or not — the question to ask oneself is: what kind of life (one the addresses my transness) do I want, and who will be part of it?