In the mid 1990s I went through a midlife gender identity crisis without knowing it. At the time, a set of unusual scenes repeatedly played out in my head. Disembodied hands squeezed, stretched, and punctured a collection of fleshy abstract shapes. Now and then a skinny adolescent male in cleats jumped up and down on the shapes or ran across them. The images were so vivid and insistent I started recording them in a sketchbook. When I had enough images, I made a short animation and titled it Luscious.
As these scenes were coursing through my head, I started having sexual fantasies in which I had a penis. Sometimes I had sex with men in these fantasies and sometimes with women. I worried that maybe I wasn’t a lesbian. I wasn’t sure what I was. It was only after I completed Luscious in 2006 and started screening it at film festivals that I put the sexual fantasies together with the scenes in Luscious and figured it out. I’d been going through a gender identity crisis and my psyche had been working it out for me.
My tantric sex teacher took one look at Luscious and suggested I experiment with dick play – strapping on a dildo and acting out various male sexual fantasies. Seemed like it could be fun and I’d had plenty of experience strapping it on before, but not taking on a male role. I was just pleasuring someone else and enjoying myself at the same time. This was something new. I was assuming a different gender and enlisting another person to take part in my role-playing.
The full force of my discomfort with male role-playing didn’t hit me until my teacher suggested I pack – wear a flaccid penis and balls tucked into my underwear that would allow me to walk around with the sensation of having male genitalia. That freaked me out. What if I had a car accident and the medical people saw my Packy Pal? Or what if I was taken into custody for some reason and the police patted me down? How would they treat me? Would I be thrown into a crowded holding cell where everyone knew I was packing? Maybe they’d beat me up. I don’t know. I hadn’t worked out the details. I just knew it scared me.
My teacher sells Packy Pals to suburban housewives who clean their house wearing them or strap them on when they need a little power lift to confront their husbands. I’d been in the gay and lesbian community for 25 years and here I was more afraid of gender bending than a straight suburban housewife. It was embarrassing. But it was real. When the online sex store that sold the Packy Pals couldn’t distinguish between my credit card shipping address and billing address, I was terrified that UPS would deliver a flaccid penis to my accountant.
On April 26, 2007, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner wrote a column announcing that he was going away for a few weeks and would return as a female sportswriter named Christine Daniels.
The news spread like wildfire across the Internet. Over half a million people saw the column and the vast majority responded favorably. I was overjoyed for Christine and deeply moved by her bravery. I followed the response to her column for a few weeks then got back to writing my own sports column for an online tennis site.
I didn’t think much more about it until November 2009 when the Times announced that Mike Penner had killed himself the day after Thanksgiving. What had happened to Christine? Did she find out that she wasn’t a woman after all and was unhappy in any body she inhabited? Or was the stress of transitioning from male to female more than she could bear?
The world has changed significantly since Mike Penner was a young boy in Inglewood, California. Today there are boys as young as five years old who insist that their parents refer to them as “she.” If the behavior continues, these children can receive medical treatment that delays puberty and prevents them from turning into the man or woman they don’t want to be. After puberty, the teenager can start hormone replacement therapy. These treatments enable transgender children to pass seamlessly as the gender they identify with when they become adults, though it comes at a high price. Hormone replacement therapy immediately after treatment to delay puberty causes sterility.
Christine would not pass seamlessly. She was 49 years old when she started transitioning. The boy had settled into her body long ago. She was over six feet tall and had a noticeable Adam’s apple.
Like most people who transition, Christine lost her marriage. Her wife Lisa filed for divorce shortly after Christine’s article announcing her transition. Unlike most people who transition, Christine kept her job. But that also came at a price. Instead of following the path of her friend Christina Kahrl – a baseball writer who transitioned in 2003 but waited until 2004 to announce her transition publicly – Christine agreed to the Times’ request for a written public announcement and also agreed to write a Times blog about her transition. All of which made her an instant celebrity. She appeared on radio and in newspapers, she spoke at transgender and queer conferences, and Vanity Fair had a piece in progress.
Transitioning is difficult enough but now Christine had to do it in full public view. And there was no going back. As Kahrl told The Daily Beast, “When you put yourself on a stage in front of millions and you’ve been propelled into the role of a celebrity in a community of people that has almost no national celebrities, it’s impossible to go back from it. She or he was permanently ‘Christine Daniels-comma-transsexual-sportswriter’ or ‘Mike Penner-comma-transsexual-sportswriter.'”
Christine would eventually have had to change her byline in either case, but time was an important ally. Autumn Sandeen, a transgender activist and friend of Christine’s, told me that male-to-female transitions take much longer than female-to-male transitions because estrogen takes longer to do its job of softening male physical characteristics and developing a woman’s curves.
In the spring of 2009, my adoptive mother died at the age of 96. I was devastated because I’d had a very difficult relationship with her. She had a terrible temper. Sometimes she’d get so angry she’d start hitting me and wouldn’t stop until my adoptive father pulled her away. And I always suspected she took me in for the ample financial support that came with me courtesy of my rich birth father. While it was unlikely we’d have resolved our differences even if she’d lived to 150, at least there was some hope while she was alive. Now that was gone too.
The first thing to go was sleep – an Ambien couldn’t knock me out. Then, for about a year, my behavior became erratic and dangerous. After a driver accelerated past me on a freeway onramp, I gunned my car and raced past him, clipping his bumper and bashing the side of my car. When a parking attendant charged me full price for a lost parking ticket, I angrily spun my car back to the parking lot to look for the ticket just as she started to cross my path. She walked right into the side of my moving car. After I was sure she was okay and calmed myself down, I realized Mother’s Day was only a few days away. I was already getting counseling, but I knew I needed something more before I killed myself or, even worse, someone else.
I put a note in my calendar before major family holidays of the year – Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas – to remind me to do a mother ritual. I’d sit down and have a conversation with my dead mother. I’d tell her everything I appreciated about her and everything that made me angry. The point was to remember that I’d be more disturbed near holidays and try to prevent any unconscious destructive behavior. The ritual helped. I still scraped my car on permanent structures here and there, but I managed to avoid putting any more humans in danger.
In June of 2010 I went to San Francisco for the weekend to celebrate Gay Pride. One evening, I was enjoying a dinner party with a group of women when the subject turned to death. One of the guests had lost both her parents when she was eighteen years old and her partner had died of cancer. After dinner I walked up to her to commiserate.
“I can’t imagine how hard it must be to deal with so much death,” I said. “My mother died last year and I’m still a mess. I could have used that Victorian ritual of wearing black for a year after a parent dies. At least I’d have been prepared for a long, dark journey.”
“Yeah, it is difficult but eventually you get better,” she said. “You might find it helpful to look at Victor Turner’s work with liminality. He was an anthropologist who studied the Ndembu tribe in Zambia. He developed his ideas based on van Gennep’s work with rites of passage. I’ve been using it in my university work.” With that she sent me off to Wikipedia.
Arnold van Gennep discovered that rituals for life transitions had the same structure in tribal cultures whether they were rites for initiations, weddings, funerals or any other change in social status. The rites consist of three phases: separation, liminal, and incorporation. In the separation phase individuals leave behind their previous social identity. In the liminal phase their old identity is gone but their new one hasn’t developed yet and the place in between is confusing and painful – Turner described people in this phase as “betwixt and between.” In the incorporation phase individuals move into their new role in society.
I now understood that grieving was a liminal space. That I was in the middle of yet another identity crisis. I could cling to my old identity as the unlovable child and continue to suffer, or I could move into my role as an adult and figure out a way to resolve my mother issues. In the process I’d probably feel like crap, but I’d eventually get through it.
Later that Gay Pride weekend I met a transgender activist who told me that in her opinion, some men transition later in life in response to a midlife identity crisis. They aren’t transgender, they’re autogynephiliac – they get sexual pleasure from thinking of their body as a woman’s body. Was that why Christine transitioned? Maybe it was just a response to a midlife identity crisis. I knew she’d had heart surgery before starting her transition, and I knew she’d announced her transgender status to long-time friends after recovering from the surgery. Had a brush with death moved Christine to transition?
Then I thought to myself: If autogynephilia applies to men, what’s the female version of that? The term is autoandrophilia and I realized that it applies to me. I get off on acting as if I have a man’s body. Now that I understood who I was, I went back and looked at Luscious again. My psyche hadn’t just been pulling my body apart in Luscious, it had been carrying out its own version of gender reassignment surgery.
Luscious had been separating my old body from itself piece by piece then transforming it into new pieces. A hairy fleshy shape had been stretched into a long phallus, then torn from a cartilaginous disk encased in throbbing blood vessels. A bone was plunged into the nipple of a breast-like shape, which was then thrown against a wall and, finally, its skin pulled off. A concave fleshy shape was blown up and stretched out over a table until its walls were so thin it looked like an empty genital sac. In the last scene I took a scoop of the new flesh and slapped it on my face. My face absorbed the flesh, then returned to its original shape. I had incorporated my new body.
I’d managed to go through a midlife gender identity crisis and symbolic gender reassignment surgery largely unconsciously, much the same as I’d traveled through the first year following my mother’s death. Our culture no longer has the rituals or the attendant guides and shamans to help us through the most difficult parts of a transition. We don’t wear black anymore. After a funeral, which is the only ritual for death in most cases, we suffer through disturbing behavior without really understanding why.
By the fall of 2007, celebrity had taken its toll on Christine. In October she’d broken down at the Vanity Fair photo shoot when she realized the images would present her as a man dressed as a woman. Later, the writer for the Vanity Fair piece told the Times that Christine did not pass as a woman. It’s one thing to get a curious look on the street or hear people whisper as you walk by, but exposure to that treatment on a national level would have been devastating. Christine fought hard to kill the Vanity Fair article and succeeded, but the episode marked the beginning of a withdrawal from public life. She stopped returning calls and emails from transgender friends and activists and canceled public appearances.
In April 2008, one year after her public announcement, Christine took disability leave from the Times. She was suffering from severe stomach pain. She cited the stress of dealing with her mother’s prolonged journey towards death, accompanied by dementia. In June, Christine’s mother died and Christine was hospitalized with stomach pain and depression. After she left the hospital, Amy LaCoe, one of a few transgender friends who stayed close to her, insisted that Christine stay at her house until she felt better.
Christine had scheduled her gender reassignment surgery for July. When that day finally came, she lay staring at the ceiling in Amy’s spare room, paralyzed by depression. Amy finally got so frustrated that she pulled the sheets out from under Christine and yelled at her to get her life together. Ten weeks later, Amy went on a short trip. When she returned, Christine picked her up at the airport dressed as Mike. Mike Penner returned to the Times in October but the spiral continued.
In January of 2011, I saw a movie of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. In the movie version, Shakespeare’s main character Prospero is replaced with a fiery female protagonist much like my volatile mother. Prospera uses magic powers to wreak havoc on those responsible for stealing her duchy and casting her off to sea with her young daughter. At the end of the movie, she renounces her magic powers and wants nothing more than to return to her home where she will die. Over the movie’s closing credits, a haunting female voice asks us to pardon her faults.
Walking down the long staircase outside the movie theater, I remembered visiting my mother in the nursing home where she spent the last year and a half of her life. She sat in her wheelchair in the dayroom looking off into space, a shriveled version of the terror I remembered. When I sat down beside her, she kept repeating, “She’s all mine, she’s all mine.” My sister turned to me and said, “She’s talking about you.” I might have been born to another woman, my mother was saying, but I was all hers, she was my real mother. Did she take me in for the money? I’ll never know for sure. Did she love me when she died? Yes, I was sure of that. And that would have to do. It was time to move forward – to accept the love my mother had given me and forgive her faults as best I could.
After Christine de-transitioned, Amy asked her the following question: “If you could be born all over again, would you be born as Christine or Mike?” “Oh Christine, definitely,” was the quick and sure answer. So Christine had made the right choice – she was a woman. But she never completed any of her transitions. She halted her M2F transition and withdrew from her celebrity status – though by then it was too late. The celebrity surrounding her coming out prevented her from completing a successful transition back to Mike Penner. She was stuck in the liminal space between the man she’d been for many years and the woman she longed to be, a place far too painful to endure with little hope of reaching the other side.
If Christine had completed her gender transition before her mother died, would she still be alive today? There’s no way of knowing. But it seems clear that she wasn’t prepared for the pain and suffering that followed her mother’s death. This was yet another transition and it sent Christine into yet another liminal space and the identity crisis that comes with it.
She was now going through two identity crises and the second one may have been too much. Especially as our culture has eliminated or reduced the rituals that used to help us through such difficult times – mourning rituals that used to last a year or longer may now be over in a few weeks.
If Christine had understood the full scope of pain and suffering even one transition can entail, maybe she’d have taken the advice of her friend Christina Kahrl and spent her first year as a woman in private. After de-transitioning, Mike Penner wrote a Times’ sports blog called Totally Random that required no face-to-face contact with the sports world. Clearly the option was available.
At the very least, Christine could have de-transitioned without the devastating feeling of having disappointed the transgender movement, for which she’d been an important public figure. She might also have found the time and space to come to terms with the loss of her mother and move on to the next step in her transition: gender reassignment surgery and a fulfilling life as a woman.
Illustrations by Carolyn Stockbridge
This is a reprint of work originally published in Witness.
Nina Rota is a writer and filmmaker. Her writing can be found in Witness and Inside Tennis. Her short films have appeared in Getty Museum’s Pacific Standard Time project and Anthology Film Archives. She lives up under the Hollywood sign. Visit her website or find her on Twitter: @ninarota.