Mercedes Allen

Celebrity, Role Models and the Sportswriter

Filed By Mercedes Allen | August 23, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Christine Daniels, LA Times, Mike Penner, role models, sportswriter, suicide, transgender

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.Christine-Mike.jpg

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 center 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."

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Seeing how the Trans community is treated in the press in today's era is heartbreaking. I've watched & waited for many years hoping things will change & still believe that progress is being made (yes slowly slowly). Still hard to believe how amazing to see positive progress with the Marriage issue (step by step).

Read about my Life as a Hollywood 'Extra'. Just google: John Starr Blog

These quotes from the article say it all.

"She said she felt used by the trans community"
"the paranoia over being used by other transgender people for their causes"
"a growing rift between Daniels and some in the transgender community over how she was portraying transsexuality in her blog"

When people first come out, the activist community looks so enticing, so warm, so accepting; not really.
You can accomplish so much more by just being yourself, rather than what the transgender activist minority asks you to become.

It's not that one-sided, and you're misconstruing what I'm saying a bit. Activism does have its value, and can in fact be quite important. What I'm saying is that nobody should be pushed, pressured or coerced into activism, and that people need to know the risks.

I'm actually in the middle of a series on trans activism which became necessary because of a growing number of people locally who are interested in getting involved since things like the delisting of GRS coverage in Alberta. But it was important to preface the series with a chapter on expectations which reads like a "why you should think twice about doing this."

Activism isn't the problem. We need activism. The problem is recruiting people who aren't prepared for the consequences, and then not adequately equipping and supporting them.

"You can accomplish so much more by just being yourself, rather than what the transgender activist minority asks you to become."

What do you think transgender activists want you to be?

I've never known any activist who wants anyone to be anything other than happy and true to themselves. We don't get frequent flyer miles (I'm updating the toaster reference) for everyone one who transitions. No activist worth their salt would force someone to do anything that they weren't ready for, or be someone who they truly weren't.

A very thoughtful piece, Mercedes. One of the most uncomfortable parts of running Bilerico is the people who run up to thank me "for all you've done for the community" or some such. I don't want to be role model; I'm a loudmouth.

If I get that on such a small scale, I can't imagine what it must have been like for Christine/Mike.


I find that too. It can actually be really uncomfortable to meet people when they've got this distorted idea of who you are, expecting some kind of mythic figure. It's weird, and leaves you with this feeling that things can only deteriorate from there.

Sarah Bellum | August 23, 2010 4:52 PM

This was truly a heartfelt article. Thanks.

Angela Brightfeather | August 23, 2010 8:20 PM

I loved your article and the prespectives you brought to it Mercedes. I do take exception to the remark "You can accomplish so much more by just being yourself, rather than what the transgender activist minority asks you to become." as submitted by Geena.

This viewpoint that activists in our community is a bad thing and drives people to do destructive things to themselves and others is just so much twisted bunk that it is hard to unravel, because it addresses so many people and generalizes the good work that so many activists do.

I am sure that Cristine's position in the media had a great deal to do with her difficulty in dealing with notoriety and exposure. On the other hand, I look at other people like Dianne Schroer and marvel at her ability to handle the same kind of challenges. Which only proves that we are all different and at the same time equally susceptable to being human and heroic, or human and unable to cope with certain things.

But demonizing activists is silly.
Activism in the Trans community is so relatively new, Geena's expectation of it being perfect enough to address individual stresses is totally unrealistic. The process of activism in the Trans community is still in it's infancy and any expectations of it being perfect while still in the discovery stage is not only unrealistic, but also demeaning to those who try the best they can to do a thankless and unpaid job, inspired only by their desire to help others and better their lives. I am sure that many GLB people have been unable to deal with notoriety and being cast as role models and in the process have committed suicide also. I do not see that stopping GLB activists and I do not hear GLB people condeming their activists and asking them to onkly work in one way for needed changes, nearly as much as I hear Trans people demonizing their own activists. I assume there is a reason for that, maybe maturity, although I question the validity of that reason in light of the fact that being Transgender is not one of those things in life that gets better for people just because time passes on. Being out and educating others about being Transgender is not easy and I know very few people who do it that get compensated even for their gas money for speaking at meetings and participating in forums all over the country, almost every day of every week, when asked to explain what being Transgender is about, in 60 short minutes.

I am as deeply sorry about Christine as I am about many of the people on the Remembeering Our Dead website. But the fact is that Trans activists did not push her over the edge of the cliff and she was not the first and won't be the last person who is Transgender that has taken her life in a desparate need to cope with a society that heaps challenges on us every day to conform to gender expectations, while Trans people are simply trying to live and love themselves and search for acceptance and some kind of future.

Personally, I had no expectations that Christine and her decisions would change my life or that of other Trans people where I live. I do not ever consider that there are short term solutions that activism can change. The changes that we need are going to take a long time to realize and activism over the long term will make those changes posssible, as well as being out and letting others experience us. But blaming the people who are working for those changes, instead of those who prohibit, block and deny those changes is the purest example of exactly what is wrong and always has been wrong with the Transgender Community. Christine is another example of why all gender diverse people need to pull together to support, learn, and unify for things that are to numerous to list here.

The Diane Schroer comparison doesn't completely work, because there was more degree of separation from both community and media than Christine had. Otherwise, excellent points.

Fenna, if it wasn't for that 'transgender activist minority' as you so derisively put it, many of those laws that protect trans rights wouldn't exist, the media would be far more disrespectful in its coverage of trans people, we wouldn't have as much support in the GLB and ally communities and the 'tyranny of the majority' aimed at trans people would be far worse.

There is only so much that an individual can do to effect change as part of a marginalized group.

It takes a group of committed individuals working together to speak truth to power and stand up to injustice

Exactly. And as long as our opposition can muster a seemingly limitless pool of verbal contortionists and fearmongers, we do need the people who are willing to be out there and vocal. We just owe it to them to let them know what they're in for, and leave the choice up to them.

My own thought is that it was and would be a lot to take on, to deal with the inescapable challenges of transition and simultaneously be a symbol for the community. As I wrote when I got the news of the suicide:

"Confronted with one of the most difficult existential challenges possible, Christine Daniels was put in the unique position of being asked to do even more than 'just' rise to that challenge. To be, literally all at once and entirely in public, to be *all* of the things that so many people wished her to be? When she already had to shoulder so much? I cannot imagine the strength involved.

"People frequently comment to me about the courage it must take to be transgendered. It's always well-intentioned, of course, but at least in my case, I can say that it's also not true. What animated me to finally come to terms with myself was the complete exhaustion with fear, fear of myself, and of being something other than the person I'd tried to be to accommodate the sensibilities of family, friends, and colleagues. Transition usually involves new tensions and new dangers, but it also provides tremendous relief, that the old fear and shame is something you can at long last begin to shed. But to do that, with millions watching as you make the attempt from the outset? *That's* courageous.

"I doubt we'll see Christine's like again. If we do, I hope that we've learned something, and that we don't break her by asking so much of her at once."

To which I would add that there was no way I would have had that strength when I came out in 2003. Subsequently becoming active within the community was something I worked up to, only after settling into comfort in my own skin.

As tragic as Mike Penner's death was, I feel, at this point, it's being used as yet another "symbol" to talk about detransition, activism and suicide. People don't take their own lives for a single reason. It becomes an option/need for them for a wide variety of issues and events. I suspect many of the reasons given in different articles for Penner's actions have more to do with the assumptions of the authors/editors than with a need to find out some core truth.

There are many, many people in the trans community all throughout the economic and racial spectrum who take their own lives without so much as a blip. There are, I suspect, even more who are dealing with gender dysphoria and take their own lives before they even become an open part of the community. I would like to see larger discussions of support, advocacy and mental health services for trans people and stop focusing so much on this case because the person in question was a white celebrity.

No, and as was pointed out, we shouldn't be looking at this as though it was the reason for her suicide. It wasn't. What it might have done was to create a barrier to her finding help.

The point of the article wasn't even necessarily about suicide, but the effect of visibility and related pressures. Which this provides some tangible insight into, that we otherwise don't often have.

Dear Mercedes,

Thank you for this eloquently written article, it was much needed.


Marlo Bernier

I remember a long time ago (before I started blogging, in the first few years that I was out at college) I used to criticize the sort of lifestyle decisions famous gay men made. It seemed fair game because of that "we," that what they were was a reflection on me, that others would judge me by who they were.

Fortunately, there are plenty of out, famous gay men right now. But there were plenty 10 years ago, so it's probably more self-criticism superimposed on other people.

This is one of those situations that i think can be shared among all the LGBT communities. We tend to eat our own, hold them up to very high standards, and let them hang when they fail to meet them.

To your other point about fame being a barrier to obtaining the help she needed - yeah I agree. A very good friend who has just started to transition is/ was very active in the local gay community. She and her partner have been an openly gay couple for 14 years. One of the biggest hurdles in her transition is how this will reflect on her partner and her image as a "gay male" role model. To the point that she doesn't feel she can talk to a therapist or attend a trans group meeting.

On a completely different note, now that I've read the original article, I have to say how dismayed I am that nothing could be done to prevent this tragedy.

Christine did everything but take out a full page ad in the LA Times announcing she was going to commit suicide. She had been previously hospitalized, diagnosed as severely depressed, prescribed medication, tried to get a gun, and told people she had decided to end it all. How many more clues did they need to have the requisite history to prove she was a danger to herself and therefore needed to be committed? Her family's comment that they were suprised that she lived as long as she did is a testament to how clear her risk for suicide was.

What does it take in our society to save someone's life? And if someone is thinking of responding by saying that if someone really wants to kill themselves, there isn't much we can do to stop it, be prepared for a very pointed response from me.

If someone is at serious risk of suicide, you actually have to get aggressive about getting them help, because they'll otherwise refuse and fight it. That can sometimes mean having them admitted to hospital or other forms of intervention that families and close friends are often scared to do, for fear of hurting the relationship. They tend to procrastinate and hope that it will sort itself out.

Too often, it's a hard lesson learned too late.

Yes, exactly my point, Mercedes. Thank you.

I miss her. I can't remember the "Big Picture" or what it means for The Cause.

I miss her because she was my age, and her diary entries spoke to me. Spoke of me. I miss her not as a symbol, but as a person.

Maybe I should give back my Activist's license. I don't think I'm very good at it.