I Remember Christine Daniels on Transgender Day of Remembrance

Growing up, the only transgender person I’d ever heard of was Christine Jorgensen. Later, I knew of Jan Morris and Renee Richards and Wendy Carlos. I knew very little of transmen until I watched the terrific documentary Southern Comfort, about a transman dying of ovarian cancer, nearly a decade ago.

It’s only in the last few years that transgender people have become part of my life as friends–and family.

First there was my stepbrother Michael–now my stepsister Michaela. Of course it was quite a shock when I first heard the news that this handsome 50-something father of three was in transition; I had never noticed signs of gender dysphoria (we only became step-siblings as adults, and haven’t spent all that much time together). But as the only other LGBT person in the family, I was sort of the designated person to turn to for understanding–and it was a good challenge for me. I needed to read transgender writers like Julia Serano and consider if my old feminist attitudes about transmen and their appropriation of male privilege, or about transwomen and their performance of hyper-femininity, still held up under a present-day examination of gender. I decided that it was a lot more complicated than that.

I’ve also gotten to know the gorgeous and talented Kimberly Reed in the past year–a remarkable filmmaker and former high school football quarterback who documented her return home to Montana as a woman in her film Prodigal Sons. Having never known Kim as a man, she is simply a tall woman to me; the “trans” part disappears. I realize that it’s much harder to forget the man that was Michael, but that makes sense considering how much longer I knew him than I’ve known Michaela.

And then there’s Chaz Bono, with whom I co-wrote a book when he was still Chastity. He spoke often of his gender dysphoria while we were working together, and though he didn’t ask for my silence I kept it a secret until he eventually came out. I knew he no longer wanted to have breasts–he wanted to look in the mirror and see himself externally as he felt internally. And he looked forward to the idea of shaving (I asked). I knew he didn’t even consider himself a lesbian any more, but rather a straight man. At the time, though, he was unwilling to make the change because of the impact it might have on his mother, Cher. Obviously, as he turned 40, he realized that he had just one life to live, and despite Mom’s discomfort he had to live the rest of it in the gender that felt right.

Finally, there was Christine Daniels. And that’s the person I want to remember on this annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. I had read his work but never met Mike Penner, the Los Angeles Times sportswriter whose body Christine had inhabited until 2007, when she announced in the Times that she was now Christine, her new name inspired by Jorgensen and a Siouxsie and the Banshees song. Having just learned about Michaela’s transformation, I was eager to talk to another transwoman, and asked The Advocate for an assignment to interview her.

Christine and I immediately hit it off as we had lunch at the Avalon hotel in Beverly Hills. As the maitre d’ led us to our table, referring to us as “ladies,” Christine smiled and said to me, “I just love hearing that.” It was such an odd moment for me–”ladies” can often feel pejorative to a feminist; to a newly coined woman, it feels like validation.

After that interview experience, Christian and I had lunch together a couple of times, just for fun. I’m a sports nut and pop music lover myself, so we had plenty to talk about besides her experience of coming out so publicly.

And then she disappeared. She didn’t return my emails. The blog she was writing about her transition didn’t just stop being updated, but vanished entirely from the Times website. Christine’s byline went missing. And after awhile, the byline of Mike Penner returned.

But that obviously didn’t end the pain and confusion that Mike/Christine was going through. On November 28, 2009, Mike Penner ended his life and that of Christine Daniels as well.

Much has been written about Mike/Christine since then. Like me, some have wondered if she died as a man or a woman. One writer speculated that the depression that led to his suicide was the result of his breakup from wife Lisa Dillman, a fellow Times sportswriter.

Ultimately, the finger points back to a society that still has a huge difficulty accepting difference. I don’t believe Mike/Christine was killed by hate, as Transgender Day of Remembrance was designed to condemn while it gives honor to murdered transpeople. He died from depression and hopelessness, but that feeling had to have been exasperated by a world without enough room for gender divergent people to feel safe, to feel treasured, to feel validated.

I will always remember Christine. I’ll remember her in a dress, dolled up as the woman she felt herself to be. I’ll remember how happy she was–if only for too brief a time–in the woman’s life she had dreamed of since childhood. I’ll remember how she beamed with pride, and the long-sought relief of acceptance, when a man called her a lady.

Comments

  1. You do know how messed up it is to out a trans person's old name, right? It's one of the reasons that we *have* a Trans Day of Rememberance. People got so enraged that the press kept (and still do) reporting the birth names of trans people, especially those who had been murdered and we (our community) decided to put that right by publishing their actual names in a memorial list. This is our day, to remember our dead. And this article just proves that you don't understand. Not at all.

    How difficult would it have been to get a trans woman to write about this day, rather than somone who openly admits that they only became aware of trans issues a couple of years ago, and declares that she needed to not know somebody pre-transition (no, not "as a man." A trans woman has always been a woman, regardless of her presentation) to see them as a woman? It's our day to remember our dead. Having some cis person explain badly what trans people's experiences are like is not appropriate on this day, of all days.

  2. This article is deeply offensive, inappropriate, and insensitive to the Trans community. Between using the birth names, referring to the wrong pronouns for those who have transitioned, and the line, "Like me, some have wondered if she died as a man or a woman." This article is a disgusting display Cis privilege, and the voices of trans-people (or-if Ms. couldn't bear to allow trans-people to speak– educated trans-allies) ought to have been heard.

  3. Ms. Kort, I appreciate your honesty in attempting to explain your struggles to understand these issues. Even for you, a lesbian, and me, a heterosexual woman who was never comfortable with many aspects of the female gender role, these issues are hard to understand. Too bad there is no pleasing some people who seem more intent on burning bridges than appreciating the intent of what you said.

  4. franoramaworld says:

    I've read the post over several times now just to make sure I was reading the same article. As someone who's also transitioning MTF — and who was a longtime journalist, including a few years as a sportswriter — I'll take an opposing viewpoint here.

    Michele did NOT out Christine's old name or do her injustice by referring to Mike, any more than she did by mentioning Chaz's birth name.

    If you're not familiar with the story, Mike's transition to Christine was very much a matter of public record, and she wrote about it in a blog in one of the world's largest-circulation newspapers. As either gender, Christine was very much a public figure — a high-profile, highly regarded sportswriter who covered Olympics and Super Bowls for the Times.

    Unfortunately, her purge and reversion to Mike and unprecedented removal of her blog from the Times' site — and, sadly, her eventual suicide — were also very much a part of her story. And also very much a matter of public record. And her death — as well as her self-imposed silence, even shutting out her close friends, in the months before — left a lot of questions. And, just as sadly, there ended up being two separate memorials for her — the one by her family who remembered her as Mike, and the one held by the trans community who remembered Christine.

    Her coming-out predated mine by a few months, and having once been a sportswriter (with similar interests, such as a huge taste for music), I kept an eye on her transition as I was planning mine. And unfortunately, her story became my cautionary tale. Reading about Christine, and her incredible highs and eventual depths, made me catch myself at just about every step forward on the trip — "Is this what you really want? You damn well better be sure this is where you're going." I just rather, of course, that she were still alive to enjoy the life she was meant to live.

    Having been a sensitive person my whole life, and going through my own trip, I certainly understand the need for sensitivity in trans matters. But I'd like to believe, not knowing Michele, that if Christine and Chaz weren't people whose names and histories were already public information, then she wouldn't have outed them. And just how do you out someone who was already out — and quite open about it?

    As I see it, Michele was just fondly remembering, for the Day of Rembrance, a positive moment about someone who had some sort of impact on her life. Maybe Christine, and Chaz, helped a non-transperson understand gender dysphoria just a little bit better. And that's what I've been doing in my own way. As someone who has spent most of the past two years explaining to my family and friends what this journey is and what it isn't — and fostering understanding and reaping a lot of support and love for my troubles — I had no problem with this post.

    • Fran, what I said about her outting a trans person's birth name was in reference to her outting her step-sister as "my stepbrother Michael–now my stepsister Michaela" – if Michaela is stealth, and people know that her step-sister writes for Ms, then those people will now know her old name. It wasn't about outting a high profile figure like Chaz or Christine.

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