Gender transitioning in the spotlight: A cautionary tale

There is probably nothing to a couple of recent reports that Caitlyn Jenner is considering de-transitioning and going back to being “Bruce Jenner.”

But the reports do serve to remind me — and others, perhaps — of the importance of the one-year (or more) real-life test period for anyone who seeks to gender transition. And to let it be known to people from the outset that such a period exists.

I don’t recall if Caitlyn made such a declaration from the outset, and I suspect that few transitioning people actually do mention it. In most cases, it doesn’t have global implications: for the average person who transitions, they need only announce their transition to immediate families, friends and colleagues, and if they decide after a year or so that they don’t really want to transition after all, it’s not such a big deal for anyone.

But what about people like Caitlyn Jenner and the late Christine Daniels/Mike Penner of the Los Angeles Times? They made their transitions very public. I don’t think I need to expand on that in Caitlyn’s case: everybody is hearing about her — and there is no doubt she is a party to the publicity machine and is profiting from it.

But the story of Christine Daniels/Mike Penner should serve as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when the media exploits a transitioning person early in the process.

I used two names for Christine/Mike (but will use female pronouns) because when the former sports columnist came out, it was big news. She received a lot of celebrity treatment from the media, LGBT organizations like GLAAD and various hangers-on. She also was the target of ridicule and criticism from the usual right-wing types and, very sadly, from some journalists.

It was all too much for her. Within a year of coming out as Christine Daniels, she decided to go back to being Mike Penner, saying something to the effect of “That’s why they call the first year ‘the real-life test.’ ”

But she struggled with it all and, so very sadly, took her own life not long afterward. Her minister was quoted in an article saying that although she had de-transitioned, she never stopped feeling she was a woman. She never really stopped being Christine.

There is no way of knowing just how much the public pressure played a part in Christine de-transitioning and then taking her own life. But it is probably safe to say it did play a part, and perhaps she would still be alive today if she hadn’t gone public with her initial transitioning announcement and hadn’t lent herself to so many very public transgender functions and causes with such groups as GLAAD.

Thing is, it’s hard to say ‘I need to do this as privately as possible’ when so many are looking to you to be a role model and a spokesperson. And, no doubt, it’s difficult to stop yourself from getting sucked in to the glamour whirlpools of media coverage.

I can’t remember any trans people criticizing Christine. She was loved, and she seemed to have a lot of support from the so-called “transgender community.” But it wasn’t enough. (Personally, I really miss her. I used to post comments to her L.A. Times blog, and she was a major inspiration for me when I came out and started blogging for my own newspaper.)

Caitlyn’s transition, of course, is getting much more publicity than Christine’s did. And, sadly, Caitlyn is the target of much criticism from trans people, as well as right-wingers and such.

So, what if Caitlyn decided to go back to being “Bruce”? In theory, she should be able to do so without any criticism, with understanding from all concerned, and without a media circus.

But would it be so easy in light of all the applause and awards presented to her perhaps too prematurely in the transition process?

Perhaps the media should consider adapting a rule: no major publicity for any trans people for at least a full year after they make their coming-out announcements. Hold off on the applause and the awards until the transitioning person has had enough time to be sure of what she or he is doing, and has established themselves in the gender to which they identify.

— Jillian Page

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4 thoughts on “Gender transitioning in the spotlight: A cautionary tale”

  1. “Perhaps the media should consider adapting a rule: no major publicity for any trans people for at least a full year after they make their coming-out announcements.”

    I think this is a very good idea. And I hope LGBTPerspectives.com leads the way by not having any more Caitlyn Jenner stories until she’s been out for a year.

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    1. Thank you, Dianne.

      LGBT Perspectives does not qualify as a media outlet; it is a wordpress blog offering commentary/perspectives on LGBT issues and stories in the news. We will comment on Caitlyn Jenner reports in the media when they are relevant to the lives of other transgender people.

      To qualify as a genuine media outlet, a publication should be recognized as such by the google masters and appear in their newsfeed, after meeting several criteria.

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  2. A very Kind and caring article. In talking to Trans friends I tell them, their transition is their transition, and not the communities, and that there are three things to be. BEING SELF ACCEPTING, HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF, and KNOWLEDGE OF BEING TRANSGENDER. These are my thoughts and they have been working very well for five years now. We will always be Trans, and there are many Ignorant people in this world that will at times impose themselves on you and that is why the above three items are important to really Be Aware of, for your well being. Be proud and appreciate your Gift of living in two genders.

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  3. Stories like this remind me of the importance of having appropriate psychological support in transition. Few of us know what kind of stressors and supports that Christine Daniels had, or that Caitlyn Jenner has. Transition is no easy process for anyone, no matter how prepared we think we may be. A few who do transition socially discover that it isn’t their “home” after a while.

    Early in my own journey, one of the most striking narratives I read was in Kim Stuart’s “The Uninvited Dilemma”. In it, she relates the transition story of one person who transitioned, including surgery, only to come to the conclusion a couple of years post-op that in fact s/he was actually a gay male. Of course, that left this person in a very difficult place in life. I have never forgotten that story, because it represents to me the importance of acknowledging the reality that even approached carefully, transition can have unexpected outcomes for anyone.

    Psychological support is always an important aspect of transition, and I would always encourage people to make sure that they have access to ongoing support to help them make the best choices for their situation and needs. For some, that will be all but minimal, and for others it can be an ongoing process. Above all, it can help with ensuring that you are being mindful in your life, which is always a good thing.

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