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The Need for Post Transition Support (Part 2)

A follow up to the Mike Penner/Christine Daniels saga.

The LA Times posted a long follow up article on the suicide of Mike Penner/Christine Daniels, the late LA Times sportswriter who transitioned on the job (and which I wrote about in a previous post)

A few things stand out as contributing to the suicide:

  • A very painful separation and divorce from her wife.  Complicating matters was the fact that they worked in the same office and wife expressed her wish to avoid all contact with Christine. (I’m certainly not blaming the wife for contributing to the suicide; I’m just saying that the separation and circumstances were painful for Christine.)  There was also the loss of the wife’s family, who Penner was close to.
  • Being a public figure, she got some harsh (and ignorant) public criticism of her ability to “pass”, which was hard on Christine.
  • Christine being thrust into and accepting the role of spokesperson for transgender issues when she probably wasn’t ready or personally strong enough to deal with the media scrutiny.  Then having disagreements with trans activists who objected to Daniel’s emphasis on appearance in her blog.
  • Daniels withdrew from friends, church and public appearances.
  • Daniels’s mother died.
  • Daniel’s focused on her transitioning as the root of all her problems and tried to de-transition in hopes of reuniting with his wife.

What are the lessons that can be gleaned from this?

  • There is a great need for support during and after transition.  Don’t underestimate the need for supportive people and institutions.  Including friends, family, support groups, therapy, religious institutions, knitting circles, etc…  Its like drinking water in the desert – you have to do it even if you’re not feeling thirsty – if you feel thirsty its too late – you’re already dehydrated.
  • Withdrawing is not the answer.  It will only make things worse.
  • Very often when people find themselves a part of a new group they feel they have to be a spokesperson/activist/possess complete knowledge of said group.   That’s great if you want to do that, but it should be a conscious choice and not an obligation.

Find out about Psychotherapy when dealing with Gender variance in yourself or someone close to you.


Parents dealing with Gender Dysphoria in young children

This NPR piece ‘Two Families Grapple with Sons’ Gender Preferences
Psychologists Take Radically Different Approaches in Therapy‘
by Alix Spiegel is from a couple of years ago, but its still relevant. “It wasn’t until Halloween when her 2 1/2-year-old son decided to dress as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz that Carol began to worry….“ (its worth reading the whole thing!) The article follows two children from ages two to six.

In the case of 2/1/2 year old ‘Bradley’ the family tries to convince him to be a boy by taking away feminine toys and directing his play resulting in Bradley’s withdrawal. It is another demonstration of the impossibility of authentically changing someone into someone their not, and the inadvisability of blindly following one doctor’s suggestions considering the enormity of the issue and potential consequences. (see a previous post on this issue here).

In the case of ‘Jona’, the parents reluctantly went along with the child’s direction of wanting to be accepted as a girl, and happened to find a psychotherapist that encouraged the approach, with the result of a happy, healthy and even popular child.

The article quotes Dr. Ken Zucker, the Canadian psychologist and (controversial) gender expert who treated ‘Bradley’ as saying: “Suppose you were a clinician and a 4-year-old black kid came into your office and said he wanted to be white. Would you go with that? … I don’t think we would,”

What’s wrong with that question? I think it’s important to note that these kids had long-term, persistent and strong identification as girls since they were old enough to communicate preferences. The example that Zucker brings up would be something a child learned later on in response to prejudice. That would be something about their environment that they don’t appreciate, not something about themselves. Also, continuing with Zucker’s question, that situation would never happen in an environment where there were only black people. Transgender people are found in all environments and societies, even homogeneous ones.

The article brings up another concern for me, that of what I call the ‘hidden transgender’. Both children in the article were strong enough to try and push for their authentic identity with their families. (One was successful, and one not) Not all children can do this and some learn early on that they must conform and ‘pretend’ to be their natal gender (the gender they were born with). I’ve seen a good many of these individuals later in life when they can no longer tolerate living in their birth gender, and by the time they come in for therapy they have lived a life of pretending and suffering the emotional consequences.  The ‘hidden transgender’ doesn’t really come to the attention of NPR, parents or doctors, yet they suffer in silence for years.

 

Find out about Psychotherapy when dealing with Gender variance in yourself or someone close to you.


The need for Post Transition Support

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the suicide of Christine Daniels / Mike Penner (October 10, 1957 – November 27, 2009). To briefly summarize, Mike Penner was born a genetic male, and around the age of 48 transitioned to female (Christine) and wrote about her transition and life as a sportswriter for the L.A Times. Because of her high profile, there was a lot written about the story (NPR).  The transition included a painful divorce.  About a year later she started using her old name of Mike Penner in her/his byline signifying some return to the male gender, and then suicide. So we are left with a lot of questions about what went wrong.

The incident raises the question of aftercare for post-transition individuals.

My experience is that people come into therapy when they want to transition, and very often their focus is on physical and practical matters, such as hormones, Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS), voice, facial hair, etc.. People have been focused on ‘transitioning’ for so long in their own private thoughts and the process is so involved that very often the individual and perhaps their therapist are not as focused on what happens afterwords. The gender dysphoria has been such a problem in one’s life that ‘transitioning’ comes to be seen as the solution.

Many other problems emotional and otherwise are understandably not addressed because of the overwhelming nature of gender dysphoria, and so it can be something of a rude shock to find these issues emerge after transition.

There also can be some level of dissatisfaction with the outcome of transition, one’s presentation, and various maintenance functions that are needed to maintain the gender identity.

Relationships with family, co-workers and others may be challenging.  While the transgendered person has had a lot of time to think about their gender and transition, other people in their lives have had much less time.

For MTF (Male to Female) transitions, there’s the problem of suddenly experiencing sexism.  In addition one might be suddenly seen to the outside world as lesbian, if one’s sexual orientation is towards woman.  If someone has been living life from a place of male privilege, and never having been in a discriminated against group before, this can be a pretty big adjustment to make.

I can only imagine that Mike/Christine suffered from some of these problems.   What has your post-transition experience been like?  Did you seek any type of help specifically for post-transition issues?

 

Find out about Psychotherapy when dealing with Gender variance in yourself or someone close to you.


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