On Mike Penner, by Sara Davis Buechner

This short piece on the suicide of Mike Penner/Christine Daniels was written by Sara Davis Buechner. Thanks to Helen Boyd for getting permission for the reprint.  A piece on Sara’s transition was published in the Times about three weeks ago.

On Mike Penner / Christine Daniels
30 November 2009

About two weeks ago I was the subject of a New York Times profile, published in connection with an important piano recital I gave on November 11 in New York City. I had transitioned from David Buechner to Sara Davis Buechner in 1998, and my life since then was the focus of writer Mike Winerip’s article. I’d like to add that Mr. Winerip struck me as a very fine writer, an extremely nice (straight) man, and that one of his motives in writing about me was to applaud the younger American generation’s healthier sexual attitudes, acceptance and inclusiveness.

In many ways I do agree with his thesis, and my own story mirrors some of that. In some ways I disagree as well, and readers of that profile will note it was in Canada and not the USA that my life improved immeasurably in terms of being able to marry, obtain a job appropriate to my skills, and to gain a daily healthy lifestyle — by which I mean simple things like holding my spouse’s hand while walking anywhere in the city of Vancouver without a second thought (I don’t do this in New York except for the Village). I can’t say that I feel as though I owe the United States too many thanks for helping me out over the years.

I’m joining this blog discussion from the standpoint of still answering about 200+ e-mails, primarily from folks of the LGBT community who contacted me to tell me that my story gave them hope and inspiration. I was very touched by the words I’ve read about me here on this website, too — thanks very much (I am very grateful for a site like this people can find REAL information, sensitivity and insight). Acting as a role model is a new experience for me. I am used to playing the piano in front of people, enjoying music together, bowing to applause and greeting people afterwards for a few kind words. But I’ve pretty much left discussion of my TG experience on the back burner for a number of years. I’ve not addressed it much. Mostly that’s from the good fortune of living in a country where it doesn’t seem to matter (I think that trickles down from the government establishing equal marriage for all, by the way).

Anyway, I’ve been in a very positive frame of mind for the past few weeks, until yesterday reading about Mike Penner / Christine Daniels. That story hit me like a ton of bricks. And I felt suddenly that I wanted, even needed, to say something about it, and that’s why I’m writing.

I read the story on the LA Times website, but also online from the NY Daily News and NY Post — all accompanied by comments by posters ranging from sympathetic to rampantly hateful.

Suddenly I’m not in a very positive frame of mind anymore.

I never knew Mike/Christine, and I’m referring to him/her dually here — as I never do otherwise — because I’ve not seen it clearly articulated yet what his/her final wishes on the subject of chosen gender were. Please correct me as may need be; of course I am sensitive to correct address and I want to do the right thing, properly and respectfully.

I see Mike/Christine as an accomplished person in the media field — it’s not really the arts but a close cousin in journalism — making the change publicly in midstream. Not in a famous Today Show entertainment business way as with Chaz Bono, but well-known enough in a chosen professional field, and that’s why it seems very similar to my own tale.

In the midst of my transition ca. 1997-98 I remember well going to support groups and meeting people addicted to drugs, drink, people selling their bodies for sustenance. I had never met people like that before. “There but for the grace of God go I,” I often said to myself, even as paying my own rent and making ends meet became tough. Out of loneliness mostly I did a few marginal activities in the darkness of the Manhattan downtown too. At least I always had a bed, a roof, and some food. Yet I too would sometimes drink for days on end, or wildly swallow every pill in the medicine cabinet, or just sink into profound depression for days on end. It’s hard to transition, just plain hard. Hard when young, hard when old, hard when poor, hard when rich, hard whatever color or station, wherever, whenever. And of course, even after living as Sara for a year or two or even three, there were times when I thought: “shit, life was easier before, even if I was miserable. Who needs this?”

And worst of all, I remember how embarrassed I felt. Embarrassed that, at age 40, I didn’t look like 20 for sure, and nobody’s pin-up. My boobs weren’t great, my nose and chin are still too damn big, my first vagina was a mess (second operation fixed it mostly). Embarrassed by my fucking voice (I still get “sir” on the phone all the time but I don’t give a damn and I’m not getting my vocal cords sliced up). Embarrassed by the looks of all my old male friends whose eyes and attitude told me: I know you’re really just turned on wearing panties and a bra, you cross-dressed cocksucking pervert. Embarrassed and ashamed by ex-lovers (hated), ex-friends (lost), ex-employers (fired), ex-family (gone). People called my poor parents to tell them how sorry they felt for them. I was often embarrassed just walking down the street and riding the subway. The looks, the comments, the constant sense of condemnation. “There but for the grace of God go I,” I sensed some people thinking. Fair enough, maybe, a good lesson in judgement for me.

In Japan, it’s called “losing face,” and it’s understood that you SHOULD off yourself if your face is lost.

It’s absolutely true that none of us should make any pronouncements about Mike/Christine. I have no knowledge of his/her individual situation, or what caused the suicide. It may have been wholly non-gender related. Of course, in my gut, I doubt that — because I have been there, and done that. And I can say from experience, I know how close it was, how just a bad day or two, a few words from someone who was once a friend or family, can make a difference. In terms of making a decision and taking action that cannot be re-thought.

And I guess my main thought today is — let’s shelve some of that NY Times self-congratulatory “Look how far we’ve come talk” for a while. Just read those ugly comments on the websites. Look how far we need to go, to get past a society where there is such pontificational opinion, such condemnation, such busybodyness about others. To the point of hatred and violence. To where we are mocked and maimed and killed for walking on the street. To where we can’t hold hands with loved ones, out of fear. To where intelligent and accomplished people like Mike/Christine have to endure so much to be true to their heart. You know, in a better world, that news of change would and should have been just a big nothing — no news at all. “Oh, Mike is now Christine. And how’s her column about the Dodgers today?” Or “Christine is back to Mike now. What’s he got to say about the Lakers?”

We need to aim for the day that we really can embrace the fullness of our humanity and celebrate the kaleidoscopic ways in which we are made. I pray it comes in my lifetime. But as I said, I don’t feel very positive about it today. Nonetheless, I’ll be stubborn and choose to celebrate the life of Mike and Christine as one of incredible courage and accomplishment. What a proud and beautiful human being.

Sara Davis Buechner
Osaka, Japan

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2 Comments

  1. Posted December 2, 2009 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    When I first heard of Mike Penner decision to become Christine I remember thinking “That’s brave.” When I heard that Christine was going back to being Mike I thought “No..now THAT is brave.”
    When I learned of Mike’s/Christine’s death it hit me like a bowling ball to the gut.

    Sara is right to say we don’t know the “why? ” of it. Yet we do. If we’re to be honest about it. Like Sara I have put a lot of my transition experience in storage but this story stirred up a lot of shit. Shit I thought I had secured. The usual parallels (The Fucking Bastard Parallels) make their unwelcome apprearance and, like corpses on the razor wire, hang around way too long.

    Rest easy love. The world is just a bit more shite without you.

  2. Gina James
    Posted December 6, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this, Jenny.

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