With the post-Thanksgiving apparent suicide death of Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner (also known for a year and a half as Christine Daniels), gender transition regret is again a topic on the blogosphere. I explained why regret happens in my book "Transgender Explained For Those Who Are Not". Bloggers have brought up some additional points that I thought were worthy of mention.
As background, few people regret their gender transition but it does happen. In "USA Today", Ron Lawrence of the Community Counseling Center in Las Vegas was quoted as saying that about 5 percent of his transgender patients revert. The few studies I could find on the topic had an even lower percentage.
In Mike Penner's case, he transitioned to live as Christine Daniels in April of 2007, "de-transitioned" (returned to living as Mike) in October of 2008, and died this past November 27. Many have speculated that he de-transitioned because of regret and that regret could have led him to take his life. The possibility of regret fuels the idea that his initial decision to transition was thoughtless and ill-conceived. As writer Michael Triplett observed:
The idea that someone would detransition and then commit suicide tosses in a question that only supports the notion that transgender people are mentally ill and unnecessarily messing with gender identity.
The reality is that regret happens when the demanding challenges of a gender transition become overwhelming. Author Matt Kailey reminds us that:
Many of us have to "learn" new roles, behaviors, and expectations, and some of us are better at adapting them than others. Some don't care whether they fit in with the binary gender system's expectations or not, but many do. [For those] not able to fully assimilate physically, you must constantly live with the rude stares, the pronoun "slips", the harassment on the street, and so on, while still having to adapt to new roles and expectations. [And some] may not be completely comfortable in [their] new roles.
Blogger Autumn Sandeen of Pam’s House Blend also points out that:
[Gender transitioners trade] one set of problems related to having a hidden, real or perceived gender identity that's in conflict with one's natal sex for a completely new and different set of problems. That new set of problems often includes difficulties related to housing, employment, and public accommodation -- basically just dealing with others' biases and discrimination -- family issues related to one's spouse/ex-spouse and children, as well as having one's peers, friends and family still seeing you as either still a member of your natal sex instead of your target sex, or as a member of some "third
gender" rather than as your target sex.
Classical pianist Sarah Davis Buechner lamented the additional challenges that transgender women face in a society where all women face greater scrutiny. She recalls how she felt "embarrassed that, at age 40, I didn't look like 20 for sure, and nobody's pin-up. It's quite possible that Penner, a long-time respected sportswriter, was quite saddened by the additional scrutiny and loss of status in being a woman covering men's sports. And further saddened after de-transition because, as Sandeen noted, "The detransitioner won't fully
regain his heterosexual privilege."
When one is oppressed, it can be difficult to keep from believing what the oppressors are saying about you, or as Kailey puts it, "feeling that you are not 'real' somehow or that you are living a lie." Buechner calls it the challenge of living in "a society where there is such pontificational opinion, such condemnation, such busybodyness about others -- to the point of hatred and violence."
Of course, paternalistic treatment standards pose a challenge themselves. They require a year of living in the perceived gender, called "Real Life Experience" or RLE, before the therapist will write the letter required to obtain surgery. While not everyone wants, needs, or can afford surgery, living with one foot in one gender and the other foot in the other was one of the most difficult periods of my life.
But Penner could have felt challenged for another reason. Blogger LenaD speculated just after Penner's de-transition that:
It's possible Penner realized that he's a crossdresser, not a transsexual, and living as a
woman part-time satisfies his needs. For me, I discovered that after a certain amount of time en femme I hit a saturation point, and I'm happy to go back to being a guy. ... When you don't have that sort of freedom to explore your gender identity, it can be hard to figure out where you are on the trans spectrum.
Kailey summarized it this way:
For the majority of transsexual people, transition "works" -- it alleviates the
gender incongruity, it reduces or eliminates any depression or suicidal
ideation, and it allows for a happier, healthier, more comfortable, and much
more satisfactory life (and, in many cases, it allows life to continue) -- [But] it is
certainly not the perfect solution.
Many will have regrets about the consequences of their transition, but few will regret the transition itself. In the unusual case where the consequences were overwhelming enough to prompt a de-transition, the return to the old gender is seldom