For the moment, let's turn the clock back to the spring of 2007, and one of the few times there's ever been a fairly apt metaphor from this corner:

While Microsoft was getting ready to ship Windows XP, they issued a list of computer components which they had tested with the new operating system, which was dubbed the "Hardware Compatibility List." If this video card or that modem was on it, you could use it with XP, and if it was not, well, you were pretty much on your own. The HCL had nothing to do with things like quality, you understand: some perfectly fine components were left off the list because they could not be, or at least had not been, persuaded to work in the XP environment. I have a very nice legal-size scanner that doesn't work on XP at all, and no XP drivers have been developed for it, which is why I haven't scrapped my old Windows 98 (Second Edition) box yet. Needless to say, it's not going to work under Vista either.

Oddly, this was what went through my mind when I read about Los Angeles Times sportswriter Christine Daniels, who until the last week of April had been Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner. Inasmuch as there are quantifiable, if not necessarily job-related, differences between "male" and "female" brain chemistry, I took Daniels' announcement as simply a statement that Penner's, um, hardware at some fundamental level was incompatible with Daniels' operating system, if you will, and that she was therefore making changes to improve functionality. This, at least, is consistent with every transsexualism story I've ever read.

Word of what I'd written got back to Christine Daniels; it didn't hurt that I was hanging out at, and occasionally commenting on, "Woman in Progress," a blog she was writing at the Times. This bit apparently struck her as amusing:

Daniels has one more advantage: she lives in Los Angeles, where they enforce beauty standards. She's gonna be hot.

In a November 2007 interview with NPR, she spoke about the transition period and how it works:

Technically speaking, there are standards that are called the Harry Benjamin standards. Before you can start hormones, you need to see a therapist for three months minimum, be approved by two physicians for sexual-reassignment surgery. You need to live a full year as a woman. It's called a real-life test. So my real-life test began in January. So I'm in my eighth month, and we'll see.

She saw, and evidently she didn't like. The Times, apparently at the writer's request, pulled "Woman in Progress" and the archive of Daniels' stories after a few months; in October 2008, Mike Penner's byline began appearing again in the paper. At the time, Zoe Brain observed:

The [Real-Life Experience] is hard, and in most places, dangerous. Looking like a woman, but having a male anatomy can cause arrest and imprisonment, despite it being part of necessary medical treatment. The patient must show they have the mental strength to endure the verbal and physical assaults that nearly every woman is subject to if they transition over age 25, and the sexual assaults if younger.

Mike Penner wouldn't talk about it. And I can't tell you what was going through his head. Had he been misdiagnosed with gender dysphoria? Had he placed too much faith in sexual reassignment, with or without surgery, as the cure for all his ills? Had someone threatened Christine severely enough to unravel the transition entirely? We will never know:

Colleagues said [Friday] that Penner was found dead at his Los Angeles home and that suicide was the suspected cause of death. He was 52.

This hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. And it took me rather a long time to figure out why it bothered me so. Mike Penner had found his life so intolerable that he had been willing to call a halt to it and start over, if not exactly from square one, at a point so far removed from where he had been, he thought surely it had to be closer to where he wanted to be. If you're lost in the woods, the only direction that matters is outward.

And so it fell to Christine to find the way out. When it didn't happen — well, you know the rest.

But then there's this: Friday, Mike Penner's last day on earth, I was watching a Brazilian romantic comedy in which poor, miserable Pedro finally finds a woman to lead him out of his life of loneliness, never suspecting that she was nothing more than a figment of his imagination. (I talked about it briefly here.) When he finds out the truth of the matter, he doesn't take it at all well.

Now maybe I'm seeing parallels that don't exist. It wouldn't be the first time I did. But as Zoe Brain says, there is a limit to human endurance:

It was too hard for Mike to become Christine. But it was too hard for Christine to revert to being Mike too.

And now we've lost them both, with no happy ending, in a world which would like everything to be nice, simple and binary. Just like computers.

The Vent

  1 December 2009

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 Copyright © 2009 by Charles G. Hill