There’s a fascinating and heartbreaking article in the current L.A. Weekly, written by Steve Friess; I’m writing in reaction to the article so I suggest you read it first and then come back here.
Friess hits the area of my focus right away:
In many ways, Penner’s path was standard-issue for those born male who have an inexplicable yet ultimately undeniable desire to be female. He would sneak into his mother’s closet in their Anaheim home to try on shoes and dabble with her makeup, then scrub it off shamefully before vowing never to do it again. Then, of course, he would do it again, a new helping of guilt raining down on his Catholic soul.Why would Mike Penner feel guilty? And what does it have to do with his Catholicism?
Well, I can’t address all the alleged Catholic hang-ups about sex but almost anyone raised with a Bible-based religious core would struggle with a sense of “this is wrong” because, in fact, the Bible says it is wrong (Deuteronomy 22:5), that the person who cross-dresses is an abomination before the LORD. Note, however, that it’s not a stoning offense, as are adultery, male homosexuality, and bestiality (as I read it, the Hebrew scriptures don’t address female homosexuality, although Paul does in Romans 1:25-27), but it’s clearly an offense against God. Please note, I am writing from the perspective of one who is convinced that the Bible is indeed “God-breathed” and, while no translation is perfect, that God is capable of defending His word and the document evidence for the integrity of scripture is so strong I am convinced we can trust it, as God’s word. So arguments based on “the Bible is wrong” are simply not arguments I’m addressing; that’s someone else’s purview.
There’s a really interesting statement that Jesus makes in Matthew 19; He’s been explaining God’s design for human sexuality to some Pharisees who ask Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” (this very liberal approach to divorce was the current practice in ancient Judea). When Jesus tells them that the only legitimate reason for sundering a marriage is adultery, they are horrified: His disciples say to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” And He responds:
“Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”Right there we have evidence that Jesus (God in human flesh) knows that human sexuality doesn’t work perfectly. It this one of the multitude of results due to the fall of humanity? I suspect it is, coupled with an active enemy who preys on our more base nature and encourages us to exalt it. So I don’t see the argument that a person might be “born” with certain sex-related proclivities as bearing on what is the good and righteous exercise of our sexuality. Jesus gives us God’s perfect way and acknowledges that there are people who will not be able to accept it. He doesn’t damn them, He doesn’t advocate stoning them (that era had drawn to a close), He doesn’t even say, “If you don’t agree you have no part in Me.” He simply says, “This is how it is; accept it if you can.”
In this very sad story of Mike Penner we read of a man who is encouraged by sizable portions of society to embrace the temptation that caused him shame — and to reject the shame. I don’t know anything about the kind of psycho-therapy Mike Penner received before deciding to become Christine Daniels but I am quite confident that a significant portion of it would have denied shame and worked to make him feel “better” about his desire to cross-dress and encourage his fantasy of being a woman.
A “compassionate” world encouraged a man to make choices that separated him inexorably from his wife, who could not tolerate the essential change in identity which he embraced: she married a man, he repudiated being a man, she divorced the person who now identified as a woman.
I’m sure there are those who think that Penner’s wife is one of the villains in the piece, that if only she’d been willing to love Christine Daniels as she loved Mike Penner then everything would have been fine. There are certainly those who think society’s hang-ups (read: Bible-believers who persist in clinging to the values taught by the Bible) are the cause of Mike Penner’s misery.
The truth is there will always be differences of opinion and reaction; we cannot make society “perfect” — the longing for “utopia” is ultimately harmful because it interferes with the real work of improving the society in which we do live and minimizes the possibility of appreciating and enjoying reality.
So, in the real world, there will always be people who won’t support the fantasy: Mike Penner may have been happier ‘in his skin’ when he dressed and behaved like a woman* but he couldn’t get people in general to tell him he was attractive as a woman (this reminds me of the scene in Junior when an earnest Judy Collins tries to tell cross-dressing Arnold Schwarzenegger, the pregnant man, that he is beautiful); one of the realities that women experience on a daily basis is that we are not all equally beautiful, sexy, and attractive. A sex-change operation wasn’t going to make Christine into a beautiful woman; a certain amount of plastic surgery could have made her a more attractive woman but how acceptable is that, within the transgender community? Does the transgender community demand that society stop responding to beauty? Shades of early feminism demanding that men accept unshaved legs and stop preferring smooth ones, in high heels and nylons….
Ultimately Christine and Mike both were faced with the reality that life isn’t perfect and it isn’t “fair” and you can’t expect to get all the benefits and none of the liabilities. Chances are that, somewhere in there, somebody told Mike that if his wife really loved him, she would still love him as Christine, that the essential person hadn’t changed. While that might sound good and true in a greeting card kind of world, it’s just not reality. Mike’s wife wasn’t a lesbian and she wasn’t interested in having a wife; for her there was a huge loss, essentially a death: her husband was no more and, worse, he was choosing to be no more, to instead become female. Apparently Mike believed that, as he became Christine, that he could bring his wife around — but that was a fantasy, delusional.
Well-meaning souls who encouraged Mike/Christine in this delusion did him/her irreparable damage— good intentions simply do not change outcomes.
So what would the outcome be, if Mike had instead wrestled with God and the prohibition in Deuteronomy? Mike may well have continued to intermittently and secretly cross-dress and play with make-up and indulge the fantasy of being a woman in his head. And he would have felt ashamed and he would have resolved not to do it again. And he would be alive. He would not have had that heady year of transgender celebrity, the swirl, the attention, the fun. But the possibility of continuing to grapple with it, to reconcile himself to God, to try and figure out why he had to keep such a tight lid on “Mike”, to uncover and recognize the lies he had believed about himself, about what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman, to recognize and mourn the reality that we live in a fallen world and some people are “born eunuchs” and what did Jesus mean by that, anyway? He would have had the possibility of continuing in a marriage with a woman he clearly loved.
Which is the better outcome? Is the repudiation of Biblical morality and shame really more compassionate?
Footnote: *this raises a really interesting question: why did Mike think that as a man he couldn’t be gregarious and friendly? What if Mike had worked on bringing the qualities of Christine into Mike rather than changing the body of Mike to conform with Christine?