By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
And then the ultimate step: Daniels ordered LaCoe and others to start calling her Mike again.
LaCoe says it felt like the reverse of what the wife of a male-to-female transsexual sees during the transition. Christine morphed back into Mike by shucking the hormones, allowing patchy facial hair to return and her breasts to deflate.
"It broke my heart, but I couldn't judge her," LaCoe says. "That would have been hypocritical."
De-transitioning is so unusual that there are no solid data about it. Psychiatrists who treat transgender people say it happens in less than 5 percent of cases.
Transgender activists say "going back" is inaccurate. People who choose to abandon transition are simply giving in to overwhelming stress and grief over what they lost from their previous life.
Certainly Penner's decision to stop taking the feminizing hormones played a role in his deteriorating life, but the extent can't be known. No studies have been conducted to determine whether withdrawal from the hormones can cause depression, but mental-health professionals who work with transgender people say patients who have stopped taking the drugs report feelings of distress.
"When they start taking hormones, they begin to express changes in their psyche — they're more able to focus, more able to feel empathy, concern for others," says Antioco Carrillo, a counselor with many transgender clients at the nonprofit Community Counseling Center in Las Vegas. "Once they go through the process, when they have stopped it, they go back to being depressed because it contradicts what they experienced. I don't know if it's the medication, but it is about the worldview."
Bowers believes Penner put one foot in the grave by abandoning the transition. "If we had done surgery, it probably would have saved her life. Now she died as an unhappy soul who never got a chance to align her body and soul, and that's the greatest tragedy about her."
Although many issues were at play at this point, one stood out: Penner repeatedly told friends his return to a male lifestyle was a last-ditch effort to reunite with his wife in some way.
"I questioned whether or not there was any hope there, and I told Mike that, and Mike seemed intellectually to understand that," LaCoe says. "It's like, 'Oh, yeah, nothing's promised.' But there was that hope that if Christine was gone and never coming back, then just maybe.
"There was at least a time when Mike would say, 'I'd settle for being her close friend. I'll settle for anything.' "
Penner's byline returned to the L.A. Times in October 2008 without any public notification, and his divorce from Dillman became final on October 24. Penner and Dillman began to lunch together occasionally after that, but it was always awkward, LaCoe says.
Friends say Mike Penner 2.0 was sullen, visibly depressed and quiet, the opposite of Christine Daniels. And occasionally, there were mixed signals, like the time Diana suggested they go to a play in Malibu and Penner asked if maybe he ought to go as Christine. (He did not.)
At one point that fall, LaCoe accidentally called him "Christine," then quickly apologized. "No, that's okay," Penner told her. "One of the best years of my life was spent being Christine. But I'm never going back."
Late in 2008, Penner went back to Metropolitan Community Church. It was the last time the Rev. Thomas saw him. The two stole away for a brief, private chat after the service, and Penner surprised the pastor.
"He looked at me and he said, 'Don't you ever believe that I've given up being Christine,' " Thomas recalls. "I knew exactly what he meant. Everything about his body, everything about his fabric, everything that made him human was still screaming, that had been screaming for 40 years, that got to the point of Mike transitioning to Christine.
"But he hoped returning to Mike could possibly lead to reconciliation with Lisa. He loved Lisa, there was no doubt about it."
That it took Penner as long as it did — until November 27, 2009 — to kill himself is, in retrospect, surprising. LaCoe and Diana spent the summer of 2009 contending with what were clearly attempts at drug overdoses and Penner's constant talk of ending it all. Nobody knows how consistently Penner was taking his antidepressant medication, but the wild mood swings and suicidal chatter increased.
Penner was hospitalized twice in 2009, once in a psychiatric hospital after his brother, L.A. Times copy editor John Penner, learned he had made suicidal comments. LaCoe met and bonded with John Penner at that point. He told LaCoe he had never seen his brother happier than in the heyday of his life as Christine.
Two days before his death, Penner called LaCoe and asked if she could help him obtain a gun. LaCoe asked why and Penner said, "I'm at my rope's end here."
LaCoe refused to discuss the matter further and reminded Penner she had already repeatedly refused to assist in Penner's self-destructive plans. She and Diana insisted on taking Penner out for dinner that night, and when they arrived the mood seemed deceptively lighter.
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