THE BLOG

Why Don Ennis Hasn't Failed

08/11/2013 07:26 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

In May, ABC News Producer Don Ennis announced that he was leaving his wife of 17 years and would henceforth live as a woman named Dawn.

A few days ago, Ennis announced that he would resume living as a man and that he was "misdiagnosed".

It probably wouldn't surprise you to know that many disparaging articles have been written about Ennis, both in mainstream media outlets and by bloggers even less-known than I am. Some of those articles, of course, are little more than transphobic rants. Others question the validity of gender transition, hormones and treatments, or the very notions of transgenderism or Gender Identity Disorder (GID) themselves.

Then there are those -- from trans as well as cis, straight and gay -- who say or imply that Ennis's sojourn into life as a woman had failed, and that he himself failed.

(Throughout the rest of this post, I will refer to Ennis as "Don" and by male pronouns simply because he is now living as male. My choice should not be taken as a judgment of his gender identity or whether or not he was mistaken in living as Dawn.)

Before I underwent my gender-reassignment surgery, I lived for six years as a woman. During that time, I was part of a number of support and therapy groups and participated in many activities (including the writing of a pamphlet on how to find and access health care in New York) for and involving transgender people. In my travels, I met and talked with perhaps a couple hundred people who were in various stages of questioning, identifying, coming to terms with and finding ways to live with their gender identities. Some had never even gone out in public while presenting as the "other" gender; others were living in the gender by which they identified for even longer than I've been living mine.

I recall one male-to-female who had been living as a woman for longer than she could remember, she claimed. However, she decided to "return" to living as male. I knew others who, after a few sessions with our groups (or with their own therapists), decided that they weren't "really" transgendered or that they simply didn't, for various reasons, want to transition. I also recall a few who decided not to continue with their transitions after spending a few months, a year or even more in what used to be called the "real life test".

The "test" was ostensibly designed to sort out those who could stand to live in the "opposite" gender from those who couldn't and, by implication, those who were "truly" transgendered from those who weren't. Of course, calling it a "test" implied that some would fail. However, unlike other tests, those who "failed" couldn't study and re-take it. They also couldn't -- or, at least, felt they couldn't -- pursue an alternative path in the way that someone who, say, fails pre-med courses might decide to study business or the humanities. Having "failed" at the thing they'd always dreamed of was simply too crushing a blow, and filled many would-be transsexuals with such shame that they killed themselves. An example of such a person is, I believe, Mike Penner, the award-winning sportswriter who quietly retreated from a life as Christine Daniels which, though brief, cost him his marriage, most of his friends and familial relationships and much of his professional career and reputation.

Now, I'll grant you that Ennis's explanation of why he's returning to his life as Don is a bit bizarre. However, I don't think that his decision is a rebuke to his earlier decision to live as Dawn (or to any person, trans or not, who lives for any amount of time in the gender other than the one to which he or she was assigned at birth) any more than it is an indication that he didn't have the courage, commitment or any other quality necessary to change the life he had known. I cannot pretend to know whether or not he was "really" transgendered or what his motivations may have been for returning to his life as Don. Only he could ever know those things.

During my own transition, I encountered other would-be male-to-female transgenders who, frankly, fit society's notions of womanhood (in terms of physical attractiveness, demeanor and other qualities) far better than I ever could. I also encountered would-be female-to-male transgenders who were, or could have been, "better" (again, by society's standards) as males than I ever was. Yet they decided not to transition. Then there are those who seemed even more unlikely than I was, and who had surgery and are now leading fulfilling lives.

The point is, a person's decision to transition -- or to retreat from such a transition -- is in no way an indication of success or failure, or fitness to live in one role or another. Don Ennis had his reasons for living as Dawn, just as he did for returning to his life as Don. Others have their reasons: I knew people who didn't transition because of finances (one major reason I didn't begin my transition until I was in my 40's), because they fear losing marriages, families, careers and other trappings of their lives, because they fear ostracism, violence and worse, or because of any number other factors. Whatever the reasons are, they don't invalidate a person's decision to transition or not--or to end a transition early ,as Don did, or later, as at least one of my acquaintances did.

If Don Ennis, or any other person, can begin a gender transition, revert from it and understand why he or she did so -- and live authentically, however he or she chooses to live -- I don't understand how it can be considered a "failure" or "chickening out". We applaud people who know themselves better after experiencing tragedy or disaster, or for committing transgressions for which they later atone. Why can't we do the same for someone who makes an informed and conscious decision to live an authentic life -- as, I hope, Don Ennis is doing?