November 25, 2010

"Wonderfully and Beautifully Human": Remembering Mike Penner, Transsexual Sportswriter


Every other Thursday I will be writing about LGBT Issues in Sport. Between each regularly scheduled post I may chime in with more posts if something comes up and/or I have the time. I have a serious academic interest in sport and in this column I’ll be highlighting current events, sharing resources, reflecting on complex issues and sharing athlete’s stories among other things. For more about me, you can read my first post, here. Please feel free to email me with thoughts or if you come across something you’d like me to include on the blog.

This post is the second in a miniseries about trans-identified folk in sports. Two weeks ago I wrote about Kye Allums, the first ever D1 collegiate athlete to openly identify as trans. He plays basketball on George Washington University’s women’s basketball team.
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I want to start this post by saying that I’m an ally for trans-identified individuals. That said, I’m still learning how to be a better and better ally (thanks, Lawrence, for already educating me in your first post!). I might make a mistake and I hope that if I do, you readers will correct me. I identify as cis-gendered. I don’t write that because I’m afraid that by talking about these issues someone might think I was trans…I write that because as a cis-gendered person, I have to acknowledge that while I can sympathize with transfolk’s struggles in our society, advocate on their behalf, and support the people in my life who identify as trans or genderqueer or something that isn’t 100% cis, I can’t positively know what it’s like. As human beings who share some characteristics, we have many shared experiences, but we also have different experiences and I am cognizant of that.

Before I even worked at my first women’s basketball practice my first year (and despite having spent the previous summer in the PR office for the Mercury), I pretty much thought that the only people intimately involved with the team were the coaches and players. Like some of the other naïve things one thinks as a first year, I was WRONG. There are other administrative staff members, athletic trainers and doctors, sports information and marketing folk and the media themselves (I’m probably still leaving out some people). It became pretty clear to me that a team isn’t just the 12 players and 4 coaches on the bench during the game. Just like those 16 people on the bench, though, media personnel themselves lead pretty public lives.

November 27th will mark the 1 year anniversary of Mike Penner’s suicide. A Los Angeles Times sportswriter for 25 total years, during his career he covered high profile events such as the Olympics and the World Cup, in addition to being the LA Angels’ beat writer and writing about tennis, the NFL and sports media, among other things. Despite some high profile assignments, Penner’s most famous column ran on April 26, 2007. Titled “Old Mike, New Christine,” he wrote that “Today I leave for a few weeks’ vacation, and when I return, I will come back in yet another incarnation. As Christine [Daniels]. I’m a transsexual sportswriter.”

In the column, he honestly chronicled the long journey to get to where he was. “It has taken more than 40 years, a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy to me to work up the courage to type those words…I gave it as good a fight as I possibly could. I went more than 40 hard rounds with it. Eventually, though, you realize you are only fighting yourself and your happiness and your mental health…When you reach the point when one gender causes you heartache and unbearable discomfort, and the other brings more joy and fulfillment than you ever imagined possible, it shouldn’t take two tons of bricks to fall in order to know what to do.” He quotes a transgender friend of his who told him that “We are born with this, we fight it as long as we can, and in the end it wins.”

At the time that it ran, he seemed reasonably at peace with his identity, understanding it to be part of how he was “wired” and explained to his readers that “[t]ranssexualism is a complicated and widely misunderstood medical condition. It is a natural occurrence—unusual, no question, but natural.” Finally seemingly at peace, he wrote that “[f]or more years than I care to count, I was scared to death over the prospect of writing a story such as this one. It was the most frightening of all the towering mountains of fear I somehow had to confront and struggle to scale. How do you go about sharing your most important truth, one you spent a lifetime trying to keep deeply buried, to a world that has grown familiar and comfortable with your façade? To a world whose knowledge of transsexuals usually begins and ends with Jerry Springer’s exploitation circus?”

Most impressively, he expressed an understanding that this announcement would shock many of his readers, colleagues and friends. “That’s OK,” he said. He would be patient with others, if they would be patient with him. “I understand that I am not the only one in transition as I move from Mike to Christine. Everyone who knows me and my work will be transitioning as well. That will take time. And that’s all right.” He felt fortunate, however, that those he came out to before writing this piece were “almost universally…supportive and encouraging.” Following his public announcement, he received hundreds of positive emails.

Writing that after having begun the transitioning process he was “now happier, more focused and more energized when I sit behind a keyboard” and that he is no longer plagued by “the wicked writer’s block” he used to sometime suffer, most assumed it was the last time he’d write under the byline of Mike Penner. Laura Coverson of ABCNews wrote that “this week veteran sportswriter Mike Penner crossed a line, and there is no turning back.”

For 18 months, Christine Daniels wrote the columns that readers were used to seeing written by Mike Penner. The name Christine was a way to recognize Christine Jorgensen, an early transsexual advocate, and Daniel was Mike's middle name. She also wrote a blog sponsored by LA Times called “A Woman in Transition.” The blog is no longer available online, so I haven’t been able to read any of it, but I’ve gathered that she discussed trans issues and her life more generally. One account describes her blog as discussing “everything from her meeting with a former colleague – Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated – to her correspondence with other women she’s touched, to her recreational soccer team’s first game. It is touching, funny, informative blog and Daniels’ words leap off the screen.”

Daniels took an extended disability leave following her final publication for The Times on April 4, 2008. Then in October of the same year, roughly 18 months after revealing his (Mike Penner’s) all, she “turned back,” to borrow the phrase Coverson used. In short, Christine Daniels ceased to exist and Penner resumed writing. Penner never publicly discussed his decision de/retransition (and he certainly had no obligation to do so). When asked, his editor, Kevin Roderick, simply told one reporter that “We're looking forward to Mike's byline appearing in the paper and on the website with increased frequency. He continues to be a valued member of our sports staff.”

Since his death, some reports have surfaced. Through friends' anecdotes we're given a more complete picture of his struggles, as one friend recalled him feeling as though he'd ruined his whole life. At first feeling like the public job as a sportswriter gave her the ability to be an advocate and bring trans issues into the mainstream, Christine later felt as though she was being used by the LA Trans community. Others challenged her positive coming out experiences. And still others judged her appearance.

Tragically, Mike Penner committed suicide 13 months later. He was 52.

In the wake of Mike’s death, Autumn Sandeen, an out transwoman who writes for Pam’s House Blend, wrote about the very nature of transitioning and the challenges one faces. She explained that “when a person begins a transsexual transition -- especially a very public transition -- one trades 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…dealing with others' biases and discrimination…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…’” She also reported that her therapist, who’s worked with trans folk since the mid-seventies, told her that “the single commonality for all of her detransitioning clients has been that external pressures were the impetus. All of her clients who have detransitioned still considered themselves as having a gender identity that didn't match their natal sex, but external pressures...are why the [Real Life Experience—living full time as the gender that matches one’s gender identity] is evaluated by the client as unsuccessful, and the client decides to detransition.” (Emphasis supplied)

Other than what I've read, I can’t and don’t know the circumstances surrounding Christine’s decision to de/retransition to Mike, but it certainly seems as though external pressures were a driving negative force in Christine's life. I can only imagine that, like the first decision he made to come out, deciding to de/retransition was excruciatingly difficult and personal. Together, the de/retransition, friends' anecdotes, and subsequent suicide paint a clear picture of a person who was struggling beyond belief. The fact that Mike and Christine made such a personal journey public--despite originally just wanting to transition without addressing it (an editor suggested that it was better he explain where he's coming from before the news picks up on the change in by-line and reports something else)--is indicative of a person who was unbelievably strong and courageous. Not just a journalist in an unflexible society, Mike and Christine were forced to navigate all of this in the middle of the sports world—one which tends to be divided by gender and unforgiving of any deviance from a male bodied=man, female bodied=woman line of thinking.

As part of this Community and as part of the global LGBTQA community, we just commemorated the lives of individuals who died at the hands of transphobic violence on Transgender Day of Remembrance. I wonder if there is a place for someone like Mike Penner to be remembered and honored on this day. No, he didn’t die due to another’s physical violence…but if in fact his suicide was related to his struggles with his gender identity and expression and society’s inflexibility, shouldn’t we remember him on this day, too?


*This is a tricky situation about which to write. I know that I should use the preferred pronouns and names of people. Without personally knowing this person, though, it is hard for me to judge what pronouns and names they preferred when. After consulting with many friends, I decided that when he presented himself to the public world as Mike Penner, I would use this name and male pronouns and when she lived as Christine Daniels, I would write about her as Christine with accompanying female pronouns.

Mechelle Voepel, a highly regarded women’s basketball columnist, wrote about Penner’s passing in her blog. She wrote that she felt guilty for not knowing the proper pronoun usage or name to use, but “then reminded myself there is no “right” to be decided by anyone but that person. And sometimes, even that person can’t decide --and shouldn’t have to. Because there is no standardized description for what they are, other than wonderfully and beautifully human.” I really like this closing sentence (emphasis mine).

3 comments:

  1. This story breaks my heart every time. I really struggle to believe that Christine really identified as Mike but as an outsider the only respectful option is to use the names/pronouns as you have here-- but I never like it.

    Voepel's comment is brilliant, though, and offers a way of thinking that I'm much more comfortable with (because obviously my comfort is the most important thing here). It's unfair that our society and out language are so obsessed with forcing people to choose one or the other (as anyone who identifies as genderqueer or intersex will surely be quick to tell you). So it's unfair to try to put Mike/Christine into only one box.

    Thanks so much for writing this.

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  2. super well-written, deeply sad story. I also think Voepel's comment is brilliant and i'll have that phrase - "wonderfully & beautifully human" - in my head for a while.

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