Remembering both Christine Daniels and Mike Penner

Covering this past week’s tragic death of a sportswriter who apparently committed suicide presents quite a challenge for reporters and not just because the loss hits so close to home.

Mike Penner was noteworthy for the 25 years spent covering all manner of sports for the L.A. Times, but also for the fact that the writer publicly came out as a transsexual in 2007 and began writing as Christine Daniels. The bylines and pronouns changed. Daniels wrote a blog about her transition and also returned to the L.A. Times sports pages in her new persona.

In 2008, Daniels quietly went back to using the byline Mike Penner but did so in a far less public way, choosing to keep the reasons for doing so private. Over the long weekend, the news surfaced that the writer is dead, apparently of suicide.

That leaves a lot of questions for those who knew the writer, much less those trying to write an obituary on deadline, an issue noted in this piece in the Washington City Paper. I wanted to offer my thoughts on how journalists might handle this situation. I think it is appropriate to remember both Christine and Mike, because both personas had a tremendous impact on the world.

Writing about transgender subjects, to me, necessarily means embracing complexity. The general style is to use the pronoun and name that the person prefers and the best way to know this is to ask that person. Unfortunately, still too often we write about transgender people, often for the first time, only after they have died through violence or by their own hand. This means writing about people who often lived in a world somewhere in between the gender they were born with and the one in which they saw themselves in an ideal world.

It means that they may be known differently to different people with whom they were close.

For me it is far easier to remember Christine Daniels, the woman who spoke so elequently at the 2007 National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention. For 40 minutes, she told her inspiring story to a hushed crowd of reporters at an outdoor cocktail reception. (She still holds the record for longest time keeping that group quiet–by a good 35 minutes.) It is the bravery and courage of declaring her truth to her readers that I will remember most.

But for others, it is easier to remember Mike Penner, the identity that the writer used for most of life, as a journalist, athlete and friend to many. It is that identity that was used publicly at the end of this person’s life and for most of the all-too-short 52 years this writer spent on Earth. As Autumn Sandeen eloquently states in the City Paper article, it is that identity that is best used when choosing names and pronouns. Whatever the reasons, Penner chose to use male pronouns most recently.

“I would love to remember him as Christine, but he didn’t give us that opportunity, and I’m going to be sad about that,” Sandeen writes. “It seems cruel that we need to stick with the style guides, but we need to stick with the style guides. How he identified was important. We can’t just pick and choose how we want to identify someone.”

But, no matter what pronouns one uses, both personas deserve to be remembered.

I also think it is appropriate to use this death to revisit the hurdles that still present themselves to those who seek to transcend gender norms. Without claiming to know all the details in this case, I can say firsthand that even in the best of circumstances, there are significant challenges for those who seek to change genders, especially those who must do so under the public eye.

Although the L.A. Times and many readers, sources, colleagues and others supported Daniels in the transition, it is clear from both what was said and what was left unsaid that the process was still daunting and was one that left both Daniels and Penner unfulfilled.

Transgender people are not only far more likely to die through violence of others, but they also suffer higher rates of major depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as suicide itself–a story that often goes untold. Writing about the hurdles that remain for the transgender community–the legal, financial, social and other–is an appropriate way to remember both Christine Daniels and Mike Penner.

Chaz Bono and covering gender transitions

The news this week that Chastity Bono is transitioning to be Chaz Bono offers the world another chance to hear about a topic that many still know little about.

People often ask me how gender transitions should be covered, what with being a journalist and having transitioned myself and all. Here are a few things I often suggest. (That said, not all transpeople or all journalists or all trans journalists will necessarily agree with these.)

1. Things that are simple in most stories get tricky when writing about transgender subjects, particularly names and pronouns. As per AP style, one should use the name and pronouns that someone prefers. It’s not about drivers’ licenses or birth certificates.

This is often hard for some folks. Here’s how I like to think of it as a courtesy title. We call Prince, Prince (or whatever he is going by these days). We don’t ask him for ID. When in doubt, ask the person (I’ll deal with what to do when that’s not possible in a separate post).

So what does that mean? Are we writing about Chastity or Chaz? The story yesterday was clearly that Chastity Bono is transitioning to be Chaz. In covering the first-day story, some folks used female pronouns, while others used male pronouns. While I can see a case for using female pronouns in the first-day story, there are also other examples (see the CNN example below). That said, there should be no question how to handle the story tomorrow, and next week, and the week after that. From here on out, the story is about Chaz and how *he* recently announced he was living as male.

In referring to the past, I like to embrace the complexity. I.e., when he was still identifying as female, Bono made headlines by coming out as a lesbian. When he was a girl, he chopped the heads off his Barbies, etc. This makes it clear that he is a he but he is the kind of he that was also a girl at one time in his life.

2. It’s not about surgeries and hormones. If a subject wants to talk about these very personal topics, fine, but one’s gender identity and right to be respected aren’t dependent on taking such actions, nor are these necessarily public topics.

One should not assume that because someone is coming out as transgender that he or she is necessarily going to take hormones or have some type of surgery (there are actually a number of different procedures that some trans people choose to undergo). Whether someone takes hormones or has surgery depends on a number of factors, including their personal preference, ability to afford such treatments, employment issues, and much more.

It’s OK to gently ask, but don’t assume these are topics that a subject is interested in sharing.

3. Avoid playing into stereotypes. Not all trans people are seeking to become the archetype of the gender to which they are transitioning. And, at the same time, lots of people who don’t change gender aren’t necessarily the physical epitome of what one thinks of as a man or woman. Avoid subjective assessments of how some one passes.

While the basics on gender transitions are covered in the AP Stylebook, you can find far more in NLGJA’s stylebook addendum as well as in the transgender section of our Journalist’s Toolbox.

I also wanted to point out one example of first-day coverage that I thought did a particularly good job of covering the story by embracing the complexity.

CNN: Sonny and Cher’s child transitioning from female to male

CNN chose to use child in both the lead and headline and reflect the complexity. They also helped educate folks on the distinction between gender transition (the social act of changing the gender in which one identifies) and any sort of surgery or medical transition.