LA Times Looks at Life, Death of Mike Penner/Christine Daniels

The Los Angeles Times re-enters the story of former LA Times sports reporter Mike Penner/Christine Daniels with a piece by Christopher Goffard based on several months of reporting after Penner’s death.

Gone was quiet, circumspect Mike Penner, replaced by ebullient, outgoing — and instantly famous — Christine Daniels. Celebrity meant a megaphone, and Daniels vowed to use it as an advocate. She told her story at transsexual conferences across the country, becoming a symbol of courage to a transgender community inspired by the most visible coming-out in decades.

A year after the essay, the Daniels byline vanished from the newspaper, and within months Penner was back at work, living as a man and writing under his male name. Once so voluble about the reasons for becoming Christine, Penner was silent about the reasons for abandoning the identity.

This time, there was no essay, no explanation. But friends saw a person in torment. Last November, in the parking garage of the apartment complex where he lived alone, Penner killed himself. He was 52.

The duality that defined the sportswriter’s life divided the grieving. Mourners were split between two memorial services, one for Mike and one for Christine.

Goffard talks about the psychological and emotional trials of both Penner and Daniels. He says that Daniels was uncomfortable with her presentation as a woman, found herself alienated from other “transexuals” in Los Angeles, and her mental state continued to spiral downward as she began to shift from being Christine back to Mike.

She let weeks pass without updating Woman in Progress. In February 2008, Tony Pierce, The Times’ blogs editor, asked Daniels whether she wanted to stop the blog.

“She said she didn’t want to be the spokesperson for anything, but unfortunately that’s what she had become,” Pierce said. Posts remained infrequent, and Daniels eventually asked to have the blog discontinued.

One transgender friend, Sara Hayward, heard an eerie shifting in Daniels’ speech during a conversation in early March. Now and then, Daniels’ soft, steady voice would give way abruptly to Penner’s voice, deep and cracking. “It was two voices coming out of the same person,” Hayward said.

It’s a story where there will always be unanswered questions, but Goffard does fill in some of the blanks.

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Requiem for a Transsexual Sportswriter

There has been plenty of media coverage on the death of LA Times sportswriter Mike Penner, who for a time was known as Christine Daniels.

The most recent example is “Requiem for a Transsexual Sportswriter” by Jacob Bernstein, a senior reporter for The Daily Beast. It gives a detailed view into the last few months and days of Mike Penner.

Here’s an excerpt:

So it came as yet another shock when Daniels resumed life as Mike Penner about a year after the transition, and it came as even more of one when he killed himself around Thanksgiving. Why would a person, whose friends and colleagues were so seemingly supportive, feel so alone about his gender identity that he would decide to commit suicide? …

What Daniels didn’t know then—what she couldn’t possibly have known, this early in her transition—was just how grueling the hormones can be or what effect being the most prominent American transsexual since tennis player Renée Richards would have on her life.

It’s a problem that at least a few of Penner’s friends and advisers identified. Namely, how does Mike successfully become Christine if she’s stuck permanently with a banner that says “used to be a man”?

As sad as it is to read, this article is a welcome addition to the conversation.

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.