“We are born with this, we fight it as long as we can, and in the end it wins.”
— LAT Sportswriter Mike Penner , explaining to his readers that he was transgendered and was embarking on the process to transition to a woman, Christine Daniels. Penner went through that surgery and wrote under the byline Christine Daniels, including the LAT blog “A Woman In Progress”; recently he switched back to the Mike Penner byline. On Saturday, the LAT announced that he had been found dead in his home in Los Angeles, of an apparent suicide. He was 52.
This is such a sad story. Anyone who remembers reading Penner’s piece prior to the transformation with likely remember not only how amazing the revelation was, but how well-written it was, too. Penner’s breadth on the sports beat was wide and he was well-known and respected for the quality of his work. As Christine, that obviously did not change — except that she added a hefty extra layer of expertise in the “A Woman In Progress” blog (alas, no longer online). From Penner’s landmark column, “Old Mike, New Christine”:
I am a transsexual sportswriter. It has taken more than 40 years, a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy for me to work up the courage to type those words. I realize many readers and colleagues and friends will be shocked to read them.
That’s OK. 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. To borrow a piece of well-worn sports parlance, we will take it one day at a time.
Of writing that column, Daniels — as she then was — told LAT media reporter James Rainey:
“Writing that piece, which I didn’t initially want to write, ended up becoming one of the best things I have ever done,” Daniels said in an interview Thursday. “And a day I dreaded all my life has ended up being one of the best days I’ve ever had.”
But clearly it didn’t stay that way. The transition to Christine Daniels was obviously a tough one, and sometime in the fall of last year, the Daniels byline switched back to Penner. (His email address is still there, live and linked, at the bottom.)
Why did he switch back? He never said so publicly. From a USA Today story on ‘transgender regret’:
Penner, a 24-year veteran of the newspaper, did not respond to calls and e-mails for comment and has not written about his decision to resume life as a man. The blog and bylines as Christine Daniels have been removed from the newspaper’s website.
That last part is especially sad, since by all accounts her “Woman In Progress” blog was funny, thoughtful, brave and honest. I hope the LAT kept it somewhere. By all accounts, too, Penner did not discuss it; longtime friend and sports-beat colleague Scott French writes of an unreturned email and Facebook request; for its part, the LAT did not elaborate on Penner’s decision to return under his old byline.
At Washington’s City Paper, Amanda Hess notes the difficulty in figuring out what pronoun to assign to Penner. Him? Her? Journalistic convention holds that we describe the deceased by the name of his/her choice; had Penner continued living as Christine Daniels, the names and pronouns in his obituaries would be female. (Hess pulls the phrase “a gentle man, a kind man,” as used by Penner’s colleague and editor Mike James and cautions against limiting Penner to just one gender and “contributing to the widespread transphobia that likely played a role in Penner’s death,” but most of the accounts I have seen make it very clear that there was a Christine Daniels, too. That said, by far the most spare and answer-less piece has to be the LAT obituary.)
There is a lot more to Penner’s story than any of this — reading French’s long account of knowing Penner, including excerpts from his articles and accounts of pick-up soccer games with Penner’s then-wife (Lisa Dallman, who also works at the LAT), you get a sense of the person beyond the Mike-Christine storyline. Then, reading friend of Christine Daniels Autumn Sandeen‘s examination of de-transitioning over at Pam’s House Blend, you get a sense of something entirely different.
Then, reading something from last week, before Penner died, something else entirely: An article about suicide in the transgender community, written to mark the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 21st. The Transgender Day of Remembrance is meant to memorialize victims of anti-trans violence, but this article points out another danger: a 30-50% suicide rate.
What does this leave us with? More questions than answers about Mike Penner and the arc of his transition to and de-transition from Christine Daniels (though phrasing it so neatly belies how fraught with difficulty it obviously was). But this does leave us with some clarity about transgender issues. Turns out it isn’t as easy as Christine made it seem at first, all smiles and GLAAD awards and interviews and speaking engagements and a blog exploring it all. It was far easier to imagine that life really was easier for Penner as Christine Daniels, rather than an equally alienating, isolating kind of torment. Well, it wasn’t. And we all have to take some responsibility for that, by fighting a little harder for the kind of world that would have made it a little easier for him, and for her.
There were no speeches or blog posts or interviews when Christine Daniels switched back to Mike Penner. Just, ironically, the thing that everyone who has written about him and her always mentions up front: The generous, sweet, warm spirit, and the killer talent. By all accounts — every single confused and saddened one — they will both be missed.
Smart, Thoughtful Further Reading:
About The “Real Life Experience” and Detransitioning [Pam’s House Blend]
For some, shadow of regret cast over gender switch [USA Today]
Should We Remember Mike Penner or Christine Daniels? [City Paper]
A writer’s transformation makes the personal public [LAT]
Suicide ends transgender lives too [Feministing]
Mike Penner: Great Writer, Soccer Fanatic, Gentle Soul [Real Clear Sports]
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