The Sexist

Should We Remember Mike Penner or Christine Daniels?

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Mike Penner, then presenting as Christine Daniels, with Autumn Sandeen

On Saturday, Nov. 28, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner was found dead in his Los Angeles home, the victim of an apparent suicide. Penner had been covering the sports beat for the LA Times since 1983. But the writer's public profile skyrocketed in April of 2007, when he came out as transgender, began living publicly as a woman, and changed his byline to Christine Daniels. The world lost Christine Daniels before it lost Penner: In 2008, Daniels quietly detransitioned back to Mike.

Penner's impermanent gender transition left obituary writers with an identity problem. Whose obituary to write: Mike Penner's or Christine Daniels'?

In the 25 years he worked at the LA Times, Penner evolved into a modest public figure in the sports world. But in the eighteen months that Penner lived outwardly as Christine Daniels, Daniels became a celebrity in the LGBT community. Daniels' coming-out column, in which she announced, "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," was one of the LA Times' most widely-read stories of 2007. That year, Daniels launched a new blog for the paper, Woman In Progress, which discussed trans issues with transparency and humor. She spoke about her experiences coming out in the workplace at the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist's Association's National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's annual conference. She earned a coveted spot on Out Magazine's annual "Out 100" list. Then, in October of 2008—with none of the fanfare that accompanied Penner's original gender transition—the celebrated sportswriter resumed the public persona of Mike Penner, reclaimed his original byline, and scrubbed the L.A. Times' Web site of all work attributed to Daniels.

The obituaries penned in the days following Penner's death revealed a fault line among his public mourners. Some writers favored Penner's sex assigned at birth—and his final public identity—by employing masculine pronouns in their obituaries. Others favored Daniels' brief public persona as an out trans woman, and referred to the deceased as "she" and "her." Gawker, puzzlingly, chose to straddle the gender divide by reporting the death of Mike Penner but referring to him as "her."

The sports world overwhelmingly chose to remember Mike Penner as male. Penner's editor, Mike James, remembered Penner as "a gentle man, a kind man." SportsBlog Nation writer Jon Boise's obituary referred to Penner with masculine name and pronouns, but took care not to erase Penner's transgender identity in doing so:

Changing one's gender is always met with apprehension in our culture, but within Penner's sports subculture, the process was likely even more difficult. Penner later took back his original name and resumed living life as a man a year later, which led to the unfortunate misconception that his decision was a thoughtless, ill-conceived one. In fact, Penner had taken on months of therapy and self-searching before making his decision. . . . At the very least, I hope that those who do decide to play expert for a day and cast judgment can accept that their judgments are completely irrelevant.

A few obituary writers in the LGBT and feminist communities, however, chose to remember Penner for his year of trans activism—-by running obituaries for Christine Daniels. The Advocate's online obit of Daniels went so far as to edit out the gender signifiers used by Penner's colleagues, in order to re-frame all remembrances of Penner as female:

“[She] was one of the most talented writers I’ve every worked with,” said Times Sports Editor Mike James, adding that Daniels covered numerous beats including the National Football League and sports media during her more than two-decade-long career at the paper.

Bitch Magazine's Anna Clark also chose to present Daniels as a woman, even as she recognized Penner's more recent choice to detransition:

One thing that is troubling–and that perhaps foreshadows today's sad news: last year, Daniels started to use the "Mike Penner" byline again. This is presumably why the coverage of Daniels' death at the Times uses male pronouns to refer to her, and why James describes her as a 'gentle man, a kind man,' and why the "Woman in Progress" blog was removed.

(Clark explains her choice to eulogize Christine here. The Advocate did not return a request for comment. The Advocate's obituary has since been heavily edited without comment; you can read the original obit here).

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Daniels, left, at the 2007 NGLJA conference

Interestingly, the decision to remember Penner as female in his obituary lies in direct opposition to a longtime cause of the LGBT movement: Ensuring that the mainstream media accurately represent the gender identity of transgender subjects. According to several professional style guidelines, writers are to use the gender identity, name, and pronouns preferred by the subject. So, if Mike goes publicly as Mike, you call him Mike; if Christine goes publicly as Christine, you call her Christine. The GLAAD Media Reference Guide instructs journalists to "ask transgender people which pronoun they would like you to use," or to "use the pronoun that is consistent with the person's appearance and gender expression." Since 2006, the Associated Press Stylebook has accepted that standard. The book's “sex changes” entry reads:

Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

Given Penner's most recent bylines—and his attempts to erase Daniels from the public record—it's clear that in the last year of his life, Penner wanted to be publicly identified as male. By GLAAD and AP standards, that means that a correct obit should refer to "Mike Penner" and employ male pronouns. Penner was a lifelong journalist, and it's only fitting that his obituary writers follow the standards of the profession.

But the life story of Mike Penner and Christine Daniels hinges on that divide between the public and the private, the professional and the personal. It's technically correct to refer to Penner as "Mike," but that treatment fails to recognize Penner's inner life. By remembering Mike Penner only as "a gentle man, a kind man," the media runs the risk of contributing to the widespread transphobia that likely played a role in Penner's death.

Penner never spoke publicly about his motives for transitioning back to Mike. But when Penner chose to "detransition"—when he stopped identifying outwardly as Christine Daniels—several experts weighed in on the latest development in Penner's public persona. According to psychologists, most transgender people who choose to "detransition" do so as a result of external pressures resulting from their public gender transition, and not because they no longer internally identify as transgender. In his coming-out column, Penner informed the world how difficult it was for him to live outwardly as a male sportswriter for upwards of 40 years. He never publicly aired the fresh set of problems that came with the alternative—life as an openly transgender female sportswriter. Penner, already a public figure, traded four decades of inner turmoil for a deluge of public scrutiny from the sports world, the LGBT community, and snarky gossip blogs. Given what we know about detransitioning, it's understandable why the LGBT community and its allies would be reluctant to embrace Penner's reclamation of his male persona, particularly in light of his apparent suicide.

Autumn Sandeen, a trans activist who knew Penner when he was living as Christine, has struggled to process Penner's death on both a personal and a professional level. On the blog Pam's House Blend, Sandeen eulogized Mike. In private, however, she continues to think of her friend as Christine. "In my heart, I know her as Christine. In my job as a writer, I have to think of him as Mike," she says.

To Sandeen, adhering to media style standards in Penner's case shows a respect for every person's autonomy over his or her own gender identity. But the professional treatment also leaves her frustrated. "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," she says. "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. I’m militant about that, but I’m frustrated at my own militance."

In the past two years, Penner lived a very public life. But his gender identity didn't belong to the public, Sandeen says—not to the LGBT community that wanted to claim him as Christine, and not to the sports community that wanted to reclaim him as "any regular heterosexual guy." "In the end, he called himself Mike," says Sandeen. "Who am I to call him Christine?"

MORE: The Case for Eulogizing Christine Daniels

Photos courtesy of Autumn Sandeen.

  • Roackville

    Autumn Sandeen's stance on adhering to the style guidelines she advocates is correct. You cannot be true to your ideals if you do not live them.

  • http://shootingrapidswithoutapaddle.blogspot.com Shannon

    I truly appreciate the respect shown Mike/Christine in this article.I only really knew him/her as Christine through her blog. But I respect the decision made to detransition. Living in the extra-public life as a nationally known sports writer was a stress on a life already stressed enough trying to find one's true-self. I will miss Mike/Christine.

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  • Darlie

    Lets be clear here, until I see her written request to return to Mike I will assume she was forced and that is why she killed herself. I want to know what happened. In fact , now I have to know why. She did not fail the life test and in fact she did the Herculean task of doing it in public. I have seen the most cruel and vile words used against her in other sportswriters blogs and I don't see the utter shame they deserve heaped on them as they quietly pull them from the web. Someone knows why this happened but no one is talking.

  • anoldfriend

    Typical for the Tee-Gee community to latch on to Penner's death as having something to do with ether suicide or or his failed transition shows a willingness not to examine the facts as they are.

    There is no publicity released toxicology report, and no official cause of death.

    Jumping to conclusions is not wise.
    Penner could have died from natural causes or could could have off'ed himself for reasons other than his failed transition.
    He may of had inoperable brain cancer and couldn't life with the ramification of that.

    As usual Sandeen jumps to the conclusion that makes Mike, and the Tee-Gee community the victims of a society perceived to be uncaring, and overly rigid in enforcing it's gender roles.

    Ms Sandeen once again you have dealt your credibility a blow by exploiting this sad, sad turn of events.

  • J

    I have also read terrible things on other blogs about him/her. Why is it anybody's business? Those who say cruel things are just trying to make themselves feel better because somethings missing in their life. Lets hope he finds peace in the next world.

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  • http://somist.wordpress.com Jennifer

    Mike's death is a tragedy, yet -probably- another casualty of the cultural pressures on those who would undertake a gender transition. What a loss, not just for Mike but everyone who knew him. :( Meanwhile my respect for Autumn continues to grow -- her honesty in expressing her personal feelings about how she perceived her friend, coupled with her choice to continue to respect a person who had chosen to return to a male name, moved me deeply. I hope that level of respect and openness continues to increasingly permeate the trans community, it's a beautiful thing.

  • Kathy

    Darlie

    Lets be clear here, until I see her written request to return to Mike I will assume she was forced and that is why she killed herself.
    ==============================================

    That of course, disrepects the deceased's life.

    We don't know why Mr. Penner (and yes, we should respect his choice of name and pronoun) ended his life, we don't know if or to what degree his gender identity and any difficulties with that contributed to his death. We don't know what other issues he may have had that were troubling him that had nothing to do with this or what his health was like. It's troubling that people who want respect for their own identities want to make Mike conform to their needs, not his. Which isn't to say that we won't learn more in time that adjusts our understanding.

    The "real life experience" is not a test - you don't pass or fail it. The purpose is to learn about yourself in a supported manner and to make decisions about what course is best in your life from an informed perspective. In that sense - everyone "passes" the real life experience. No matter what decision you've made.

    It's very, very sad. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

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  • http://gangboxnews.blogspot.com Gregory A Butler

    I feel really bad for Mike Penner - and for the people he left behind when he took his own life.

    With that said, the cold hard fact is, the whole "transgender" thing is nothing more than mental illness.

    If you have a male body, you are a man, like it or not - and, conversely, if you have a female body, you are a woman.

    You may not like the social restrictions that come with those gender identities - hey, a LOT of people of both sexes feel that way - but you can't just proclaim yourself a "woman" if you were born male!

    And even getting that expensive surgery still doesn't make you a woman - just a man who's had a whole lot of plastic surgery.

    I know it's not PC to say that these days, but nonetheless it's the truth.

    Perhaps if Penner had gotten some therapy, instead of proclaiming himself "female" and having others enable his delusions, he might still be alive today!

  • Sherri K.

    "If you have a male body, you are a man, like it or not – and, conversely, if you have a female body, you are a woman."
    __________________________________

    Gregory with all due respect I couldn't disagree with you more - but you have hit on the crux of the issue.

    Male and female refer directly to a persons sex, their anatomy, their...for lack of a better word "parts"

    Man and woman refer to a person’s essence, their being, their soul. That distinction is everything.

    When someone says "be a man" to a male, they're not suggesting that they aren't anatomically male. They're saying behave like a man ( whatever that means ) The "woman of the year" isn't awarded based upon the "quality" of the candidates physical body in comparison to idealized female norms - its awarded based upon the candidates benevolent actions/contributions.

    What most who haven't been exposed to TG issues fail to recognize is that sex and gender are totally different things. The societal assumption is that they always "go together" and that males must all behave like they believe men should behave and females should embrace all that society deems womanly. Funny - but I don't recall a single anatomical chart in "Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus?"

    I a TS woman and I'm under no illusion that I was born physically male- but I know with my whole heart that I was also born a woman. So given that choice, what should I honor - my body or my soul - which should "win out." In the hierarchy of self definition I don't believe that my physical body is roman numeral #1 in who I am. I think to say "I am my body - more than I am my soul” is pretty short sided and (being a spiritual woman) I know that I find peace through the actions and the expression of my soul.

    The surgeries I've had weren't some quest to be wholly female - they were to align my birth sex with my gender as best as modern medicine will allow, so that I can walk through the world and allow people to see and respond to who I know myself to be inside. I’m not hiding. I’m not running from anything – quite the contrary. My transition was a very difficult but honest confession of who I know myself to be.

    I didn't know Mike Penner or Christine Daniels - but from all I've read it sounds like those who did tragically lost a beautiful and kind soul. Hopefully on that, we can all agree.

  • laura

    Gregory, I couldn't disagree with you more. I'm a transgendered woman....and also a physician. Numerous studies have shown that a person's gender identity, that innate sense of whether one is a man or woman, is congenital. One does not "decide". And there is no scientific evidence that it is a mental illness. Current medical research seems to indicate that it is likely due to a defect in a portion of the hypothalamus of the brain. It is NOT a choice. No one would choose to go through what we endure just to try to feel whole.
    Unfortunately, Mike/Christine had to deal with the bigotry and ignorance and misinformation that all of us who are trans have to face. It is overwhelming at times.
    Since my transition, I am extremely happy. I live a wonderful, full life, not longer tormented by a discordance that my gender shift remedied. So, sorry Gregory, I am emotionally, legally, hormonally, and anatomically a woman.

  • http://guyinism.com DirkJohanson

    And I was born a dog.

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  • mimi

    Did you know that the French just excluded transgenderism of the list of mental illness? Just sayin´...

  • Audrey

    #11 Dirk - At least we all can agree that your comment is 100% accurate.

  • http://aebrain.blogspot.com Zoe Brain

    Gregory A Butler - I identify as a woman. A woman with a transsexual past. I used to look male. My birth certificate says "boy" no matter what my OB/GYN says.

    Medically, I'm not transsexual, and never was. That diagnosis is excluded in my case on a technicality. Pedantically, I'm a protandrous dichogamous pseudohermaphrodite, that's a ridiculously rare Intersex condition. Most people like me, over 99%, are protogynous, born looking female but masculinising later in life. I went in the opposite direction. Biologically, I'm female, though in such dire cases of Intersex, such labels as "male" and "female" are mere approximations.

    But I'd chosen the name "Zoe" at age 10. Gender is between your ears, a matter of neuro-anatomy, not your legs. The externals can be misleading. But when you have the body of a footballer, not a cheerleader, what's a girl to do but try to make the best life she can? To try to be the best Man any Woman can be.

    Every word written by Christine Daniels spoke to me from the heart. Her description of her experience is exactly what I went through. One difference - I didn't have the courage to transition: it was only when the natural change commenced that I started. I could no longer "pass" as male. I didn't have the courage to jump as I should have done, I was pushed.

    So what am I in your view?

    Mike found it hard to transition to Christine. Christine, for whatever reason, decided that she could not continue with that, and tried to be Mike once more. That appears not to have worked either.

    Like my friend Autumn Sandeen, I must respect Mike's wish to be identified as male.

  • Darlie

    "That of course, disrepects the deceased’s life."-Kathy

    What utter baloney Kathy. According to the police this is a suicide and I doubt it was because she felt her life was "respected". I read nothing she wrote saying she was detransitioning so until I do the pen name means nothing. She is still Christine and you disrespect her by trying to speak for her.

    And it is a real life TEST, that's why they call it the REAL LIFE TEST and ask you to LIVE FOR 2 YEARS IN THAT GENDER AND BE EMPLOYED ! If you can't , YOU FAIL ! I'm post op and fully transtioned so excuse me if I know,

    "If you have a male body, you are a man, like it or not – and, conversely, if you have a female body, you are a woman."-Gregory A Butler

    Just like if we are born heterosexual only Mr Butler ? Thank you for a well thought out version of an incredibly pedestrian thought.

    "And I was born a dog."- Dirk

    Important to note that no one disagrees. Certainly not Audrey or I.

  • concerned

    And of course, in the "men's rights" community, they took Penner's death as an opportunity to promote transphobia.

    Disgusting.

    http://www.the-spearhead.com/2009/12/01/suicidal-tendencies/

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  • http://www.omegaframeshop.com kat

    I did not know Ms. Daniels. But I do know smiles. If you look at her face it’s beaming. Mike photos all look like mug shots…so did mine before. All of us even the most stricking young ones know it’s a leaf of faith. Silly at times to be a “Tranny”. But being a guy just didn’t cut the mustard at all. It’s not about sex it’s about gender and after trasition you have to surrond yourself with really good friends. People that will after knowing you for years will reinvest in your shared realtioship and be family. Laughing with you and at you and you at them. Unfortunitly* I read one of “Mikes” best friends said he was a wonderful friend..However Christine didn’t have a few lifelong friends to hold her hand and take her back to the top of the mountain. I am so sorry this happened ans there but for the gace of GOD go I.

  • Gina NYTS

    Many people initiates transition to the other gender only when the psychological pain of their Gender Dissonance becomes unbearable, they become suicidal, incredibly self-loathing and plainly misserable. At least that was the case for me and other transwoman I know. After having fought my Gender Dissonance all my life, once I reached this boiling point, Transitioning was the only logical course of action. The other was death.

    Gender Identity is not something that can be changed with the flick of a switch. You don't feel like a woman one day and then wake up the next morning and feel like a guy, just doesn't work like that. I just can't imagine how extremely painfull was for Christine Daniels to go back to her old male persona.

    I guess we can only especulate about the reasons why Christine went back to sign as Mike and one year later comitted suicide. But after reading so many incredibly mean and hateful comments all over the internet connected to blog entries and news stories about her during the 2 years since She came out to the world. One cannot help to think that probably all that hate speech with her in the middle have much to do with it.

    It seems that where ever there is and article, blog, news story about transexual people and issues, there is a good number of comments posted by bigotted transphobic provocateurs that seem to be going around the internet looking for places were to display their hate.

    My thoughts are with the family of Ms. Daniels for their tragic lost.

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