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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).
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, andnot 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?”
Photos courtesy of Autumn Sandeen.