Old Mike, new Christine
By Mike Penner, Times Staff Writer
During my 23 years with The Times' sports department, I have held a wide variety of roles and titles. Tennis writer. Angels beat reporter. Olympics writer. Essayist. Sports media critic. NFL columnist. Recent keeper of the Morning Briefing flame.
Today I leave for a few weeks' vacation, and when I return, I will come back in yet another incarnation.
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.
Transsexualism is a complicated and widely misunderstood medical condition. It is a natural occurrence — unusual, no question, but natural.
Recent studies have shown that such physiological factors as genetics and hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy can significantly affect how our brains are "wired" at birth.
As extensive therapy and testing have confirmed, my brain was wired female.
A transgender friend provided the best and simplest explanation I have heard: We are born with this, we fight it as long as we can, and in the end it wins.
I gave it as good a fight as I possibly could. I went more than 40 hard rounds with it. Eventually, though, you realize you are only fighting yourself and your happiness and your mental health — a no-win situation any way you look at it.
When you reach the point when one gender causes heartache and unbearable discomfort, and the other brings more joy and fulfillment than you ever imagined possible, it shouldn't take two tons of bricks to fall in order to know what to do.
It didn't with me.
With me, all it took was 1.99 tons.
For more years than I care to count, I was scared to death over the prospect of writing a story such as this one. It was the most frightening of all the towering mountains of fear I somehow had to confront and struggle to scale.
How do you go about sharing your most important truth, one you spent a lifetime trying to keep deeply buried, to a world that has grown familiar and comfortable with your façade?
To a world whose knowledge of transsexuals usually begins and ends with Jerry Springer's exploitation circus?
Painfully and reluctantly, I began the coming-out process a few months ago. To my everlasting amazement, friends and colleagues almost universally have been supportive and encouraging, often breaking the tension with good-natured doses of humor.
When I told my boss Randy Harvey, he leaned back in his chair, looked through his office window to scan the newsroom and mused, "Well, no one can ever say we don't have diversity on this staff."
When I told Robert, the soccer-loving lad from Wales who cuts my hair, why I wanted to start growing my hair out, he had to take a seat, blink hard a few times and ask, "Does this mean you don't like football anymore, Mike?"
No, I had to assure him, I still love soccer. I will continue to watch it. I hope to continue to coach it.
My days of playing in men's over-30 rec leagues, however, could be numbered.
When I told Eric, who has played sweeper behind my plodding stopper for more than a decade, he brightly suggested, "Well, you're still good for co-ed!"
I broke the news to Tim by beginning, "Are you familiar with the movie 'Transamerica'?" Tim nodded. "Well, welcome to my life," I said.
Tim seemed more perplexed than most as I nervously launched into my story.
Finally, he had to explain, "I thought you said 'Trainspotting.' I thought you were going to tell me you're a heroin addict."
People have asked if transitioning will affect my writing. And if so, how?
All I can say at this point is that I am now happier, more focused and more energized when I sit behind a keyboard. The wicked writer's block that used to reach up and torture me at some of the worst possible times imaginable has disappeared.
My therapist says this is what happens when a transsexual finally "integrates" and the ever-present white noise in the background dissipates.
That should come as good news to my editors: far fewer blown deadlines.
So now we all will take a short break between bylines. "Mike Penner" is out, "Christine Daniels" soon will be taking its place.
From here, it feels like a big improvement. I hope with time you will agree.
This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
What an amazing thing to read in the sports pages! What courage this must have taken.
I cringed as I clicked on comments, fearing that they would be ignorant and hate-filled. To my surprise and relief, the overwhelming majority of comments were extremely supportive. Most readers praised Penner's courage, wished him luck on his journey, and looked forward to reading Christine Daniels' columns. I was really impressed. The few non-supportive columns quoted scripture (what is up with those people?), and other readers slammed those as judgemental and intolerant.
Of course I know there's tremendous hate and phobia against transgendered people in this world. But signs of progress are always worth noting.
An AP wire-service story reports:
"Mike Penner has been an exemplary contributor to the Los Angeles Times sports pages for over two decades and today's column is no exception," Randy Harvey, the newspaper's sports editor, said in a statement. "The decision to go public cannot have been an easy one and, while we do not make a habit of commenting on the personal and private lives of our journalists, we do look forward to continuing our relationship into the future."
Penner uses the word "transsexualism," rather than crossgendered or transgendered, and refers to his state as a "medical condition," an attitude many transgendered people reject. I wonder if he's partly using those expressions to help his readership and employers come to terms, or perhaps he best understands his own gender confusion as medical.
I also noticed that the AP writer went to three people for comments on Penner's column: his employer, John Amaeche, and the leader of a gay/lesbian activist group.
John Amaechi, the first NBA player to publicly come out of the closet as being gay, said he read Penner's column Thursday after returning from a speaking engagement in Berkeley at the University of California.
"It's incredibly bold and far more courageous than anything I could have done," said Amaechi, who spent five seasons in the NBA. "I commend him."
Gay and lesbian activists praised Penner and the Los Angeles Times.
"Christine's still-unfolding story sends a powerful message about the importance of living openly and honestly as does the Times' public support of her transition," said Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
John Amaeche makes some sense, as both Penner and Amaeche share the world of professional sports. But in tapping Neil Giuliano, the writer is a little confused: Penner didn't say he was gay. Transgendered people can be any sexual orientation. There's some merit to getting that quote, but speaking to an out transgendered person, or someone from a transgender activist group, would have been more to the point.
I join the chorus of people commending the new Christine Daniels for her courage and honesty. Every person who comes out - of any closet, there are thousands of them - to live his or her most authentic life helps each of us, helps the world.