Remembering Mike Penner and Christine Daniels
On Friday, Mike Penner, a sports writer for the Los Angeles Times, committed suicide at age 52. Though the Times chose to highlight Penner’s incredible sports knowledge and writing ability in remembrance, the overwhelming majority of of news coverage has focused on an entirely different aspect of Penner’s life.
In the spring of 2007, Penner stunned readers with this announcement:
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.
Soon enough, Christine Daniels returned to her job at the Los Angeles Times and became a unique icon for the LGBT community. But all of that changed again, in October 2008, when Daniels detransitioned back to Penner.
Penner’s complex journey and shifts in gender identity and presentation make it challenging to determine how to discuss his life and legacy. Though it may be the gut instinct for feminists and LGBT activists to write about and remember only Christine Daniels, in this particular case, that may not be the correct answer. As Amanda Hess writes:
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.
…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.
Hess makes an excellent point — it would be hypocritical for those who support transgender people to exclusively refer to Christine Daniels, as Penner openly led his life as a man from October 2008 until his death. If we are to respect the right of transgender people to decide what names and gender pronouns they choose to go by, we should also respect Penner’s right to detransition and identify for the last year of his life as a man.
But that doesn’t mean we need to ignore Christine Daniels. Though Penner may only have publicly lived as Daniels for a year, we don’t know — and we will never know — the reasons why Penner detransitioned and whether or not Penner still identified as Daniels in private. In a USA TODAY article about detransitioning, Donna Rose, a trans woman, explains:
“The thing that people have to understand is that even though Mike decided to retransition, that doesn’t mean he’s not trans. It’s not like you go all of a sudden, ‘Uh, I’m better.’ Going back doesn’t automatically clear the conundrum that causes you to get there in the first place.”
Rose reversed course on her own transition at first because her then-wife became so distraught and co-workers were insensitive. Six months later, she went through with it and ended the marriage.
The article goes on to explain that people who detransition (about 5% of people who initially identify as transgender) often do so out of a fear of losing one’s job, or in response to extreme judgment and hurtful reactions from family, friends and strangers. So the fact that Penner detransitioned does not mean that Daniels wasn’t a part of Penner’s life, or that Penner wasn’t really a woman. We know how Penner publicly presented himself at the end of his life, but because we will never know the true reasons behind his choice to identify as Mike Penner, we should not completely exclude Christine Daniels from the discourse.
Furthermore, ignoring the existence of Christine Daniels does a great disservice to the discussion of a binary gender system. It is entirely possible that Penner once genuinely identified as a woman, and then genuinely identified as a man. This fluidity of gender does not fit in our culture’s preconceived notions of the “man”/”woman” binary, and Penner’s full experience of transitioning and detransitioning could be a great key toward understanding the complexities of gender and the various ways in which human beings are capable of identifying. If we talk about Penner as someone who was always exclusively a man (or Daniels as someone who was always exclusively a woman, for that matter), we aren’t telling the whole story. And that whole story is an important argument in the case against a binary gender system.
So, in discussing this life, let us remember both Mike Penner and Christine Daniels. Let us remember how they lived separately and as one, simultaneously. Most importantly, let us not disrespect the last portion of Penner’s life by refusing to acknowledge him as Penner, but let us also not disrespect this life by pretending that Christine Daniels never existed. The conversation just isn’t complete without both sides.