Three months ago, Mike Penner was a longtime sports columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Then he wrote a dramatic goodbye column and disappeared for several weeks.
"I am a transsexual sportswriter," Penner wrote. "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."
Now Penner is back on the beat, as a she. With a new name and a new gender, Christine Daniels now covers sports and her own gender transition for The Los Angeles Times Web site. She tells Madeleine Brand about the experience, personally and professionally, of her new identity.
What was the reaction to [the column announcing your gender transition]?
[Chuckles] Well, I'm laughing because the perceived reaction, or the reaction I was warned about, was 180. I don't even know if you can get any more than 180 degrees different than the actual reaction. But transitioning as a Los Angeles Times sportswriter — the concept kept me closeted, kept me from doing it for several years. I just couldn't fathom it. And even 10 days before that column ran, I was considering quitting the Times. I had talked to two editors, or at least the sports department. I talked to two editors within the Times about transferring to different sections.
It became known in the transgender community that there was a high-profile coming-out about to happen, and a lot of the leaders in the transgender community got in touch with me, and I was told to prepare for the absolute worst. [They said,] 'You should have a friend come in and screen e-mails and phone calls.' And I had that set up. 'Do not listen to the radio. Do not watch TV. Certainly, do not go on the Internet on chat rooms.' And I was told to stay away from the office because they could have protests. I was so freaked out, I just — I was almost in the fetal position the whole day before.
I filed my column about a week before it ran, and it moved up through the channels and we kind of debated a little bit where it should run. I wanted it in the back pages ... in the classifieds, you know.
Buried? You wanted to bury it?
Buried. I didn't want to run it. I didn't want it. I wanted to do this privately, and it was impossible because of my byline. And my sports editor, Randy Harvey — Randy and our editors said, 'Well, because of the byline change, we need to run an explanatory piece about it, maybe have another columnist write about it.' We decided no, if it has to be written, I want to write my story. And it hit the Internet probably 11 or midnight. I tried to sleep and couldn't. And so I was in front of my computer at home, and I started seeing e-mails from co-workers from different departments. And it was all supportive, and I said, well, that makes me feel good. But these are friendly people, these are colleagues. The real test will be when it hits the public.
I tried to go back to bed and couldn't. I remember I got up around 1:30 and sat back, and on my computer screen at 1:46 the first e-mail from a reader came, and ... the subject line was 'You go, girl!' By about 6 or 7 [o'clock] L.A. time, I was getting one e-mail a minute. By 5 or 6 o'clock that evening, I had 538 e-mails, and two were negative. And I thought this could have been the worst day of my life, the worst day of my career. I didn't even know if I was going to get through it. And as it turned out, it was one of the best days I've ever had.
You talked about friends being supportive, colleagues being supportive. What about your family? Are you married? Do you have children? Your parents, siblings — what do they think?
Yeah, I mean — I am married. Well, we're getting divorced. It's extremely painful. That's really a personal side of this conversation I'd rather not have.
OK. You're 49 years old.
So, for 49 years, you've lived as a man.
For 48 years. And did you feel for most of that time that you were not meant to live as a man?
No, I would not say that. I didn't know. I felt uncomfortable. I do know that [from] the age of 4 or 5, I expressed to cousins that I would like to be a girl. And they said, 'Well, what would you do?' They were more curious about this than — they weren't demeaning at all, they were just curious. 'What would you do?' And I said, 'I'd wear a dress and wear ribbons in my hair and walk like this,' and they were just, 'OK, cool.' You know? As I grew older, I found that wasn't the social norm in school — a very strict Catholic school I went to for nine years. And I just felt that I kind of got a raw deal on this thing. And yeah, I wish I could be a girl. I really envy girls. But I didn't think there was anything I could do about it. And so I just tried to make the best of –- the best of being Mike. For a lot of years.
And when did you decide – I think I'm ready to change. I think the time has come. I no longer want to be Mike anymore.
Yeah, that started bubbling up in late 2004, to the point where I was dressing at home, or I wasn't going out. You look in the mirror –- I mean for 20 years, I was closeted. I would dress once a month, twice a month. Then in 2004, it was starting to get to every week. It's called a gender dysphoria and it builds in transsexuals. I have a friend who's [similar] along the lines of her transition as me, and she just said, 'Christine, we're born with this. We fight it as long as we can and it always wins.' And I said, I just have to find out about this. I don't want to die without knowing — without knowing if this is really me.
My first outing was going to a cross-dressing group in L.A., and I walked through the door and there was probably 50 trans-people, almost all of them cross-dressers, and they looked at me and said, 'Well, introduce yourself.' At that point, I didn't really have a name. Michael just defaulted to Michelle, so I just said, 'I'm Michelle,' and they all started laughing. And they started laughing, and I said, 'What's so funny?' They said, 'We'll call you Michelle 36.'
Because there are so many Michelles?
There are so many Michael/Michelles. So I kind of thought on the fly... Always in the back of my mind I really liked Christine. And so that became my name: Christine Michelle Daniels.
And what was it about Christine that you liked so much?
Oh, there are a lot of things. An icon of mine — well, several icons of mine. One was Christine Jorgensen, who was the first high-profile transsexual in the late 1950s. I just think she had a — well, it's pretty obvious she had a lot of courage to do what she did when she did it.
Readers of my blog know that I'm a punk-rock girl. I love music, and especially the New Wave punk era. So The Pretenders and Chrissie Hynde — always a hero of mine. I still dig out that first album; I was playing that the other night.
There's that Siouxsee and The Banshees song.
And the Siouxsee and The Banshees —
[The song] "Christine."
Now you're reading my mind on this one. [Laughter.] Yeah, Christine. All my — a lot of my friends call me strawberry girl from the lyrics, you know. And also, being a sportswriter and having covered her — Chris Evert. Chris Evert was as tough a competitor, male or female, as you're going to want to find.
So anyway, it's those four reasons. I guess it's pretty involved — and also a fifth reason: I just think Christine's pretty. (Chuckles.)
What is it like being a sports columnist and experiencing this transition? This is a very, very macho division of journalism, and especially being in the locker room. What has that been like?
Well, I haven't been in the locker room per se yet, but I've been in press boxes and I've been in press conferences with athletes and coaches. So far no problems, but again my profession – yeah, I was scared to death.
You're sort of coming out was also David Beckham's coming out, the soccer star. And I'm just — you know, you wrote this really amusing column, first describing what he wore and then describing what you wore.
Yeah, mm-hmm. [Chuckles.]
I was wondering if you could just read a little bit of it.
He arrived wearing a silver-gray Burberry suit, surrounded by a phalanx of assistants and yes-people, on his way to a temporary stage assembled on the Home Depot Center soccer pitch, where he would say hello to adoring fans and talk to the media about his new $250 million gig with the Los Angeles Galaxy. I arrived wearing a golden-hued top from Ross and a multi-colored paisley skirt from Ames and a pair of open-toed tan heels from Aerosoles, surrounded by nobody, just me and my press credential on our way to the far southwest corner of some very uncomfortable and unshaded stadium seats to listen to him talk and to write about what he said. The details are not important. What mattered to me on Friday was David Beckham arrived, and so did I.
So what was it like being out there for the first time as Christine?
It was a day I dreamt about for years.
Because here you are with your colleagues and people that you've covered sports with for years as Mike Penner.
And they're seeing you for the first time as Christine.
They looked at me and — I've been out in public enough where I can tell the looks where they're kind of startled. And they looked at me, and it was like they were greeting their longtime friend, Christine, after they hadn't seen her for a while. And they ran up — 'Christine, how are you?' And they got my name right, they got the pronouns right, pretty much. It was beyond my fondest dreams. And so much of my transition has been like that.
So you're painting it as something that's a lot easier, a lot more accepted and acceptable, than you had imagined. That's not to say that there, I'm sure, have been moments where people have said unkind things, where --
-- you have felt horrible and --
-- where it has been really tough.
Yeah, well, I mean, there's been a few hits I've taken here and there, but that's to be expected. And really, overall, I cannot complain.
Do you ever feel like you are doing, I don't know, anthropological research? You know, sort of being in a world that you weren't really allowed to be in before, and then just kind of learning the rights and the rules and the language.
Oh yeah. I've observed girls and women all my life and kind of like, definitely, from the outside looking in. I always thought of myself as the girl with her nose pressed against the window wanting to get to the other side. And so I've observed a lot, and now I'm experiencing it. And it's very much a crash course. [Chuckles.]
And going out was stressful for me. It's almost like playing a football game or a basketball game. I'd sit there at my makeup mirror, and I said, 'Oh, I've got to get my game face on, literally. And I said, 'I've got to psych up.' Because I'll go out, and – oh, my voice isn't where I want it to be. And, you know, people roll their eyes, or whatever – I get laughed at and all that. What's happened since moving out, living full-time in January, starting hormones in December, more electrolysis. I'm more passable, I blend in pretty well now, I think, and I would say 90-plus percent of the time, I am perceived and received as a tall woman.
What has been the hardest thing to master?
The voice. The voice has — that's work in progress, and that's going to take a while. It's something [that] if I concentrate on it, I get it to a pretty decent level.
So are you actually working to make your voice higher or --
I'm trying to make it higher and softer, although there's been a natural softness to it since I've begun my transition.
So right now, as we're speaking, you are consciously —
I'm trying to keep it soft.
Yeah. [Chuckles.] Passable, as they say. Sometimes when I'm comfortable, I'm talking for a long time, I want to have to raise my volume, that's — I lapse back into boy mode with the voice more than I'd like to.
And will you have the sex-change operation, or is this it?
That's pretty personal information. I have not made that decision yet. Technically speaking, there are standards that are called the Harry Benjamin standards. Before you can start hormones, you need to see a therapist for three months minimum, be approved by two physicians for sexual-reassignment surgery. You need to live a full year as a woman. It's called a real-life test.
So my real-life test began in January. So I'm in my eighth month, and we'll see. I haven't made that decision yet.
I wonder if you've experienced anything negative being a woman, any discrimination just for being a woman.
Hmm, not really. Not really. It's funny, the initial reaction I received from women were, 'Congratulations, Christine. Well, you've just become a second-class citizen.' And they're joking, they're joking, of course. And a few e-mails I got right away with, 'Well, Christine, did they cut your salary 20 percent so you can now fit under the glass ceiling?' This kind of thing. I feel like I stepped up, and I liken it to having an economy ticket and suddenly trading in all my frequent flier miles, and now I'm in first class. [Laughter.] I've got more room to stretch.
Well, Christine Daniels, thank you very much for coming in and speaking with me.
You're welcome. It was a pleasure.