Sportswriter Takes Transgender Identity Public

This week veteran sportswriter Mike Penner crossed a line, and there is no turning back.

Using his newspaper -- the Los Angeles Times -- as a platform, the prolific Penner announced yesterday that he was taking a vacation and that when he returned, things in his life would be very different, including his name:

"I will come back in yet another incarnation. As Christine," Penner wrote.

Writing under the byline of Mike Penner for the last time, the 49-year-old journalist candidly described the pain of a lifetime feeling like a woman trapped in a man's body.

"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," Penner confessed. "I am a transsexual sportswriter."

Transgender is the term used to describe "people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth," according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLADD).

The term transgender can include not only those who pursue sexual reassignment, as Penner has, but also cross-dressers and other "gender variant people," according to GLADD.

The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, DSM- IV, "suggests that roughly one per 30,000 adult males and one per 100,000 adult females seek [sex-reassignment surgery]."

Penner said the research suggests nature, not nurture, is primarily responsible for the confusion that can produce a life of agony.

"Recent studies have shown that such physiological factors as genetics and hormonal fluctuation during pregnancy can significantly affect how our brains are 'wired' at birth," he wrote in the Times. "As extensive therapy and testing have confirmed, my brain was wired female."

Mostly Positive Reaction

Buoyed by the mostly positive response to her revelation, Christine Daniels consented to have the tables turned on the journalist and be the subject of a follow-up story by a fellow Los Angeles Times reporter.

She walked into the lobby of the Times building yesterday afternoon as a woman.

According to the story posted last night on latimes.com, the tall Daniels (her middle name as a man was Daniel) wore slacks, a blouse with flowers, a bit of make-up and a wig of long, strawberry blond hair that she will don while growing out her own hair.

"Writing that piece, which I didn't initially want to write, ended up becoming one of the best things I have ever done," Daniels told Times staff writer James Rainey.

"And a day I dreaded all my life has ended up being one of the best days I've ever had."

By the end of the day, the Times reported Daniels had received 538 e-mails. Only two of them negative.

Like the personal e-mails, postings on the latimes.com message board were largely positive. But there were some who took issue with both Penner's story and his decision to live as a woman.

"It's a pity you couldn't get the substantive therapy you needed," said one, according to the Times. "There's nothing 'natural' about what you describe, and the fact that your DNA doesn't change is proof."

Daniels' role as a transgender sports reporter could pose unique challenges. The world of sports and sports reporting is more associated with maleness and traditional masculinity than perhaps any endeavor, other than warfare. Though women have staked out turf on the playing field, sports are still mostly identified with masculinity.

Sexual Orientation in the Sports World

People in sports who have sexual orientations that are different from the majority have traditionally been inclined to keep their private lives, private. And like the military, athletes and those that cover them have tended to follow a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Going public about one's sexuality is never a completely smooth journey, suggests former NBA player John Amaechi.

In February, with the publication of his book "Man in the Middle" (ESPN Books), Amaechi became the the first professional basketball player to openly admit his homosexuality.

"This man is truly brave," Amaechi said of Penner. "Your average jock will initially have a hard time viewing him as a woman."

"People don't understand homosexuality or bisexuality, and transsexualism is a taboo in some respects, even within the gay community," suggested Amaechi, who is now a psychologist.

Still, the former Penn State hoops star predicts the response of athletes is likely to be no different than the general population from which they come.

"You will have some who are miserably against it. You will have the people who are very supportive and some who are part ambivalent and part confused," said Amaechi.

"I think it is going to take some real adjustment on the part of other sportswriters in the Los Angeles Times newsroom, other people in the sports media here in Los Angeles, athletes that she comes in contact with," said Steve Mason, sports talk show host for 710-AM radio (ESPN) in Los Angeles.

But Mason, who praised the "heartfelt" column, also said it's hard not to root for Christine Daniels.

"You feel for this person and what they have gone through," said Mason. "But I am one who believes people are far more enlightened, even in the world of sports, than people give all of us credit for, and I think she will be just fine."

Howard Bragman, head of the Los Angeles public relations firm Fifteen Minutes, applauded the forthright approach taken by Mike Penner.

"This is a courageous act. He's putting a face to something that is not really talked about, " said Bragman, whose firm represents several high-profile gay athletes, including Amaechi, former WNBA all-star Sheryl Swoops and golfer Rosie Jones.

"By writing the column and controlling the first information that is out there, you really get to set the agenda for how to discuss it," Bragman said.

Life Across the Line

Characterizing herself as a "transitioning transsexual," Daniels told the Times she began dressing full time as Christine four months ago, when she began taking hormones.

Concerned for her privacy, Daniels said that it's "too early" to reveal whether she intends to have surgery to complete the physical change from male to female.

Mike Penner was married to a fellow sportswriter at the Times, and there are unconfirmed reports that the pair have separated.

After 23 years with the Los Angeles Times, Christine Daniels' future there may be changing as well. After a few weeks of vacation, she plans to return to the paper.

In addition to a sports blog, latimes.com reportedly plans to offer her space to chronicle this watershed period of her life and gender transformation.

The tentative title for the column: "Woman in Progress."

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