Initially, we thought the Los Angeles Times‘ handling of sportswriter Mike Penner — who began transitioning, hormones and all, to Christine Daniels in 2007 before abruptly ending treatment — wasn’t just appropriate, it was magical. In the very heteronormative sports section of a national newspaper, here we had editors actually encouraging Penner to tell her transgender story to readers, risks be damned. And not only did the Times support Penner, both publicly and privately, it managed to keep him on staff as round after round of layoffs shrunk the newsroom. But did the Times‘ involvement with Penner’s very public coming out story actually contribute to Penner’s downfall? That downfall, of course, included Penner taking his own life in November.
Transitioning is a difficult process even if you have a robust support system. But what about when you start transitioning under the heat of public spotlight? While the newspaper may have had the best intentions with Penner, one of his confidants insists the Times‘ involvement — both encouraging Penner to tell readers about his transitioning and publishing his reports — was anything but helpful. Reports Jacob Bernstein:
One of the first people whom Penner turned to for advice when he decided to begin the process of a sex change was Christina Kahrl, managing editor from Baseball Prospectus who is also transsexual. Kahrl strongly advised Penner to be more cautious about coming out so prominently as a transgender person too early in the process. (Kahrl did not talk publicly about being a transsexual until after completing her transition from male to female.) “The transition is difficult enough as is,” she explains. “To make it a public thing in front of millions of people—you could call it crazy or bold or courageous or nuts, and it’s all of those things at once…. My advice was not taken.”
Today, Kahrl can understand why the Times is proud of how they handled Penner’s transition (“They made all the appropriate public showings of support and that’s what you hope for from your employer”), but she thinks the initial article—and a blog that followed it, called “Woman in Progress”—were both big mistakes. “It should have been treated as a human-resources matter, not a public-relations opportunity,” she says. “When you put yourself on a stage in front of millions and you’ve been propelled into the role of a celebrity in a community of people that has almost no national celebrities, it’s impossible to go back from it. She or he was permanently ‘Mike Penner-comma-transsexual sportswriter.’ You could not turn the clock back.
[...] Several months into the transition, Daniels dropped out of touch with friends who knew her both as Christine and as Mike.
“She became unresponsive to emails,” Kahrl recalls. “She wasn’t answering calls, whether it was me or other transgender people trying to see how she was doing. We weren’t finding out anything. We were getting nothing.”
But it’s hard to fault the newspaper for actually doing what it thought was best — and, in talks with Penner, deciding to go public with an issue that could actually help transgender or questioning readers. The decision to go public was Penner’s call, and while the Times may have benefited from reader curiosity, we struggle to conclude they let Penner write and blog about his transition simply to attract new readers and pageviews.
The blog Penner had been writing for the newspaper, meanwhile, was pulled at his request after Penner decided to end his transition.
In the end, Daniels did not go through with the gender-reassignment surgery and opted to resume life as Mike Penner, a change of heart that’s not so uncommon in transgender cases. (Renée Richards, in her books Second Serve and No Way Renée, discusses at length going on and off hormones before eventually going through with the full sex change operation.)
He apparently convinced his editors at the LA Times to scrub Christine’s blog “Woman in Progress” from the Web site. Doing that was certainly unusual—most news organizations don’t erase things from their Web sites unless they’re found to be seriously inaccurate and/or the subject of a lawsuit—but there was no precedent in the Times’ newsroom for a male-to-female transition, much less one that was being chronicled on the Web, a medium in which the rules of journalism are not yet entirely clear to newspaper companies. Ultimately, the paper was more concerned with Penner’s well-being than his trans-narrative. They complied.
It sounds like all along the Times had Penner’s best interests at heart. It may not have been the right strategy, but we won’t fault a newspaper that turned a great story into a great story — which, ultimately, had a terrible, terrible ending.