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Is The Los Angeles Times To Blame for Letting Sportswriter Mike Penner Come Out As Trans?

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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.

By:           editor editor
On:           Dec 18, 2009
Tagged: , , , , ,

  • 11 Comments
    • dizzy spins
      dizzy spins

      God, we really dig to find fault with everyone don’t we?

      Stop acting like trans people are children. Penner was a grownup who DECIDED to go public with his transition. I seriously doubt the paper thought it’d be a great idea to exploit their sports writer as a trans woman–sports fans are stereotypically not big supporters of the trans community. His death was sad, and he obviously had a lot of personal demons to deal with. Maybe he made a mistake coming out so publicly, but A. He probably wanted to control the story, since it would obviously come out anyway, and B. It was HIS mistake, not the newspaper’s.

      Dec 18, 2009 at 12:08 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • terrwill
      terrwill

      Is it just me or does he look more like a woman in the
      picture on the left??

      Dec 18, 2009 at 12:11 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Kropotkin
      Kropotkin

      Why do we have to assign blame or find someone at fault here? A life is tragically lost, more family and friends, why do we have to politicalize Penner’s death?

      Penner had very high-profile “celebrity” transition, which doesn’t usually produce very good results (Renee Richards and Susan Stanton for example). It’s quite easy in such a turbulent time in life to get caught up in it and loose sight of your goals. Most high-profile trans people transition quietly and then come to do activism.

      But now he’s dead, there are some lessons to be learned for others who want to transition publicly, but he was an adult and a professional, the Times is not at fault for this and it is sensationalist to make those kinds of charges.

      Dec 18, 2009 at 1:55 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Kian
      Kian

      Is it me, or is Terrwill the biggest douchebag on the planet??

      Dec 18, 2009 at 9:05 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Distingue Traces
      Distingue Traces

      No.

      As with any dramatic outward change, sex change surgery tends to be built up by the people going through it as the magic bullet that will solve all their problems.

      when the transition leaves you just as depressed/lonely/addicted/etc., the disappointment can feel pretty hopeless.

      It’s not unlike couples who live together for years, then get married — and split up immediately afterward. Problems that had seemed tolerable before can start to feel impossible to bear when you realize that the big symbolic change isn’t going to get rid of them and they just have to be worked through one by one.

      Dec 19, 2009 at 3:13 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Jadis
      Jadis

      Kian: pretty much. Nothing like snarking dead people to show the world your class.

      Dec 19, 2009 at 1:03 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Keith Kimmel
      Keith Kimmel

      Sorry Queerty, I disagree with ya on this one. He was an adult who decided to go public with his story. If you want to blame someone, blame the lack of support these people have in their communities, even within the queer community. The paper was not to blame, what they did was actually remarkable.

      Whomever this “confidant” is, s/he/it is clearly just a disgruntled employee. The notion that any one person or company is responsible for a suicide is ridiculous. Penner and Penner alone decided to end Penner’s life. Ultimately, his death is his own fault and no one else’s.

      Dec 20, 2009 at 1:52 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • terrwill
      terrwill

      No. 4 · Kian: Is it just me or did Kian forget to dialate his gaping wound today and may be expericencing a little discomfort????

      Dec 20, 2009 at 2:14 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Kian
      Kian

      Terrwill: and you still insist you’re not a hater? I’ve had many “debates” with you and you still can’t remember that I’m a gay transman, so you’re nice little comment about my “gaping wound” is incorrect. I know you have a hard time distinguishing between truth and lies, but you aren’t that stupid, are you? Just wondering.

      Dec 20, 2009 at 4:23 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • hardmannyc
      hardmannyc

      Ed Harris could so play him/her in the film version.

      Dec 20, 2009 at 5:33 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • terrwill
      terrwill

      No. 9 · Kian
      Terrwill: and you still insist you’re not a hater

      No. 4 · Kian
      Is it me, or is Terrwill the biggest douchebag on the planet??

      Who exactaly is the “hater”???? I made a comment which was humorus not hatefull. (maybe you have a problem with you “h”s) And sorry you never identified just exactaly what type of trans you were previous to this post. You are the first to hurl insults and scream “hate” at every turn. I simply have pointed out two constant behaviours which trans persons engage in which is detrimental to the Gay community at large, which no sane and reasonable person could disagree with. Sorry Kian you are the one who refuses to accept any valid critism of the trans community which is exactaly why some have a problem with you and your fellow trans persons…

      Dec 21, 2009 at 9:33 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·

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