by Dan Woog
September 17, 2007
When Mike Penner told a fellow sportswriter and former soccer teammate that he’d be transitioning from male to female, the friend said, “Could you have picked a worse profession to do that in?”
The answer, as Mike – now Christine Daniels – soon found out, was “yes.” In fact, Daniels said, the support she has received – from colleagues, readers, and nearly everyone else in the sports world – has been resoundingly positive.
At times, Daniels wonders why she didn’t take the enormous step of accepting her true gender earlier. But, she admits to herself, she wasn’t ready. And just a few years ago, the sports world might not have been, either.
As a pre-teen in the late 1960s, Mike Penner was enchanted with the colors and designs of football uniforms. That led to an interest in all sports. He considered a career in television broadcasting, but was too introverted. So he became a sportswriter, and since 1983 has covered baseball, tennis, the Olympics, sports media, and the National Football League for the “Los Angeles Times.”
His early feelings about wanting to be a girl receded under the force of a strict mother and a Catholic school education. But they bubbled up again when he was in his 20s. He cross-dressed once a month at home for 20 years, but by the time he reached his 40s, his desire to be a woman grew overwhelming.
In early 2005, he took his first tentative steps, attending a cross-dressers’ meeting in Los Angeles. “Hearing my heels click on the sidewalk, feeling the breeze brush against my dress, I knew I should have been like that all my life,” the sportswriter said recently.
That night Penner cried for the first time in years – tears of joy. At home – “back in ‘Mike mode'” – he cried again, this time in frustration.
Therapy, and five days at a trans conference, convinced him it was time to transition. Penner’s long depression lifted, as he began to emerge as Christine. “I had no idea a person could be so happy and fulfilled,” Daniels said.
Daniels’ entire life changed. “I was always a well-respected writer, but I was acerbic and sarcastic,” she said. With the easing of her tension and depression, her writing became “a lot more sensitive and deeper. I don’t go for the one-liners.”
Gone, too, is the writer’s block that plagued Mike Penner for years. “When a transsexual finally integrates, the ‘white noise’ in the background dissipates,” Daniels explained.
During her transition, she worked at home. Her fears about telling colleagues and readers were eased by talking to three journalists – including a sportswriter – who had transitioned from male to female and kept their jobs. Still, nothing could prepare her for meeting her sports staff for the first time as Christine.
She poked her head in the office of legendary columnist Bill Dwyer and asked, “Have you seen Mike Penner?” “No, he’s…,” Dwyer began, then looked up.
“He did a triple take, and suddenly he recognized me,” Daniels recalled. “He could see how animated I was. For the first time in 23 years, he hugged me.”
Her first event as Christine was at a press conference for the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team, announcing the signing of English star David Beckham. “Almost without exception, the other journalists greeted me warmly,” she said. “It was as if I’d always been a female soccer writer.”
Reader reaction was similar. A common theme was: “We’re glad you’re happy – and glad you’re still writing.” But she got other e-mails, from trans people telling brutal tales of losing jobs after transitioning. “I lucked out, waiting as long as I did,” she said. “And I’m lucky to live in Los Angeles, which is a great place to do this.”
A “Times” colleague surveyed the responses and said, “This restores my faith in humanity.”
Daniels has just started interviewing athletes again, but notices a change there, too. “As Mike, I hated locker rooms and interviews,” she said. “Now I look forward to it. As Christine, I’m comfortable with my body, so it’s so much easier.”
Though writers are seldom the subject of sports stories, Daniels realizes her tale has wide implications. “It’s given the sports world something to mull over,” she said. “There have been reflective pieces in the press about it. Sam Farmer, an NFL writer I work with at the “Times,” said that before my story, he never thought about what it’s like to live as a woman, or in the wrong gender. Now he’s thinking about it, and I’m sure other people are, too. I didn’t ask for this, but I realize it’s important.”
Important, yes – but not necessarily as serious as Mike Penner imagined. He broke the news to one friend by referencing the movie “Transamerica.” The friend looked perplexed. As Mike explained his upcoming transition, the friend interrupted. “I thought you said “Trainspotting,”” he said with relief. “I thought you were a heroin addict!”