Saturday, November 28, 2009

RIP: Mike/Christine Penner, Transgender Sportswriter

Los Angeles Times announced today that transgender sports journalist Mike Penner committed suicide.

In 2007, Penner came out in the newspaper's pages as Christine Daniels.  He took a vacation, and came back as she. Daniels continued to write for the Times, and took up what must have been no small battle in her confrontation with the ruthlessly phobic and sexist sports world. Of course, most of her life she - as he - had been living intimately with those attitudes - casual misogyny, throw-away homophobic jokes and worse are so tightly woven into sports culture as to define it.

That said, Christine Daniels reported that readers embraced her - that in fact they defied her expectations with their expressions of care and support.  At the moment, the comments section for the LA Times story reporting Mike/Christine's death bear this out - if readers struggle over what pronoun and name to use, it seems to be out of a genuine desire to show respect.

About a year ago, Mike "returned." This fact left some confused. If Christine enjoyed solid support, the return of Mike was greeted with more ambivalence and judgment than compassion and understanding.

Coming out as transgender is complicated - it isn't simply a matter of opening a closet door. You don't just declare yourself a woman (for example) - you undergo therapy, you live a year as a woman while being assessed for gender reassignment, you take hormones (or you decide not to) and you explore what gender, what sexual identity and life makes sense for you. It isn't like there is one sort of femininity and one sort of masculinity - we all know this: a person may feel well defined by a term like "male," for example, but embody a radically different masculinity from his brother, who may feel just as defined by that word.

Thinking about Mike/Christine, I'm moved by the woman s/he wanted to be, and became in 2007. What would it be like to develop and express a feminine identity as a sports journalist? Women sportswriters defy gender expectations every time they go to work. This isn't a traditional femininity by any stretch. Christine, as a sportswriter, would have cut a distinctly (and queerly) feminist figure. 

There is no linear route from a public identity as one gender to another. Some people try out a gender identity, and find that a stable gender isn't what they want.  Maybe that person reclaims the pronoun they grew up with, and maybe they carve out a queer version of it.  Maybe they settle into the new pronoun, but decide to queer expectations of what that pronoun signifies.  Each person's process is different.  Mike/Christine's story was unique - unfolding in a hypermasculine world, and in public.  She was gracious in the few interviews she gave (listen to this one on NPR). She also fought to guard her privacy - pushing back on questions about the decisions she was making about her body, for example. We may know little about Mike/Christine's personal struggles - but recent events show us how intolerant the sports world is when it comes to the fluidity of gender identity.

Mike/Christine's suicide comes just days after the 9th annual Day of Remembrance for victims of violence against transgender people.  A recent study published in the Journal of Homosexuality asserts that thirty percent of transgender people have attempted suicide.  Some say that figure is very conservative, putting the number closer to half. 

Let's remember Mike/Christine for being a great writer, for being brave and for helping us to imagine an anti-homophobic, queer and trans positive sportsculture.  The world is a poorer place without him, without her.

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