Covering this past week’s tragic death of a sportswriter who apparently committed suicide presents quite a challenge for reporters and not just because the loss hits so close to home.
Mike Penner was noteworthy for the 25 years spent covering all manner of sports for the L.A. Times, but also for the fact that the writer publicly came out as a transsexual in 2007 and began writing as Christine Daniels. The bylines and pronouns changed. Daniels wrote a blog about her transition and also returned to the L.A. Times sports pages in her new persona.
In 2008, Daniels quietly went back to using the byline Mike Penner but did so in a far less public way, choosing to keep the reasons for doing so private. Over the long weekend, the news surfaced that the writer is dead, apparently of suicide.
That leaves a lot of questions for those who knew the writer, much less those trying to write an obituary on deadline, an issue noted in this piece in the Washington City Paper. I wanted to offer my thoughts on how journalists might handle this situation. I think it is appropriate to remember both Christine and Mike, because both personas had a tremendous impact on the world.
Writing about transgender subjects, to me, necessarily means embracing complexity. The general style is to use the pronoun and name that the person prefers and the best way to know this is to ask that person. Unfortunately, still too often we write about transgender people, often for the first time, only after they have died through violence or by their own hand. This means writing about people who often lived in a world somewhere in between the gender they were born with and the one in which they saw themselves in an ideal world.
It means that they may be known differently to different people with whom they were close.
For me it is far easier to remember Christine Daniels, the woman who spoke so elequently at the 2007 National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention. For 40 minutes, she told her inspiring story to a hushed crowd of reporters at an outdoor cocktail reception. (She still holds the record for longest time keeping that group quiet–by a good 35 minutes.) It is the bravery and courage of declaring her truth to her readers that I will remember most.
But for others, it is easier to remember Mike Penner, the identity that the writer used for most of life, as a journalist, athlete and friend to many. It is that identity that was used publicly at the end of this person’s life and for most of the all-too-short 52 years this writer spent on Earth. As Autumn Sandeen eloquently states in the City Paper article, it is that identity that is best used when choosing names and pronouns. Whatever the reasons, Penner chose to use male pronouns most recently.
“I would love to remember him as Christine, but he didn’t give us that opportunity, and I’m going to be sad about that,” Sandeen writes. “It seems cruel that we need to stick with the style guides, but we need to stick with the style guides. How he identified was important. We can’t just pick and choose how we want to identify someone.”
But, no matter what pronouns one uses, both personas deserve to be remembered.
I also think it is appropriate to use this death to revisit the hurdles that still present themselves to those who seek to transcend gender norms. Without claiming to know all the details in this case, I can say firsthand that even in the best of circumstances, there are significant challenges for those who seek to change genders, especially those who must do so under the public eye.
Although the L.A. Times and many readers, sources, colleagues and others supported Daniels in the transition, it is clear from both what was said and what was left unsaid that the process was still daunting and was one that left both Daniels and Penner unfulfilled.
Transgender people are not only far more likely to die through violence of others, but they also suffer higher rates of major depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as suicide itself–a story that often goes untold. Writing about the hurdles that remain for the transgender community–the legal, financial, social and other–is an appropriate way to remember both Christine Daniels and Mike Penner.