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Public triumph, private torment

When Times sportswriter Mike Penner announced he'd become Christine Daniels, he sought 'joy and fulfillment.' After a year of accolades and ordeals, he returned as Mike. But his struggles continued.

March 27, 2010|By Christopher Goffard

In late April 2007, Mike Penner published an article unlike any of the thousands he had written for the Los Angeles Times. It was brief, just 823 words, and placed without fanfare on the second page of the Sports section that had been his home for 23 years.

Under the headline "Old Mike, new Christine," Penner explained that he would soon assume a female identity and byline, a decision that followed "a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy."

It was "heartache and unbearable discomfort" to remain a man, he explained. Being a woman promised "joy and fulfillment." The article ended on a hopeful note: "This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship."

Mike Penner: An article in Section A on March 27 about the late Mike Penner, the Los Angeles Times sportswriter who announced in 2007 that he was a transsexual and was adopting a female identity, quoted the sportswriter's statement in a radio interview that he had spent nine years in a "very strict Catholic school." In fact, Penner attended three different Catholic schools, one for seven years, according to his family. Penner committed suicide last November.—

Gone was quiet, circumspect Mike Penner, replaced by ebullient, outgoing -- and instantly famous -- Christine Daniels. Celebrity meant a megaphone, and Daniels vowed to use it as an advocate. She told her story at transsexual conferences across the country, becoming a symbol of courage to a transgender community inspired by the most visible coming-out in decades.

A year after the essay, the Daniels byline vanished from the newspaper, and within months Penner was back at work, living as a man and writing under his male name. Once so voluble about the reasons for becoming Christine, Penner was silent about the reasons for abandoning the identity.

This time, there was no essay, no explanation. But friends saw a person in torment. Last November, in the parking garage of the apartment complex where he lived alone, Penner killed himself. He was 52.

The duality that defined the sportswriter's life divided the grieving. Mourners were split between two memorial services, one for Mike and one for Christine.

Penner was an Inglewood native who spent nine years in what he called a "very strict Catholic school." He was an avid weekend soccer player and a lover of the punk band the Clash. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a receding hairline and a penchant for untucked shirts.

In 1983, he jumped from the Anaheim Bulletin to The Times. Over the years, he covered high-school sports, tennis, the Angels and the NFL and developed a reputation as a wry essayist who relished global spectacles such as the Olympics and World Cup soccer.

Penner and his wife, Lisa Dillman, also a Times sportswriter, relied intensely on one another in their 20-year marriage. "It seemed to a lot of us that they were just this great love story," said Randy Harvey, formerly the Sports editor, now an associate editor at The Times. "They just seemed to be in sync -- not necessarily with the world around them, but with each other." The couple had no children.

It is not clear when Dillman learned about her husband's persistent feeling that he was imprisoned in a male body, a condition known as "gender dysphoria." In a recent column, ESPN personality Rick Reilly, who worked with Penner at The Times in the early 1980s, said his friend confided to him that he kept a dress, wig and pearls hidden in a tool box behind his bed.

By his mid-40s, Penner was regularly dressing as a woman in private and soon was venturing to transgender hangouts and attending Metropolitan Community Church, known as a gay/transgender haven. He sought counseling at the Los Angeles Gender Center.

The many friendships he built at these places were close yet compartmentalized. He could confide what he called his "most important truth," but not his real name or where he worked. He used the name Christine, a nod to personal hero Christine Jorgensen, the transsexual who helped bring the phenomenon out of the shadows of early-1950s America.

"Christine kept telling me that she was afraid to go out in the 'real world' for fear of being laughed at and worse," said Susan Horn, a transsexual who counseled Penner through the coming-out process. Horn, a Los Angeles paralegal, was in the final stages of her own transition, and the price had already been high. The attendant depression had cost her a 30-year career as a lawyer, and her teenage daughter had said, "You're dead -- I'll never talk to you again."

The sportswriter accompanied Horn to Sisley, an Italian restaurant in Sherman Oaks, for dinner in August 2005, dressed as a woman. It was the first time Christine had stepped outside the sanctuary of the transgender community.

"Christine was very nervous and looking in every direction to see if anyone was looking or staring," recalled Horn, now 61. "The waiter treated us just like he would treat any two women, and Christine was in heaven."

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