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Public triumph, private torment

COLUMN ONE

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

"I think the prospect of what she could achieve was too attractive to turn down," said Christina Kahrl, a transsexual who works as a sportswriter for BaseballProspectus.com. "She was daring to do more than anyone had ever tried since Christine Jorgensen."

When British soccer superstar David Beckham arrived to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy in July 2007, Daniels joined the media fleet at Home Depot Center to greet him. It was Daniels' first public appearance at a sports event, after 25 years of "dreaming about how it might play out if it ever came to be," she wrote on her blog.

Journalists who had known Penner for years got their first glimpse of Daniels, who recorded the event in a droll, triumphant tone. Beckham "arrived wearing a silver-gray Burberry suit, surrounded by a phalanx of assistants and yes-people," she wrote on her blog. "I arrived wearing a golden-hued top from Ross and a multicolored paisley skirt from Ames and a pair of open-toed tan heels from Aerosoles, surrounded by nobody. . . . "

Paul Oberjuerge, then a sports columnist for the San Bernardino Sun, was in the crowd. "I hate to be judgmental about these things, but Christine is not an attractive woman," he wrote on his blog, noting that Daniels had a prominent Adam's apple and stood more than 6 feet tall in wobbly heels. "It seemed almost as if we're all going along with someone's dress-up role playing. . . . "

Daniels was wounded by such criticism -- and by comments from other transsexuals who faulted her for an excessive interest in dresses, jewelry and other outward trappings of femininity.

As the year wore on, Daniels grew estranged from the Los Angeles transsexual community, complaining that she had become a fundraising tool. At one gathering, she spoke of how supportive the Los Angeles Times had been, only to be confronted by someone who insisted that this didn't reflect the experience of most transsexuals.

"She didn't know who to trust in the community," Sandeen said, "because all these people were willing to use her."

In October 2007, Daniels showed up at a Los Angeles studio to pose for photographs to accompany a profile in Vanity Fair magazine. The photographer, Robert Maxwell, said Daniels wore simple, elegant dresses in what was intended as a "conservative, classy-type look."

Maxwell said he sensed Daniels' brittleness and tried to deal with her sensitively. On seeing the photos, she dissolved into tears, saying: "I'm ugly."

"I told her, 'No, you're beautiful,' " Maxwell said. "I was trying to say all the right things. How do you tell someone who looks like a man, 'You're a beautiful woman'? I don't know." As he tried to console her, Maxwell recalled, she pushed him away. The photo shoot was "a total debacle, probably the worst experience of my transition," Daniels wrote in an e-mail to a friend.

The photographer "apparently wanted to portray me as a man in a dress -- my worst fear," Daniels wrote. "I felt betrayed, totally abused, and very very vulnerable and exposed and alone in the world."

The profile writer, Evan Wright, said that to write an honest article, he would have to observe that the sportswriter did not pass as a woman. "I thought, 'Bottom line, she has a fantasy conception. She doesn't accept who she is.' "

Wright said that after the photo shoot, he was so afraid Daniels would commit suicide that he asked his editor to cancel the story. It was never written.

The episode seemed to mark a turning point, a retreat. By year's end, Daniels had cut off many of her transsexual friends.

She let weeks pass without updating Woman in Progress. In February 2008, Tony Pierce, The Times' blogs editor, asked Daniels whether she wanted to stop the blog.

"She said she didn't want to be the spokesperson for anything, but unfortunately that's what she had become," Pierce said. Posts remained infrequent, and Daniels eventually asked to have the blog discontinued.

One transgender friend, Sara Hayward, heard an eerie shifting in Daniels' speech during a conversation in early March. Now and then, Daniels' soft, steady voice would give way abruptly to Penner's voice, deep and cracking. "It was two voices coming out of the same person," Hayward said.

Daniels, who had been writing a sports-media column called Sound and Vision, had her last byline in The Times on April 4, 2008, then went on extended disability leave. She was despondent -- close friends knew she was manic depressive -- failing to eat and stricken with esophageal pain.

Daniels told Amy LaCoe, her transsexual friend, that she had ruined her marriage and made a mess of her life. LaCoe insisted that Daniels stay with her for a couple months. "She stared at my bedroom ceiling for a long time," LaCoe said. "She had stopped caring about herself."

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