Features » June 27, 2007
He Shoots, She Scores
When Mike became Christine, she gave Los Angeles sports fans a courtside view of gender politics
For all of its trappings of money, fame, and corruption, professional sports has a lot to do with character. Avid sports fans seem to respect those who face up to overwhelming challenge and overcome adversity. So it should not come as a surprise that readers rose in solidarity when a 23-year veteran sports writer announced in the Los Angeles Times that he would return from a short hiatus…as a woman.
On April 26, Mike Penner wrote what he thought would be the toughest article of his career. “I am a transsexual sportswriter. It has taken more than 40 years, a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy for me to work up the courage to type those words.” The piece ran in the Sports section, next to his regular column.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Penner’s story was “by mid-evening, one of the most heavily viewed stories on latimes.com in the last year, with about half a million page views.” Nancy Sullivan, executive director of communications for the newspaper, says “There was a massive response to this story, not only on our website, but across the media spectrum.” The online message board accompanying the article was closed to comments in less than 8 hours, with 800 comments logged in. Hundreds more messages were sent via e-mail. Responses to the revelation came in three distinct flavors: kudos from sports fans, effusive thanks from other transsexuals and rants from bible-thumpers. Readers’ initial shock, however, subsided almost immediately.
Michael Daniel Penner returned to work on May 23 as Christine Michelle Daniels. So far, it appears to be smooth sailing. But Daniels’ very public transition has put a spotlight on a culture that is slow to acknowledge, let alone attempt to rehabilitate its ingrained intolerance and bigotry.
Translating her world
“The concept of one day having to come out publicly, as an LA Times sports columnist, was a paralyzing fear that, looking back, kept me from transitioning at least 5 years sooner,” Daniels tells In These Times. She says she was “bracing for the worst.”
Many of Daniels’ colleagues have gone out of their way to champion her cause. “Some sportswriters,” she says, “have written column items of support, some who know me pretty well have spoken to others on my behalf, without my knowledge, delivering the message that, ‘This is just another writer, a normal person, facing a difficult challenge.’”
Sports blogs almost uniformly expressed admiration for her courage and wished her well. Overall, readers seem to be mildly bemused, but focused on her return to work. One commenter summed up the majority consensus: “Yea yea yea and all that girlie stuff, no problema. … But how ‘bout them Angels this weekend? Gonna get back to bizz? Need you back Christine.”
Some response has been negative. It’s difficult to assess where it originates–within the sports community or those drawn by the spectacle. TheAngryT.com, an obscure sports blog, rants, “I am a straight male … Do you care what I look like or whether I wear high cut panties out of the Sears women’s wear catalogue? LA Times readers should no longer look for Mike Penner’s column when they want hard-hitting sports journalism.”
Sportswriters frequently express passion and enthusiasm for their subject, exposing more personality than reporters covering different beats. They often develop loyal followings and become a trusted voice that keeps readers up-to-date. In a world of high ticket prices, the sportswriter functions as the reader’s passport to the field, court or stadium. For Daniels, this connection to her fans, and the known quality of her writing, may have smoothed her transition.
“I just always liked the spark in his writing, his wit and his use of language,” says fellow Southern California journalist Joel Beers. “Penner’s done a lot: covered the Olympics, wrote about media, NFL lead writer. But, after 23 years, it’d seem he’d be a dean of the Times sports section as opposed to just another very good writer in a section that has a lot of them. I always wondered why he seemed to bounce from beat to beat but never got what would seem to me the choicest of assignment: columnist.”
It would seem that Daniels’ bravery has yielded that opportunity twofold. She has two columns: Day in L.A., which the paper describes as “a daily column on the sports events, personalities and themes that matter most to Southern Californians,” and Woman in Progress, a blog on latimes.com in which she chronicles her transformation, comments on the angst that accompanied her public “coming out,” and describes re-connecting with friends and colleagues she had kept at a distance since beginning hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in December.
Her first few weeks of posts indicate that each blog retains its distinct focus. Based on the heavy traffic to both blogs, much of her original audience has stayed on, in order to catch a glimpse of her personal journey. Daniels is making sports history by creating a space where questions of intolerance and bigotry can be posed and, through online comments, discussed.
Daniels knows that the average sports-page reader experiences cognitive dissonance when imagining a man donning a wig, a dress, pumps and lipstick to head out for a day at the mall. In a recent post, she related why many male-to-female “transwomen” are focused on the exterior. “We never had a girlhood. We missed out on all the fun (dolls, sleepovers, mother-daughter outings) and the rites of passage natural-born females take for granted… [It’s] just a normal part of growing up female.”
Her employer’s approach to the situation helped normalize Daniel’s gender-switch. When she revealed to her supervisor, Sports Editor Randy Harvey, that she would be transitioning, he insisted that she write the piece in order to stay in control of the story. Some critics thought that personal narrative belonged in the Op Ed section and not in the Sports section. Others believed she should be fired. One post to a blog sponsored by CBS SportsLine.com put it this way: “When a reporter makes himself the story, which he is clearly doing, he is definitely not serving the interests of his reading public and quite honestly should be fired for these ego-driven actions.”
In the majority of states, being fired would be a distinct possibility. In February, the city of Largo, Fla., fired its city manager of 14 years after he revealed his plans to undergo sex reassignment surgery, also known as SRS. California, however, is one of the eight states (along with Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Hawaii, as well as Washington D.C.) that have passed laws that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. Oregon will join the list on January 1, 2008, and the legislatures of Vermont, Iowa and Colorado have passed bills that await their governors’ signatures.
An unexamined culture
Traditionally, the sports world is quick to minimize and ignore issues of bigotry when they arise and instead “focus on the game.” In so doing, it misses a chance to discuss the issues and identify the underlying symptoms. Some would sweep Daniels’ revelation under the rug in order to maintain the status quo and avoid what might be unsettling self-examination.
U.S. sports history is rife with examples of a pervasive culture of racism, sexism and homophobia. Football commentator Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder was fired by the CBS network in 1988 after describing on the air how African Americans were naturally superior athletes because they had been bred to produce stronger offspring during slavery. The words that got him fired were, “During the slave period, the slave owner would breed his big black with his big woman so that he would have a big black kid–that’s where it all started.”
Although primarily criticized as racist, Don Imus’ April 4 reference to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy headed hos” revealed an insidious sexism that has been at the core of the sports world’s resistance to professional female athletes. Just months before, retired NBA player Tim Hardaway was suspended from participating in NBA publicity events after saying on a local radio show: “Well, you know I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it.” Homophobia has persisted like a healed-over injury that acts up when gender roles are challenged.
“That culture is very real,” says Daniels. But she sees her proactive “coming out” and the Woman in Progress blog as an opportunity for fans to examine their discomfort with transsexuals in sports. Her blog holds up a magnifying glass for those who are willing to peer through it.
Daniels is in the process of getting new press credentials from local teams. “I have not ventured into a press box or locker room as Christine yet. But soon,” she said with anticipation. “Most of the publicity directors from the local pro sports teams have contacted me to say, ‘Welcome back, Christine, we look forward to working with you.’”
Transsexuals in sports
Daniels is not the first transsexual to emerge from the sports world. In 2003, Chris Kahrl, sportswriter and founding columnist of the annual Baseball Prospectus, the gold standard for baseball analysis, became Christina. At the time, Kahrl wrote, “nobody has batted an eye,” calling sports “the ultimate American social bridge,” transcending “race, gender, class, and culture.” The history of transsexuals as sports players, however, hasn’t always borne out such triumphant optimism.
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