Gustavo's note: Today, LA Times sports reporter Mike Penner announced he was undergoing a sex-change operation and returning in a couple of weeks as a woman. Here is Weekly theater critic Joel Beers' take on it...
Nearly 20 years ago, when I was a fledgling professional journalist at my first paid gig at Orange County's last daily afternoon newspaper, the Anaheim Bulletin, I wrote a piece exploring the media's role, if any, in the suicide of former Angels closer Donnie Moore. It was my first "big" story for the paper, and I was understandably nervous interviewing people whose baseball cards I still owned: Reggie Jackson, Bert Blyleven, Carlton Fisk.
I worked hard on the story, and was proud of it. And that pride was vindicated when co-worker John Penner casually remarked to me after the piece came out that Mike Penner, his brother and LA Times Angels' beat writer, had told him it was one of the best pieces that he'd ever read in the Bulletin. (I believe Mike wrote for the Bulletin before moving on to the Times).
For a novice journalist, it was just about the greatest compliment I could ever have received. As a daily reader of the Times sports page over the years, I've obviously read Penner's writing—and not just because he once gave me a wondrous third-party ego stroke. I just always liked the spark in his writing, his wit and his use of language. And 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.
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. (His most recent post is Morning Briefing, which is a fun read, but still a bit slight for a writer of such talent).
But the bombshell he dropped in today's Times is as provocative, stunning and just flat-out jaw-dropping as anything I've ever read in a sports page. Penner, reciting the many roles and titles he's played in his 23-year tenure at the Times, says that he's going on vacation. When he returns, he'll come back in yet another incarnation: Christine Daniels. Penner reports that he's a transsexual sportswriter and that, after 40 years, "a million tears" and "hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy" he's made the monumental decision to come out in print.
He doesn't give many details: whether he'll undergo surgery, whether he fears being ostracized in the newsroom or in a locker room, why he's changing both his first and last names. And he doesn't "need" to, since it's his body, his identity and all that.
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But, since he/she did use the Times sports page as his official unveiling, it's natural to hope that some kind of update on the transformation, or process, will be forthcoming. He says that, "almost universally" friends and colleagues have been supportive. But sportswriters cover sports, which remains a testosterone-riddled, hairy-chest-dominated world. While there is no shortage of pretty feminine faces on NFL sidelines, TV sports anchor chairs and the like, they remain anomalies in a field absolutely dominated by men. Men who mostly cover other men in a protracted state of arrested development and who, one surmises, revel in a locker room mentality that might promote snapping towels at a colleague's private parts but who would blanch at the prospect of a thoughtful, measured discussion of sexual identity, gender identity and all the complications thereof. In other words: Penner will return to a good old boys club as a woman. But a woman with a big-ass asterisk in the world of sports and sportswriting.
Good luck to him/her. It took extraordinary courage to take this incredibly personal decision and write about it in one of the most public of forums. As someone who's followed his career for so long, I'm obviously fascinated by how he progresses. But I'm equally fascinated by how this agonizing struggle, and apparently liberating decision, has affected Lisa Dillman, Penner's wife the Times' main Olympics writer. She isn't mentioned in today's column, but maybe it's too sensitive a point. I don't know. [Editor's note: Dillman recently announced she's divorcing Penner.] But they still work together at the Times, and whether it's some weird sort of morbid curiosity or genuine concern, I'd love to know her take on all this. What's it like to live with a man who constantly wrestled with his gender and, compounding that, what's it like to be a female sportswriter married to a male sportswriter who wasn't so male after all? How much agony did she go through in the marriage, and in this decision process? Does she feel cheated in any way? What's it like to fall in love and marry a man who secretly wrestled with being a woman? It's salacious, yes, but also profoundly interesting. And these are writers. Good writers. And it'd be a great read.
Not that any of us "deserve" to know. It's obviously personal and private. But the fact Penner/Daniels has come out in public print, puts it in the public eye. And as awkward, uncomfortable and superfluous as this incredibly personal story might play on a sports page, it's still a fascinating one. While I'll be the first to pre-order Penner/Daniels' autobiography, I hope this isn't the last readers hear of this incredible story.
T. J. Simers writes ad nauseam about his family in his frequently engaging column, but not since Jim Murray's heartbreaking testimonials 25 years ago on his failing eyesight and the death of his beloved wife, has a sports column in the Times felt at intimate and naked as this one. The Times, for all its problems, still has one of the best-written and most comprehensive sports sections in the country. It's also suddenly—jaw-droppingly so—gotten far more interesting.