The world is rightfully celebrating both Caitlyn Jenner's personal journey and the great job done by Vanity Fair in telling her story on its cover with a profile and photo shoot. But lost in the praise is how the magazine has improved dramatically from a previous time they had tried to profile someone from the sports world who was transitioning: the sad story of Mike Penner, who was scheduled to appear on the pages of VF as Christine Daniels.
Penner, of course, was a longtime presence on the Southern California media landscape with his hilarious columns in the Los Angeles Timesand an alum of the Anaheim Bulletin, Penner was as OC as they get. But in 2007, the writer made international headlines with a column announcing Penner was taking a leave of absence and returning as Christine Daniels. "I am a transsexual sportswriter," Penner wrote. "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."
Then, as today with Jenner, Daniels found nearly universal support. She returned to the Times to not just cover sports, but also to pen a column called "Woman in Progress" documenting her journey. Book deals were in the works, media and conference appearances were popping up, and Daniels was ready to conquer the world.
Then came a Vanity Fair photo shoot.
Details of what exactly happened remain in dispute to this day, but a lengthy article by LA Weekly showed that Daniels was devastated by what she felt was crass treatment by writer Evan Wright, photographer Robert Maxwell, and the magazine in general. In a letter to friends that the Weekly excerpted, Daniels wrote:
They promised me, and I quote, 'This will be done YOUR way, you will be happy and look beautiful.' It was a total debacle, probably the worst experience of my transition. [The] photographer apparently wanted to portray me as a man in a dress, my worst fear, as I expressed numerous times. I was in tears by the end of it and a wreck for three days afterward. I felt betrayed, totally abused, and very, very vulnerable and exposed and alone in the world.
Daniels and friends successfully campaigned to have Vanity Fair drop the feature. Maxwell was not exactly sympathetic years later, telling the Times, "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."
"Friends say [the VF fiasco] was a catalyst in her downfall," writer Steve Friess wrote. "Others say it was merely a manifestation of Daniels' rising inner turmoil."
Daniels would announce a bit later she was stopping her transitioning and wanted to be known as Mike Penner again. The writer committed suicide in 2009.
*Note: any fuckups, if any, in pronouns was not done intentionally, so do correct our wrongs…