LA Times Sportswriter Mike Penner Becoming Christine

Veteran LA Times sportswriter Mike Penner is about to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.

Veteran LA Times sportswriter Mike Penner is about to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.

During my 23 years with The Times’ sports department, I have held a wide variety of roles and titles. Tennis writer. Angels beat reporter. Olympics writer. Essayist. Sports media critic. NFL columnist. Recent keeper of the Morning Briefing flame.

Today I leave for a few weeks’ vacation, and when I return, I will come back in yet another incarnation.

As Christine.

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. I realize many readers and colleagues and friends will be shocked to read them.

Kristen Fyfe of Newsbusters is aghast.

While no one can deny that Penner has been through some intense personal struggles, his column read like a brochure from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). One wonders how many young sports fans opened up the paper to find out how their favorite team did and ended up with an unexpected sex-ed lesson.

I’m not sure what else Penner should have done, presuming s/he was going to go through with the surgery. Presuming that he’s built up a following in 23 years doing all those things at The Times, he owes it to his fans to let them know why Mike Penner suddenly disappeared from the paper and was replaced a few weeks later by a Christine Penner. [UPDATE: Apparently, the last name will change as well and s/he will become “Christine Daniels.”]

I don’t pretend to understand what someone who is so sure that their body doesn’t match up with their sexual identity goes through, let alone someone who has lived 40-odd years in a man’s and is so bound and determined to finally look like the woman he thinks he is to do the things required to make that transformation. Fortunately, I’ve always been among the vast majority whose sexual identity and orientation conformed with his biology. And, frankly, I’m Southern and small-c conservative enough to find the whole thing more than a little odd.

Then again, I’ve known someone who has gone through the process. Ironically s/he is a sportswriter.

Chris Kahrl, one of the authors of the seminal SABR works, Baseball Prospectus, was the sports editor at Brassey’s at the time I was there on the international affairs beat. A couple months before I left, Chris announced that he was in the early stages of becoming Christina.

I lost touch with Chris (and most of the Brassey’s gang) after that but Christina Kahrl is doing quite well professionally, writing under the new byline. She’s the lead editor in the 2007 Prospectus.

Dave McKenna has an interesting interview with her in the August 26-September 1, 2005 edition of the Washington City Paper.

“Christina” apparently made her professional debut a couple weeks earlier in Salon

Giving “Christina” her first ink wasn’t something Kahrl took at all lightly. “I’ve never written publicly about my transition,” she says. “From my perspective, I don’t think of it really as a story. For me it’s about as interesting as a player’s sex life: I’m sure they have one. I hope they’re all enjoying themselves, that they’re all consenting adults. But I don’t care about it. In [the Salon piece], I also was writing about football and not baseball. So I wasn’t looking to make a story here. That [putting ‘Christina’ in print] is about as bold as I get.”

The reaction has been somewhat surprising:

[Christina] adds that her heart’s been warmed by the utter nonreaction she’s gotten from baseball and baseball-journalism folks since converting to womanhood. At insider baseball events she’s hosted at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, and at her alma mater, the University of Chicago, all the focus has been on her knowledge of the game, even from those who knew Chris Kahrl back in the day.

“Nobody has batted an eye,” says Kahrl. “Everybody has been great and supportive, from friends and family and colleagues to everybody with the White Sox to the University of Chicago alumni. A reader said, ‘I had no idea that Chris was short for Christina.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it’s short for.’ But that’s it. So whatever people might be saying about the rising tide of conservatism in America today, from my experience, we’re also in a place now, a better place and a better society, than we were 50 years go. I’m certainly happy. Again, this isn’t something I broadly advertise, because it’s a secondary issue. Yes, it’s proof that life is interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that I love baseball. I still love the game.”

Ultimately, that’s what any kid reading the sports pages will likely take away from Penner’s column. Maybe one or two of them will recognize their own struggles on the page and get the courage to talk to someone about it. I’m guessing there won’t be a mad rush to the operating room, though.

UPDATE: Christina Kahrl weighs in at BP.com. She reveals that she counseled Penner on what was to come.

In my talking with her about her transition in the weeks leading up to today’s announcement, I counseled her that my experience was that the sports world didn’t go off the rails when I transitioned in 2003. Why? Because sports is the ultimate American social bridge, and what I’ve found is that it serves as a topic that transcends lines of race, gender, class, and culture. Americans love to talk about sports, and if they find a writer or commentator with something interesting to say on the subject, they’re going to listen, or maybe argue—but most of all, they’ll engage. I learned—happily—that the readers of my column and the books that I’ve worked on couldn’t care less whether or not I’m a transsexual. Better still, I found that my colleagues still value my insights, analysis, and opinions—I could not ask for a better collection of teammates. And I’ve learned that my fellow figures in the media still make a place for me in the Fourth Estate. So, in the same way that Mike Penner’s columns have been a must-read for the Times’ audience for years, so too will Christine Daniels’.

I find it interesting that Penner is changing his last name as well.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Sports, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    Definitely not the kind of thing that someone embarks on by mistake, though Anthony Kennedy might think we need to protect would-be transsexuals from doing something they’ll regret later.

  2. NukemHill says:

    Thanks for your openness about this subject and willingness to discuss it. It’s an interesting and fascinating world we live in, and the only way we’re going to get through prejudices is by having these types of conversations.

    I’ve known three transgendered people (that I’m aware of) in my life. One happened during my tenure at Sony, and caused an interesting ripple through our group. It came as a shock, for one thing. When he announced it, we had a company-wide (we were a small subdivision of Sony at the time so it was no big deal) meeting to hear the announcement. Management’s position was–deal with it. He’s made his decision. We support it, and we’re not going to put up with any crap from anyone. It was actually kinda refreshing. There were, of course, some interesting side conversations for a few weeks. But it settled down and life was normal.

    One interesting statistic that I’ve heard repeatedly: Some ridiculously high percentage of sex-change recipients end their lives in suicide. I don’t remember the exact number, but it might even be a majority. It’s extremely difficult both physically and emotionally, and there is a need for long-term, intensive, therapy. A lot of recipients don’t continue their therapy, for whatever reasons. Of course, many people who go into this process have had very screwed up and traumatic lives to begin with, so I’m not sure if there’s a causative, or merely correlative, relationship.

  3. Christopher says:

    What a screwed up guy Penner is. Before he goes and gets his package chopped off, he should see a psychiatrist.

    Sick, just sick.

  4. Steve Verdon says:

    What a screwed up guy Penner is. Before he goes and gets his package chopped off, he should see a psychiatrist.

    And here we have the a fine example of the intolerant ignorami in our society….He has seen a psychiatrist.

  5. James Joyner says:

    He has seen a psychiatrist.

    Indeed. Presuming he’s following the protocols of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (HBIGDA), s/he’s been through extensive counseling.