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One death can mean two losses

1/15/2010
On the left: Mike Penner; on the right: Christine Daniels. Montrealgazette.com; Windycitymediagroup.com

This column appears in the Jan. 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

On the same day, in the same town, two sportswriters, two friends of mine,
killed themselves.

One was my old hoops buddy Mike Penner, who started at the Los Angeles Times
the same year I did. The other was Christine Daniels, a blonde who bubbled
from heels to highlights.

Mike was a little quiet, a little reclusive, a lot brilliant. He hated going
to locker rooms. He preferred staying home, making mix tapes and writing
sentences that were chunks of perfection. He once described then-Angels GM
Mike Port's fractured syntax as "Port-uguese."

Christine was the opposite: gregarious, 100 mph talker, always looking to
cover an event, to be seen, the Funmeter pegged, the curls bouncing. She was
flirty, always lightly grabbing your arm when she talked, covering her mouth
when she laughed, which seemed like all the time.

"I HAD TO DO IT. IT WAS THIS OR DIE."

"Mike hasn't bought shoes in six years," Christine told me once. "I've got
50 new pairs!"

What's heartbreaking is that they were the same person.

At age 49, long-time sportswriter Mike Penner became Christine Daniels. He
announced it in a breathtaking Times column, saying he'd be back in a few
weeks as a woman. I wrote about it for Sports Illustrated. "I'm so glad,"
she texted me after it came out, "that you finally got to meet the real me."
It was a "me" I'd never seen in Mike: talkative and giggling and happy. Of
course, she wasn't Mike anymore. She was Christine -- 6'3" in heels, blond wig,
makeup, flower-print dress, pearls, all stuff Mike used to hide in a red
tool box behind the headboard of his bed. This was who he became all those
years when his wife, also a Times sportswriter, was out.

In 24 years, I'd never seen Mike cry, but suddenly everything made Christine
weep. Getting the "F" for "Female" on her driver's license. The sound of her
own heels clicking on the cement. Her name on her Anaheim Ducks press pass.

And yet, two sentences later, this demure flower was barking things like,
"Eric Dickerson? How about running over somebody besides a down-and-distance
official once in awhile?!?" She'd buy InStyle and Pro Football Weekly at
the same stand. She'd try to keep a lilt in her voice like a Tara, then howl
like a teamster.

Why now, at 49? I asked. "Survival," she said. "I had to do it. It was this
or die."

She wasn't kidding.

My wife, Cynthia, became her gender tour guide, answering questions for
hours, since Christine had no experience being a woman. Where to buy shoes
online, what the new hormone pills would do to her, the trick of lingerie.
Not the usual stuff you hear from your old basketball pal over Buds.

Immediately, Christine became the most famous transgender person since
tennis' Richard Raskind became Renée Richards. Annie Leibovitz wanted to
photograph her. Larry King wanted to interview her. When she showed up at
David Beckham's first press conference for the LA Galaxy, she nearly
upstaged Becks himself.

"I think God said, 'It's time the mainstream learns about this,'" she said
once. "I think that's why He made me a sportswriter. He gave me a very big
audience to tell."

But two other transgender sportswriters sensed trouble. "I tried to talk her out of doing this so publicly,"
says Christina Kahrl, formerly Chris, of Baseball Prospectus and
a contributor to The Magazine, who'd transitioned quietly in 2003. "She was
going through a divorce and working by herself at home and her endocrine
system was going haywire, all in front of millions."

MLB.com's Bobbie Dittmeier -- who transitioned from Bob in 2007 -- says Christine
was "pulled in a lot of directions: Transgenders wanted her to be an
activist ... the divorce. It was too much."

Eight months into the transition, we started hearing less from Christine. By
the middle of 2008, we heard nothing. By October, she'd gone back to the
Mike Penner byline, writing a notes column from his LA house. He didn't
return e-mails, texts or calls. And then, the day after Thanksgiving, Mike
was found in his home, an apparent suicide.

I don't know why he did it. Nobody knows. Maybe being Christine caused
others too much pain. Maybe being Mike caused him too much. "Maybe trying
and failing to be Christine Daniels," says Kahrl, "killed Mike Penner."

I'll miss them both.


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