Mike Penner, Christine Daniels: A Tragic Love Story | News | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Mike Penner, Christine Daniels: A Tragic Love Story 

The L.A. Times sports journalist lived most of his life wanting to be a woman. He discovered too late that he wanted his wife even more

Thursday, Aug 19 2010
Note: This story has been changed to reflect facts appearing in a correction at the end.

Click here for "What Happened to Christine Daniels' Blog?" by Steve Friess.

Christine Daniels lay inert. The ash-blond hair that once framed a face envied by her peers was now an unwashed tangle hiding an inexorable melancholy. Her stomach was in sharp, constant pain and her mind was heavy with guilt. She ate, showered and dressed only when her caretaker demanded she do so, which was why she was in what seemed like a trance when she spoke.

"Do you know what today was supposed to be?" Daniels asked her doting friend, Amy LaCoe.

click to flip through (3) ILLUSTRATION BY MATT MAHURIN

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"What was today supposed to be?" LaCoe responded.

"It's the day I was supposed to have my surgery."

"How do you feel about that?"

Daniels grew even quieter, LaCoe recalls.

"Don't tell anybody," Daniels said. "But I don't feel like I'm going to be Christine anymore. I feel like pulling the plug."

The declaration wasn't altogether unexpected, LaCoe says. By this point, in July 2008, the once-gregarious Christine Daniels, a formerly male sports writer who had shocked the nation 15 months earlier by writing in the Los Angeles Times that, going forward, she wished to be known as a woman, had been in emotional decline for months.

LaCoe knew Daniels had stopped taking feminizing hormones and ceased receiving hair-removing electrolysis treatments. Daniels' groundbreaking L.A. Times blog on transitioning to womanhood, "Woman in Progress," had not only stopped appearing but had mysteriously disappeared from the newspaper's Web site and archives, leaving countless supporters and advocates worldwide without their new transgender hero.

Daniels shut out virtually every other transgender friend except LaCoe, who struck a nonjudgmental tone and persisted in demanding that Daniels let her help. Deep inside, LaCoe struggled to reconcile what it meant that the woman who had once been the role model for her own transition was crumbling. But she did her best not to let her doubts show.

"Don't decide so quickly," LaCoe said. "Maybe you'll reconsider it when you feel better."

"I have been feeling this way for a while," Daniels gasped through tears. "I can't do it anymore."

"Which part can't you do?" LaCoe asked.

More silence, then: "I had the perfect life with Lisa, and I threw it all away."

Seventeen months later, Daniels would be found dead from carbon-monoxide poisoning in a 1997 Toyota Camry in the subterranean garage of a dreary apartment building on Sepulveda just north of National. By then, Daniels was again officially known by her male birth name, Mike Penner, though both her names were included atop the official coroner's report. The document described how Penner had snaked a hose from the exhaust pipe into the car with the engine running, how a neighbor had pulled him from the car and attempted CPR, how death was declared at Brotman Medical Center and how a suicide note had been found in the apartment.

The death of 52-year-old Penner would become as big a news story as her coming out as transgender in the pages of a major American newspaper, and as disturbing and perplexing as Daniels' decision in the fall of 2008 to return to life as a male.

What drove Penner's decision to take his life? News organizations and bloggers noted sadly that Daniels' gender confusion had had a tragic end, and the L.A. Times itself would write a lengthy story months after her death that also suggested it was Daniels' sense of being torn between two worlds that contributed to her decision to commit suicide.

But it wasn't like that.

The parts of the Penner saga that the public knows — from Christine Daniels' dramatic public coming out to Mike Penner's desperately sad suicide — spanned 31 months. But the story actually began much earlier.

In many ways, Penner's path was standard-issue for those born male who have an inexplicable yet ultimately undeniable desire to be female. He would sneak into his mother's closet in their Anaheim home to try on shoes and dabble with her makeup, then scrub it off shamefully before vowing never to do it again. Then, of course, he would do it again, a new helping of guilt raining down on his Catholic soul.

These were the 1960s and early '70s, a prehistoric era even for gays and lesbians, let alone those compelled to experiment with the trappings of the opposite gender. It wasn't until the late 1980s, in fact, that gender-identity disorder was recognized as legitimate by the American Psychiatric Association.

Penner's story parts ways with most of his counterparts because of the man he became. By all accounts, Penner was infatuated by sports out of genuine enthusiasm, not as some means of defying this yearning or bolstering his masculinity. He grew to a slim, athletic 6 feet 3 and was known as an avid soccer player who channeled this fascination and his innate writing ability into a career as a sports journalist.

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