Mike Penner, Christine Daniels: A Tragic Love Story
Note: This story has been changed to reflect facts appearing in a correction at the end.
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.
"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.
He arrived at the L.A. Times in 1983, around the same time as sportswriter Rick Reilly, a future columnist for Sports Illustrated and ESPN magazine. Penner went on to cover several Olympics and World Cups, as well as pro baseball and football.
While covering the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York in 1984, Penner met fellow sportswriter Lisa Dillman, then with the Detroit News. He helped her get her job at the L.A. Times and they wed in 1986.
Dillman has never spoken on the record about her husband's transition, and Penner never answered the media's questions about their relationship. Daniels also never wrote of it in her blog on transgenderism, according to those who read it when it was available online.
The L.A. Times, in its March story about Penner, indicated that it was unclear when Dillman learned about her husband's interest in cross-dressing. This much is known: In May 2005, when Penner traveled to Port Angeles, Washington, to a transgender retreat known as Esprit, he told new friends that Lisa was aware of where he was.
Reilly, in an ESPN column in January eulogizing his friend, wrote that Daniels told him she used to keep a dress, wig and pearls in a toolbox behind the couple's bed board.
Claire Winter, a transgender friend and mentor who lives in Seattle, says Daniels "had struck an arrangement with Lisa that she'd explore these things. I'm pretty sure Lisa knew what she was doing."
Other friends of Daniels' have similar understandings. "Lisa was not kept in the dark about this," says Susan Horn, who had met Daniels at an L.A. clothing store for transgender women. "Christine would talk about how Lisa insisted Christine park her car in the alley and go out the back gate and into the car if she dressed at home before going out."
The first known sighting of Christine Daniels by the transgender group that became her clique was in 2004 at Countessa's Closet, a small shop of roughly 1,000 square feet nestled in a dumpy Studio City strip mall that is routinely cited by male-to-female transgender Angelenos as their first major step in experimenting with a public transition.
The proprietor, Countessa (she goes by one name), is a woman who has developed a niche providing a refuge where those exploring their gender identity may try on clothes, take makeup-application lessons from the owner and meet one another.
Countessa recalls a shy, gawky blond man with bright blue eyes, browsing in slacks and a work shirt one afternoon.
"This is like a real ladies' shop," Penner said to Countessa.
"Of course it is," she replied. "Do you know what you're looking for?"
"No, not exactly."
"Is it for you or is it somebody else?"
"It's for me."
With that verbal admission, the journalist who dwelled in the macho universe of a major metro sports department and pro-sports locker rooms began a process of explicitly moving toward the identity he always felt buried within. Like many transgender people who later became friends, Penner would slip over to the shop after work or on weekends and shuck "male mode" garb for wigs, dresses, jewelry and shoes. Within those confines, Daniels became legendary for taking so much time in the bathroom to fix herself up — so much so that a friend made a framed sign and hung it on the door, mocking her by warning others that if the potty was unavailable for long periods, Daniels was the culprit.
"Countessa's retreat has been called a sanctuary," Daniels wrote in a November 2005 card that the proprietor framed for display. "You need to know why. Once inside, you have the feeling that nothing bad can happen to you. ... Christina has never felt better or looked better." (Among certain friends, Daniels called herself Christina.)
Such stores, which exist in most major cities, not only spare a man the embarrassment of trying on women's clothes in mainstream stores but also are a source of garments in the larger sizes that transgender women usually require.
This is where Daniels met Horn, and "Diana," who asked the Weekly not to use her real name because she's not openly transgender at work. The duo later took Daniels to Metropolitan Community Church, which became Daniels' spiritual home. Daniels also learned at Countessa's about a support group for transitioning people at the L.A. Gender Center, which is where she met LaCoe.
In August 2005, Horn and Daniels shared a milestone moment for any transgender person: the first time Daniels went out in public in her transgender persona. They met at Countessa's to get dressed and then headed to Sisley, an Italian restaurant in Encino.
"We drove over to this mall and I kept telling her, 'Nobody's gonna bother us, even if they recognize us as being transsexual,' " says Horn, an L.A. paralegal who lost her family and her career as a lawyer when she transitioned.
"We sat down at the restaurant. A very cute waiter came over and said, 'Can I help you, ladies?' As soon as those words left his mouth, you could feel Christine relax. She was just ecstatic." After dinner, Daniels used a women's public restroom for the first time — at a movie theater where they saw The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
The friendship with Horn was rocky, though. For a long time, Daniels did not let on to her friends that she was a noted sports columnist. Horn figured it out in June 2006 when she read a piece by Penner about the World Cup in Germany in which he had noted that someone's "pores were as big as a garage." That seemed an odd observation for a typical male sportswriter to make, Horn said, so she pieced together a few other clues and perkily confronted Daniels.
"Next time I saw her, I said, 'I know who you are!' and she was terrified," Horn said. "I thought she'd get a good giggle out of it. She was angry at me for weeks."
Still, Daniels accompanied Horn to her first ear piercing.
Daniels also began helping others with their transitions. She counseled Diana's upset wife when she learned of her husband's transgenderism. After Horn and Diana took Daniels to Metropolitan Community Church, Daniels began floating the idea of forming a group that would call itself the Social Butterflies, transgender women who have regular outings at trans-friendly restaurants.
And that was all before she became famous.
By late 2006, Mike Penner could no longer keep Christine Daniels out of Dillman's range. The reason was hormones.
After a couple of years of socializing at Countessa's, praying at Metropolitan Community Church, undergoing individual and group therapy and attending conferences around the country, Daniels was emerging fast and furiously. Presenting as Mike, in fact, had become tormenting. When the time came for Daniels to revert to male mode toward the end of outings or visits at Countessa's, Diana recalls, a devastating mood swing would occur. "He'd be lying on the floor crying," she says.
Mike was reserved, even shy. As Christine, he transformed into an extroverted, emotional person. LaCoe recalls that at church, Daniels would sob on cue when the Rev. Neil Thomas would declare, "God loves you the way you are, he accepts you the way you are, your status has nothing to do with your salvations."
Reilly, in his eulogy column, described the jarring difference thus: "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."
Penner moved out of the suburban Orange County home he shared with Dillman around New Year's 2007. The couple knew hormone therapy would prompt physical changes Dillman could not ignore, so Penner moved into a 700-square-foot apartment at the end of a circuitous and dank hallway in L.A.'s fortress-like, nondescript Westwood Villa Apartments.
LaCoe lunched with Daniels at a Japanese restaurant just before New Year's and heard about the couple's final Christmas together, in which "they exchanged practical presents that would be useful for life alone," LaCoe says, adding that Daniels seemed convinced that Dillman eventually would come around and embrace her.
In the months that followed, Daniels became consumed by her transition, speaking endlessly about her desire to have sex-reassignment surgery.
The handful of American surgeons who perform sex-change operations follow a Standards of Care model requiring male-to-female patients to undergo a rigorous regimen of hormones and electrolysis to remove hair from not only the face but also the genital area. Surgery must be approved by at least two psychiatrists who can vouch for mental stability and, most importantly, the patient must live publicly as the target gender for at least a year.
Daniels' friends found her eagerness at once heartening and worrisome.
In late February 2007, Penner sat down with his boss, Los Angeles Times Sports Editor Randy Harvey, who noticed that the writer's hair and nails were longer. Penner broke the news of his transition.
By all accounts, Harvey was exceedingly gracious, dissuading Penner when he suggested a move to the entertainment section of the paper. Harvey also told Penner something that Daniels' transgender friends had been arguing: A male sports columnist at one of the nation's biggest newspapers cannot transition on the job and change bylines without making news. Harvey persuaded Penner to write about the transition.
"Other people have second-guessed me, and certainly I have second-guessed if that was the right thing to do, to encourage Mike to write that column," Harvey says. "Would things ultimately have turned out differently? I don't know. I thought it was the right thing at the time."
So write it, Daniels did. The piece that appeared in the L.A. Times on April 26, 2007, cleverly headlined "Old Mike, New Christine," was a landmark. It was a breezy declaration that after 23 years writing as Mike Penner, he would take a break and return to live — and write — as Christine Daniels.
In an eloquent 826-word column, Penner summed up the typical journey of those who accept what they always sensed, that they were born into a body of the wrong sex, and that with this acceptance comes a duty to change: "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."
The piece was an instant Web sensation; a team of transgender friends screened Daniels' e-mails and tabulated that more than 1,000 came in within the first 48 hours. Just seven were negative, says Winter, Daniels' friend in Seattle. Overnight, Daniels became one of the most famous transgender people in a culture that has precious few transgender celebrities.
Supporters tried to prepare her for her newfound celebrity.
In advance of April 26, Daniels found herself on the phone and exchanging e-mails nonstop with several prominent transgender advocates trying to coach her. The fear was that Daniels could find herself becoming another Susan Stanton — the Largo, Florida, city manager fired that March after transitioning on the job.
Stanton was appearing on Larry King Live and other shows, seemingly unprepared for and discomfited by certain invasive questions. Winter says the transgender community worried that Daniels could be similarly vulnerable.
"The people who are just starting really don't know what's ahead, don't know what's coming at them," Winter says. "They're just trying to analyze how they're feeling. To do that in a fishbowl is unimaginable."
Stanton says she chatted with Daniels, too, although she says she wasn't sure how to advise the sportswriter because their circumstances were so different. Stanton had lost her job but retained the support of her wife and son; Daniels was embraced by the Times in a way activists viewed as a model to be venerated but was no longer living with Dillman.
"Christine told me she felt so bad for me compared to what she had on her side," recalls Stanton, now city manager in Lake Worth, Florida, and subject of the HBO documentary Her Name Was Steven. "And I remember thinking, 'You know, I'm envious, but I think over time my relationship with my family is going to be more sustaining.' "
Daniels heard from so many voices in those weeks that four days before her piece appeared, she lashed out. In an e-mail to Winter, she griped that she felt "overwhelmed by everything and everyone. I feel as if I am being used as a pawn by the trans community (and maybe the Times as well). I have been close to tears many times. ... I am flat-out exhausted."
And this was still only the beginning.
The initial surge of public and professional support was thrilling for Daniels. She started writing the "Woman in Progress" blog and found herself in high demand giving speeches to transgender and GLBT groups. She gave interviews and was being venerated by friends, supporters and advocates.
"I think that all of a sudden, the transgender community — me included — latched on to her for strength," LaCoe says. "Once she was out, boy, was she out. I think it was a pretty wild ride for her, and I think she probably enjoyed some of it, yes."
At the Times, too, there was a noticeable shift. The night before Penner's column appeared, Harvey and another editor phoned 45 L.A. Times staff members to tell them, so they would not be caught off-guard.
Harvey said not one person expressed discomfort.
Daniels seemed to revel in that acceptance. Says Harvey: "Mike seldom came to the office, and when he did, he kept to himself. He had friends, but he was shy and he didn't seek out conversation.
"As Christine, she would come to the office and openly engage people in conversation," Harvey says. "It was the same underlying sweetness about Christine that was also evident with Mike, but there was a difference."
Dillman, however, was noticeably scarce in the newsroom, he says. "She was not comfortable being there when Christine was there."
Daniels' perhaps overly optimistic outlook was summed up in a June 2007 interview with Queercents.com, a finance Web site. She was asked, "Money can buy hormones and a closet full of fabulous shoes, but does it buy happiness?"
Her e-mailed response contained a formula: "Hormones + legal name change + setting the stage for a new life = happiness, no doubt about that."
Daniels' simplistic expectations could sound familiar to anyone who has gone through a divorce. In the first several months, many people often feel a wave of euphoria from the newfound freedom, the realization of fantasy and the ability to be positive and eagerly anticipate the future. Inevitably, however, the euphoria gives way to reality — and sometimes that reality includes sadness over the loss of a soul mate.
But in the spring of 2007, Daniels was still riding the wave. A fellow sportswriter recruited Daniels to co-coach the soccer team of his young daughter, LaCoe says. Friends invited Daniels to attend their wedding, an event she blogged about. And Reilly, then still at Sports Illustrated, wrote a glowing piece in July that seemed to set the tone in the sports-journalism world about what an enlightening thrill it was to meet Daniels.
On July 19, 2007, after weeks of placing the legally required notices in local newspapers announcing the intent to change names, Michael Daniel Penner became Christine Michelle Daniels, as decreed by the Superior Court of California. The origin of most of that name is obvious: Michael begat Michelle, Daniel begat Daniels. Christine was an homage to Christine Jorgensen, the World War II veteran famous for having had what is believed to be the first male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery.
July 19 was significant for another reason. It was the day Daniels' divorce attorney filed her first response to Dillman's divorce filing. Dillman had submitted the papers on May 23, Daniels' first day at the Times in her female persona.
"The fact that Lisa responded to Christine's transition announcement as quickly as she did by filing for divorce — all of which was understandable — was a huge blow," Winter says. It was only the tip of the iceberg.
Behind the scenes, Daniels' transition was marred by a series of blowout arguments with Dillman and Dillman's parents, Daniels' friends tell the Weekly.
"It was particularly tragic because Christine had been very close to Lisa's family," Winter says. "The family felt like Mike did something to their daughter. How could he do this to her? There were definitely confrontations, a lot of them."
Daniels went to great lengths to shield Dillman from scrutiny. But Dillman avoided Daniels. LaCoe said Dillman told Daniels, "I don't even want to see you around the office unless I absolutely have to, and then I want to be as far away as possible. I don't want to be associated with it. I don't ever want to see you that way."
Daniels was crushed by Dillman's distance.
The same week as the divorce filing, Daniels suffered another blow. She covered a press conference for the L.A. arrival of British soccer superstar David Beckham. Also at the event was Paul Oberjuerge, a writer for the San Bernardino County Sun — and someone who didn't get Reilly's virtual memo to leave Daniels alone.
Oberjuerge took the opportunity to assess Daniels' transition. "She looks like a guy in a dress, pretty much," he wrote on the paper's Web site. "Except anyone paying any attention isn't going to be fooled — as some people are by veteran transvestites. Maybe this is cruel, but there were women in that room who were born women in body, as well as soul. And the difference between them and Christine was, in my mind, fairly stark. It seemed almost as we're all going along with someone's dress-up role-playing. ..."
The words greatly upset Daniels. Even an online outpouring of outrage on her behalf, which prompted The Sun to remove the post, didn't seem to make it better, because Oberjuerge had cut to the heart of one of the biggest issues for male-to-female transsexuals: whether they "pass."
"Christine probably had a fragile side that was in some ways quite feminine and in some ways quite attractive," LaCoe says. "She had a winsome side; she got her feelings hurt easily." (Oberjuerge, no longer with The Sun, did not respond to the Weekly's requests for comment.)
That setback notwithstanding, life remained largely upbeat for Daniels in the summer and fall of 2007. That September, she and Winter met well-known sex-change surgeon Dr. Marcie Bowers at a transgender conference in Atlanta known as Southern Comfort and, shortly thereafter, the friends had appointments to have sex-change surgeries on the same day in July 2008, at Bowers' Colorado clinic.
"That was something we were really excited about," Winter says. "Christine was so enthused by the female sex marker on her driver's license. It's a symbol of cultural acceptance."
Bowers recalls her first meeting with Daniels, about whom she had heard a great deal. She sums up her impressions: "For as good as she looked, she seemed a little bit shy and insecure. But she was a lovely woman and seemed to have herself together."
In truth, the euphoria wave was cresting.
The first outward indication was a big one. Friends say it was a catalyst in her downfall. Others say it was merely a manifestation of Daniels' rising inner turmoil. The occasion was a disastrous photo shoot intended for Vanity Fair.
Shortly after Daniels' 50th birthday, in October, she went to the L.A. studio of photographer Robert Maxwell. Accounts of what occurred there vary so starkly that they are hard to reconcile.
Maxwell was unreachable by the Weekly but told the L.A. Times in March that he intended to shoot Daniels in a "conservative, classy-type look." He claimed that she was unstable and weepy, bawling that she was ugly.
"I was trying to say all the right things," Maxwell told the Times. "How do you tell someone who looks like a man, 'You're a beautiful woman'? I don't know." Vanity Fair reporter Evan Wright backed up Maxwell, telling the Times he feared Daniels was suicidal and pulled the plug on the piece because Wright, too, was unsure how to cover Daniels without disparaging her "fantasy conception ... [of] who she is."
This account infuriates Daniels' transgender confidantes. The sportswriter had told more than a half-dozen friends a very different version: that Maxwell's aim was to sex her up and that he pushed her to pose in provocative ways.
She had told her friends that, far from Wright calling off the piece, Daniels had to fight him to stop the project from moving forward. Winter and others, in fact, say they helped Daniels draft a letter demanding that Vanity Fair kill the piece.
Daniels described the event this way in an e-mail to Winter and other friends that week: "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."
Then things began to snowball.
The Vanity Fair fiasco exposed a growing rift between Daniels and some in the transgender community over how she was portraying transsexuality in her blog. They felt she was focusing too much on appearances, setting herself up for exactly the sort of treatment she said she received from Maxwell.
Daniels had a falling-out via e-mail with Stanton, the fired city manager in Florida. "She was writing a blog about how great it is to dress and color her hair and wear makeup and it was kind of very tranny," Stanton says. "I was really nervous about this. A lot of people are saying, 'Oh, you look so gorgeous.' Then other people will say, 'My goodness, look at this pervert on the TV. That's nothing but a man in drag.'
"It's not about that," Stanton tells the Weekly. "It's about being true to who we are."
Daniels didn't take kindly to the critique, e-mailing back to end the friendship. "I think what I'm doing is correct. If you've got a problem with it, it's your problem. ... I'm a real woman who loves makeup and clothes, shoes. A woman, not a trans-anything who needs to quote-unquote represent some undefined community. For the first time in my life, I'm being true to myself, and my true self loves makeup, clothes, shoes."
As 2007 came to a close, Daniels began dealing similarly with many in the transgender activist community, friends say. She said she felt used by the trans community.
She also was increasingly despondent that the situation with Dillman was not improving.
Winter explains: "So many people were placing her in heroine status, she was starting to feel pressure to live up to her instant reputation. She would say, 'I'm here for a purpose, I should be doing better than I am. Why am I so depressed or lonely?'
"She was really riding a huge crest, but eventually the party settles down and people get back to work, and life gets back to some semblance of normalcy," Winter says. "What you're left with once the confetti settles is realizing you've lost a lot of friends and you're lonely."
Daniels began to withdraw.
She canceled a speech in January 2008 to a Denver transgender conference called Gold Rush and didn't appear in March when she was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award in Los Angeles.
Dr. Bowers knew something was gravely wrong in January when her office contacted Daniels about moving the July 2008 surgery date by a week because of a scheduling conflict. Daniels became disproportionately upset and refused to take further calls from the clinic.
"We were surprised by the degree of disappointment — it was just a week," Dr. Bowers says. "We tried to scramble a few ways to say, 'Look, we can do this, we can do this.' I don't usually call patients at home to apologize, but I did in this case. I sensed something was off."
More alarming to LaCoe, at Easter, Daniels dropped out at the last minute from plans to see a passion play at her church, and her attendance at church fell sharply.
Daniels told people she was too busy caring for her mother, who was in the throes of rapidly accelerating dementia and died that spring. (Penner's father died 12 years ago.)
At the L.A. Times, Harvey sensed a shift. He called Daniels to joke with her about something and she became offended. "I thought, 'Okay, there's a change here,' " he says. "That's when I began to think she doesn't seem as happy as she was."
In April 2008, Daniels took medical leave from the Times, complaining of severe abdominal pain and telling co-workers her mother's decline and death were taking a tremendous psychological toll.
Daniels would never return to the paper. Her final byline appeared on April 4, 2008, less than a year after her first.
By May, LaCoe had realized the extent of Daniels' physical and emotional problems. It wasn't easy to find out. Daniels cut off friends such as Winter largely by not returning calls and e-mails. LaCoe and Diana were more relentless about stopping by her apartment, a turn of good fortune for Daniels, as LaCoe would become her primary caretaker.
"I became aware that Christine was really, really ill in May, when she was having a lot of stomach problems," LaCoe says. "They were taking a toll on her digestive tract. She was constipated, had ulcers that caused her a lot of pain digesting food. She would say, 'I think I'm dying.'"
Daniels was hospitalized in June 2008. Doctors determined that the stress of so many traumas — the devastating Vanity Fair shoot, the paranoia over being used by other transgender people for their causes, an acute loneliness that followed the post-coming-out euphoria, the death of her mother, and Dillman's continuing distance — was manifesting as abdominal pain.
In the hospital, Daniels was diagnosed as severely depressed. Doctors prescribed a regimen of powerful psychotropic drugs that included the antipsychotic Zyprexa and the antidepressant Elavil. LaCoe remembers those drugs because she monitored Daniels to ensure she took them.
Daniels moved in with LaCoe for the summer, and it was in LaCoe's living room that the last phase began in the dismantling of Christine Daniels. The reporter tore up several spiral-bound journals that she had kept while in transgender therapy, gave away her clothes and jewelry to friends and stopped doing anything to feminize herself.
And then the ultimate step: Daniels ordered LaCoe and others to start calling her Mike again.
LaCoe says it felt like the reverse of what the wife of a male-to-female transsexual sees during the transition. Christine morphed back into Mike by shucking the hormones, allowing patchy facial hair to return and her breasts to deflate.
"It broke my heart, but I couldn't judge her," LaCoe says. "That would have been hypocritical."
De-transitioning is so unusual that there are no solid data about it. Psychiatrists who treat transgender people say it happens in less than 5 percent of cases.
Transgender activists say "going back" is inaccurate. People who choose to abandon transition are simply giving in to overwhelming stress and grief over what they lost from their previous life.
Certainly Penner's decision to stop taking the feminizing hormones played a role in his deteriorating life, but the extent can't be known. No studies have been conducted to determine whether withdrawal from the hormones can cause depression, but mental-health professionals who work with transgender people say patients who have stopped taking the drugs report feelings of distress.
"When they start taking hormones, they begin to express changes in their psyche — they're more able to focus, more able to feel empathy, concern for others," says Antioco Carrillo, a counselor with many transgender clients at the nonprofit Community Counseling Center in Las Vegas. "Once they go through the process, when they have stopped it, they go back to being depressed because it contradicts what they experienced. I don't know if it's the medication, but it is about the worldview."
Bowers believes Penner put one foot in the grave by abandoning the transition. "If we had done surgery, it probably would have saved her life. Now she died as an unhappy soul who never got a chance to align her body and soul, and that's the greatest tragedy about her."
Although many issues were at play at this point, one stood out: Penner repeatedly told friends his return to a male lifestyle was a last-ditch effort to reunite with his wife in some way.
"I questioned whether or not there was any hope there, and I told Mike that, and Mike seemed intellectually to understand that," LaCoe says. "It's like, 'Oh, yeah, nothing's promised.' But there was that hope that if Christine was gone and never coming back, then just maybe.
"There was at least a time when Mike would say, 'I'd settle for being her close friend. I'll settle for anything.' "
Penner's byline returned to the L.A. Times in October 2008 without any public notification, and his divorce from Dillman became final on October 24. Penner and Dillman began to lunch together occasionally after that, but it was always awkward, LaCoe says.
Friends say Mike Penner 2.0 was sullen, visibly depressed and quiet, the opposite of Christine Daniels. And occasionally, there were mixed signals, like the time Diana suggested they go to a play in Malibu and Penner asked if maybe he ought to go as Christine. (He did not.)
At one point that fall, LaCoe accidentally called him "Christine," then quickly apologized. "No, that's okay," Penner told her. "One of the best years of my life was spent being Christine. But I'm never going back."
Late in 2008, Penner went back to Metropolitan Community Church. It was the last time the Rev. Thomas saw him. The two stole away for a brief, private chat after the service, and Penner surprised the pastor.
"He looked at me and he said, 'Don't you ever believe that I've given up being Christine,' " Thomas recalls. "I knew exactly what he meant. Everything about his body, everything about his fabric, everything that made him human was still screaming, that had been screaming for 40 years, that got to the point of Mike transitioning to Christine.
"But he hoped returning to Mike could possibly lead to reconciliation with Lisa. He loved Lisa, there was no doubt about it."
That it took Penner as long as it did — until November 27, 2009 — to kill himself is, in retrospect, surprising. LaCoe and Diana spent the summer of 2009 contending with what were clearly attempts at drug overdoses and Penner's constant talk of ending it all. Nobody knows how consistently Penner was taking his antidepressant medication, but the wild mood swings and suicidal chatter increased.
Penner was hospitalized twice in 2009, once in a psychiatric hospital after his brother, L.A. Times copy editor John Penner, learned he had made suicidal comments. LaCoe met and bonded with John Penner at that point. He told LaCoe he had never seen his brother happier than in the heyday of his life as Christine.
Two days before his death, Penner called LaCoe and asked if she could help him obtain a gun. LaCoe asked why and Penner said, "I'm at my rope's end here."
LaCoe refused to discuss the matter further and reminded Penner she had already repeatedly refused to assist in Penner's self-destructive plans. She and Diana insisted on taking Penner out for dinner that night, and when they arrived the mood seemed deceptively lighter.
"You've already given me your answer — we won't discuss that anymore," Penner told LaCoe. "I will obey your rules. Let's not discuss it. I'm hungry."
On Thanksgiving, Penner sent what would seem like a valedictory e-mail to LaCoe and Diana: "I want to thank you for your friendship. It's meant the world to me."
The next night, he put on a blue long-sleeved shirt, black jeans and black-and-white Adidas sneakers, got in his Camry in the garage beneath his apartment and breathed carbon monoxide until he died.
It was a year to the day after his divorce had been finalized.
"Christine died of a broken heart," Diana says. "She wasn't confused about whether she was meant to be a woman. Any other reading of the situation is disrespectful to her memory."
Mike Penner and Christine Daniels had separate funerals. Penner was laid to rest in Orange County in an event closed to media but populated by dozens of journalist colleagues. A group of Daniels' transgender friends tried to attend but were turned away at the door for not being on the guest list, a concept the Rev. Thomas says hearkened back to the darkest days of the 1980s, when gay friends and even lovers of someone who had died of AIDS were similarly refused.
"That is why we decided to do a memorial service here at MCC for the folks who needed closure," Thomas says of the second, far more public remembrance of Daniels, covered extensively by the local gay media.
Amy LaCoe was the sole transgender friend of Mike Penner's who was invited to the Orange County funeral. The eulogies acknowledged the existence of Christine, and speakers noted that both Mike and Christine were consistently kind, loving people.
As LaCoe was leaving, Penner's brother John stopped her to hug her; he said he doubted Penner would have lived as long as he did were it not for her care.
And then, something startling occurred. As she walked by Dillman, who had never met any of Penner's transgender friends, the ex-wife halted another conversation to greet LaCoe.
"I know what you did for Mike and I just want to thank you," Dillman said. She gripped LaCoe's hand with what LaCoe describes as a "very warm, two-handed handshake."
"You're really welcome," LaCoe replied. "I'm sorry I couldn't do more."
The two women cried together for a moment, then LaCoe walked on.
Note: A story published Aug. 20 about the life and death of former Times sportswriter Mike Penner incorrectly spelled Amy LaCoe's last name as LeCoe. In addition, the story should have said that Penner's father died 12 years ago, not when Penner was 12 years old; that Penner met his future wife, Lisa Dillman, when she worked at the Detroit News, not at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune; and that the couple wed in 1986, not 1987.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
- Hermosa Beach Oil Drilling Measure Goes Down to Defeat After Massive Voter Turnout
- Election Results: Los Angeles City and County, March 4, 2015 (Updated Live)
- West Hollywood Shocker as City Councilman John Heilman Faces Possible Defeat
- California Has More Billionaires Than Almost Any Other Place on Earth