I never met Los Angeles Times writer Mike Penner, but I knew the byline. When you work as an editor at a newspaper, which I did for many years, you read or at least glance at copy from the wire services all day and night. You know names of reporters and columnists, where they work and how they write _ even if you never actually meet the person.
When Mike announced in an LA Times column in 2007 that he was a transsexual and would be transitioning to become Christine Daniels, I read it and, in my mind, wished her an abundance of good luck. When, in 2008, Christine began writing again under the byline “Mike Penner,” I worried about what that meant.
Had she found transitioning too difficult? Had it not brought her the peace of mind she was hoping for? Had someone important to her reacted negatively? Was her physical appearance as a female not as satisfying as she wanted it to be? Had the male persona she had lived as for so many years because of her physical gender (as opposed to her gender identity) battled to still exist in some way she wasn’t expecting or wasn’t able to reconcile?
These are, of course, deeply personal questions that would be difficult for anyone to discuss even in private. To attempt to transition in public, the way Mike had, took an astonishing amount of courage and belief that there really are enough intelligent, sensitive people in the world now who are aware of the continuum that exists both in gender identity and gender itself.
What’s supposedly such a black/white, either/or, yes/no question _ male or female _ is anything but that clear-cut for some people. And that’s always been the case, throughout history. Now, in the 21st century, there is more education about and openness to these continuums _ and yet there is still so much ignorance and fear about the topic.
For the purpose of most societies establishing “rules” and hierarchy based on gender, there’s been a necessity to put everyone in a specific box. Many of those who don’t fit in any box or feel they are in the “wrong” box have been ostracized, raped/tortured, or killed.
But even in the most civilized and accepting of societies – for that matter, even in an idyllic society of zero prejudice – coming to terms with a conflict between gender and gender identity would be difficult. The uncertainty and confusion over how some people come to “define” themselves as male or female or both or neither is of such complexity that I don’t think we as yet have an adequate lexicon to cover it all. Maybe we never will, because each circumstance is as unique as each human being.
Covering women’s sports as long as I have, I know I’ve encountered people who are battling or have made peace in various ways with gender-identity conflicts – even if they’ve never spoken about it. For all the prejudice and hiding and deception that goes on in the women’s sports world about sexuality and gender issues, it is still a more open and accepting world than men’s athletics.
Perhaps because women’s athletics, simply to even establish its existence, had to push against the barriers of those age-old boxes of what is “male” and what is “female” behavior. Also, in the course of human existence, “female” has never been equated to “most powerful.” Thus, people/ideas that challenge traditional notions of the rigidity of gender aren’t as threatening to women, in general, as they have tended to be to men.
The so-called “tomboy” and the so-called “girly-girl” can and do co-exist on girls and women’s sports teams all across the United States at every age level. This is not to say, of course, that there is no conflict, or that one or the other doesn’t sometimes feel out of place or even unwelcome. But there is at least a broad-based tolerance – if that’s the right word – of the gender/gender identity continuums in women’s sports.
As we’ve seen with the case of Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose gender apparently is at least somewhat ambiguous because of medical issues (the specifics of which have not been and, apparently, will not be fully divulged), the sports world is a place where gender has to be more specifically “enforced.”
It was recently announced that Semenya would retain her 2009 world title in the 800 meters and her prize money, but her future for competing as a female remains uncertain.
Women are a necessarily protected class of athlete in most competitions. Just as, say, a 35-year-old is not allowed to compete on golf’s Champions Tour – because athletes aged 50 and over are a protected class for the purpose of that tour – the need to separate the genders for competition is a necessity that, unfortunately, may cause pain to those who either medically can’t be assigned a gender or emotionally/mentally don’t fit the one that they are assigned.
The latter issue _ that of transsexuals, both post-op and pre-op, competing as the gender with which they identify _ is a very complicated one that I will write more about soon. Specifically, some of the ideas that came out of a think tank that was held at the end of October in Indianapolis addressing the subject of equal opportunity for transgender student-athletes. The think tank was sponsored by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (which backed Jennifer Harris in her lawsuit against former Penn State coach Rene Portland), the Women’s Sports Foundation and It Takes a Team.
These are very difficult issues to write about and discuss, because each person’s concept of “self” is influenced by so many factors both internal and external. And even the most well-meaning, open-minded people can’t completely remove feelings about their own gender/gender identity from any discussion about another person.
I look at the Caster Semenya situation and say it’s pointless to get angry and place “blame” on anyone. This is a biological issue she was born with. But … if there is an organization that should take the most responsibility for what’s happened to her since the World Championships this summer, it’s the South African federation that put her on that stage despite already knowing there were questions about her gender.
The federation, placing more value on the gold medal it hoped she could earn than on her personal well-being, did tests on her but did not tell her what their purpose was. Thus, an 18-year-old was put in a position by her country’s athletics federation to have the most private things about her discussed by a global audience.
Some want to blame the media for that, as if they were not supposed to not report there was a controversy, and/or the IAAF (track’s world governing body) for revealing the investigation. As if the IAAF was supposed to either ignore the concerns of Semenya’s fellow competitors or lie to the press that there was an investigation.
Obviously, it would have been much preferable for Semenya and her family to understand the purpose of the tests and examination, get the results and then make a choice about whether she was up for dealing with the kind of scrutiny that she has faced. Furthermore, if her medical condition is such that she has other decisions to make affecting her lifestyle, gender identity and future health, those things are more important than an athletic career.
Yes, it’s unfortunate that it had to be played out publicly to the degree that it has. But we can still hope for a happy resolution for Semenya – one that she gets to choose herself and is comfortable with.
For Mike Penner/Christine Daniels, a resolution has come, at least as we know it on this earth. Mike’s circumstance, as I understand it, was different than what’s believed to be the case for Semenya. Mike’s gender was not ambiguous from a physical standpoint; he was biologically male. But as Mike wrote, his brain was “wired” female. He apparently spent a lifetime looking for the means of resolving this conflict.
It seemed two years ago that becoming Christine _ becoming “she” _ was the answer. Then it seemed perhaps it wasn’t. Mike/Christine’s situation was public because of his/her profession and the choice to reveal it. But it was, ultimately, the most private of struggles.
Mike/Christine died Friday at age 52. The official cause of death has not been announced, but it is believed to be a suicide. I feel grief-stricken about Mike/Christine’s pain, the loss of such a talented person, and for those loved ones left behind. Everyone wishes there had been another ending. And yet it is only the person who fights such a battle who can determine if there is strength enough to go on.
I also found myself feeling guilty throughout writing this blog entry because I was unsure the “right” name or pronouns to use for Mike/Christine… then reminded myself there is no “right” to be decided by anyone but that person. And sometimes, even that person can’t decide _ and shouldn’t have to.
Because there is no standardized description for what they are, other than wonderfully and beautifully human.