Revisiting the detransition and death of sportswriter Christine Daniels

All month long, Outsports is revisiting key moments in gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer sports history as part of LGBTQ history month.

Reports of the suicide last week of a transgender comedian — Daphne Dorman — triggered many thoughts and memories for me personally, and for my friends in the trans community. Her tragic end inspired me to recall the life and death of a trans sportswriter who came out 12 years ago, and detransitioned a year and a half later: Christine Daniels, who resumed using her birth name for the last year before taking her life.

Before we revisit her story, here’s an important message:

If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877-565-8860. LGBT youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. Anyone can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, and it’s available to people of all ages and identities.

Editor’s note: I have edited the excerpts from the original reports by co-founders Cyd Zeigler and Jim Buzinski, of Daniels’ coming out, detransition and death by suicide, to adhere to modern standards involving suicide and respect for the transgender community. Follow the links to read more.

On April 26, 2007, Daniels came out in her column for the Los Angeles Times, under the byline of her birth name. This ran on Page 2 of the Times sports section:

”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.”

In the column, Daniels describes the mental anguish as she came to grips with what she had been fighting for more than 40 years: “As extensive therapy and testing have confirmed, my brain was wired female.

”A transgender friend provided the best and simplest explanation I have heard: We are born with this, we fight it as long as we can, and in the end it wins.

”I gave it as good a fight as I possibly could. I went more than 40 hard rounds with it. Eventually, though, you realize you are only fighting yourself and your happiness and your mental health — a no-win situation any way you look at it.”

As Jim recalled in 2011:

Christine Daniels became a media celebrity and was regularly asked to speak about her transition. The Times started a blog “Woman in Progress” that became quite popular. I saw Christine several times during 2007 in professional and social settings. Christine was often nervous about the sudden fame but said she felt happy and liberated.

Christine disappeared from public life in 2008 and I had no idea what was happening. Then in the fall of 2008 came word that Christine was detransitioning.

The subsequent story by Cyd and his headline in Outsports on Oct. 21, 2008, was problematic, but understandable given the era and the unusual nature of the event. From this point on, I’ve followed the sage advice of the NLGJA and left in the references to Daniels’ birth name, only because in her last year and a month on earth, she chose to use that name and male pronouns.

Whoops, forget it: Christine is Mike again

We’ve seen some strange story twists here at Outsports over the years. The whole Mike Danton saga comes to mind. But this one might take the cake. We reported 18 months ago that LA Times sportswriter Mike Penner had become Christine Daniels. Daniels wrote an LA Times column about it, was given a personal blog at the paper’s Web site, was part of the Out 100 last year and received tons of praise. Now word comes that Penner is putting Daniels (or at least her dresses) back in the closet and is now Mike Penner again.

I’m going to save my commentary until after we unearth more information, and we hope to have a full report later this week. Until then, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how this news makes you feel and what, if any, effect you think such a public re-transformation could have on gay and transgender rights.

Comments on that story were almost universally supportive, which might surprise some. I can say from personal experience that the concept of detransition can be bewildering both to cisgender people as well as members of my own community. Let’s just say that, like a suicide attempt, it’s hard to adequately convey the gravity of the pain and suffering one is feeling without experiencing it yourself. And Daniels, now living as Mike Penner, did indeed experience those feelings, until taking their own life in November 2008.

You can read Jim’s report on the suicide by clicking here, but since it appears we’ve never told the full story, here is an excerpt from Steve Friess’ deep dive into Daniels’ life that appeared in L.A. Weekly in August 2010:

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, [her closest friend, Amy] LaCoe had realized the extent of Daniels’ physical and emotional problems. It wasn’t easy to find out. Daniels cut off friends… largely by not returning calls and e-mails. LaCoe and [another friend who is only identified in the story by an alias] 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 — a 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 [her ex-wife sportswriter Lisa] 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. [Um, that’s not really what happens, but, anyway].

“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.”

[Famed transgender surgeon and trans woman Dr. Marci] 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. [Neil] 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, [Penner died by suicide].

It was a year to the day after his divorce had been finalized.

Friess notes both of her names — Michael Penner and Christine Daniels — were included atop the official coroner’s report. You can read the full report from 2010 in L.A. Weekly by clicking here. We close with Jim’s last words:

I never judged Mike and only wanted him to find a happiness that seemed to elude him. He was a warm and gentle human being and I am saddened by his death. May he rest in peace.

Tomorrow — and every day in October — we’ll look back at another moment in LGBTQ sports history.


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