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A woman behind the words

(This article was published in 2007).

It should be no surprise that of all the stories the Los Angeles Times carried on Thursday, from the Lakers' woes in the NBA playoffs to dying kittens in L.A. shelters, the most-viewed and most-emailed story at latimes.com was one titled, "Old Mike, New Christine."

Long-standing Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner, it seems, has had a secret shared by precious few in our society, let alone sports. For years he has felt like a woman trapped in the body of a man. And he's finally doing something about it.

"I am a transsexual sportswriter," Penner wrote. "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."

Those will be some of the final words written by Mike Penner for the Times. He's taking a permanent vacation, and in a few weeks, Christine Daniels will be the new sportswriter – with Penner's voice. Rather, maybe all along it was Penner making a name for himself using Christine's voice, but afraid to let that voice out completely. In his column, Penner said the writer's block that has plagued him at times is slipping away. He is, it seems, finally willing to let Christine's full voice be heard.

Transgender issues are barely on anyone's radar screen outside of the relatively small community of self-aware transgender people. They're the "T" in GLBT – always last, often left off the acronym entirely. Some gay people think that gay issues should be addressed and debated entirely void of transgender issues, because they're different. And they are different. But the social issues transgender people face are much like those faced by gay men and lesbians. Their struggle, while deeper and often more painful, is much like ours, and I feel proud to call them, in loose terms, family.

Many gay people also erroneously see them as just the over-the-top drag queens who lip sync along with Mariah Carey as we sip our vodka-cranberries and chat the night away. Many straight people see them as stubble-chinned men in dresses. But what gets rarely acknowledged is what that dress means to the person wearing it: A symbol of self-expression they hold so personally and so dear that they are willing to put their future on the line to wear it.

For any of those quick to judge Penner, and there will be many (though I doubt many of them read this Web site), consider how strongly he must have felt this lack of belonging, to risk what he is risking. His marriage. His job. His spot on his over-30 rec league soccer team. His friends. For the next year, when he tries to get quotes and comments from people for a story, he'll have to wade through a litany of questions and doubts. When you consider all that he is putting on the line, and the 40 years he has tried to suppress this feeling, you understand a bit better that this isn't some passing whim to put on a dress.

There was certainly a time I shunned transgender issues and belittled transgender people. But, for the last several years, I have dove into transgender issues, and specifically their role in sports, as best I can. I feel blessed to have met Molly Lenore, an incredible woman who joined the New York Gay Football League two years ago. She has been a staple of New York gay sports for years. She's got a fantastic attitude, is warm and caring, and is a hell of a football player. In college, she was a man, and no one would have guessed Molly was deep inside him waiting to get out. But she did, and the people in her life are better for it. The people in Penner's life will be better for it, too.

The beauty of Penner's revelation is that people like Molly have one more person like them to look up to, and that those in the sports media have the "news hook" to tell stories like Molly's. While Penner might not want a lot of attention for this, he's going to get it. And he should. It's not every day that a story like his comes along that opens the doors to these discussions. The good his story will do for other people like him could be felt from coast to coast.

But will the major sports media use Penner's story to tell these other stories and broaden people's understanding, the way they did with John Amaechi's coming out? Chances are, it will be a very mixed bag. Homosexuality is something straight men can relate to and understand on at least a carnal level: Gay guys are guys who love sex; they just want to do it with another guy. But transgender issues: That is a whole other realm of identity and being that most haven't even considered, let alone understand.

Talking to a friend who's a sports radio host a couple hours after the story broke, he didn't even know where to begin with the questions.

"How long has he known he's gay?" He asked.

I explained that gener identity and sexual orientation are two completely different things. I told him about a transgender woman I know who now mostly dates women: As a man he dated women, and as a woman he dated women. Just because he was transgender doesn't mean he was a gay man.

That all just confused him even more.

Still, there is an inquisitiveness there that is undeniable. Any journalist worth his salary will see this story and perk up, as I did several years ago when a story about a trannie stuck in a tree in Central Park came across my desk. And all of those Mike Penners across the country – those solid writers who have the ability to think a little deeper and express their thoughts eloquently – will certainly have some thoughts to sort through in the coming hours and days. Hopefully, they'll share those thoughts with their readers.

For those who knew Mike and will soon see Christine and don't know quite what to do, may I suggest a simple salutation:

"Hello, Christine. I've been reading your stuff for years. It's good to finally meet you."