I want to note the passing of Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner who died of an apparent suicide last week.

In April 2007 Penner publicly announced that he was transitioning from male to female and changing his byline to Christine Daniels. In October of 2008 he quietly changed his byline back to Mike Penner and resumed his male identity.

Penner didn’t discuss his transition back to male so we don’t know whether his level of happiness was unaffected by transitioning to female or whether the transition proved to be too difficult. But I do want to make one point that came to mind when he first announced his transition to female.

Our fast changing society has come far in allowing people to transition from male to female and vice versa – children in grade school are now recognized for crossing gender lines and are treated respectfully by their parents – but we haven’t made much progress in unraveling the duality of gender.

The recent case of Caster Semenya is indicative of the problem. Semenya won a 2009 World Championship in the 800 meters for South Africa but questions about her gender have turned her life upside down. Is she female or not? The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) made her undergo gender tests even though officials of the organization admit that there is no ultimate gender test. There is no clear delineation between male and female.

In the case of Mike Penner, he had one choice if he wanted to transition – from male to female. He could hardly have gone to his boss at the Los Angeles Times and said, “You know what, I don’t feel like a guy so I’m gonna noodle around in the gender spectrum to see exactly where I fit and get back to you in a few months.” At least not if he wanted to keep his job.

Our culture doesn’t allow anything in between male and female except for a few bearded women I know of and they surely don’t write for big city newspapers. I don’t know the source of Mike Penner’s unhappiness but I do wish we could unshackle people from the male/female polarity and allow them to wander around in the gender spectrum till they find their place.

Maybe Mike Penner would still be around if he’d had that opportunity.

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