Caitlyn Jenner turns the page on Bruce
The athlete and reality TV star's new memoir sheds light on past struggles, present challenges and future optimism as a transgender woman in the spotlight
Bruce Jenner is 10 years old and home alone. He walks into his mother's bedroom closet, brushing a hand over the cotton dresses. He selects one, careful to mark its exact position with a piece of paper, so no one discovers. He accessorizes with one of Mom's scarves and with shoes belonging to his sister, Pam, and dabs on some lipstick. After surveying the ensemble in a mirror, the child ventures out of the red brick apartment building in tiny Tarrytown, N.Y., making it around the block.
The adventure is both thrilling and painfully alienating: It's 1959, and Bruce has no idea what's going on. "Even at the age of ten, my life had become a sealed box, and over time, the sides would become even higher and ultimately impossible to scale," Jenner writes in the new memoir The Secrets of My Life, in which she refers to herself as Caitlyn after her transition, in the spring of 2015, and Bruce beforehand.
Before transitioning publicly, Jenner's is a lonely life of concealment. Trying to "exorcise what was living inside," Jenner marries and divorces three women, trying on their clothing, too. The wives are left deeply confused, as are the children. After their makeup starts going missing, young Kylie and Kendall enable a security camera on their computer, only to discover Dad in drag – they are "too young to understand."
In the eighties, the Olympic decathlete crisscrosses America, delivering corporate motivational speeches to stay afloat financially. On these occasions, Jenner dons a suit with a bra and pantyhose underneath. There are strolls in little black dresses through anonymous hotel lobbies, excursions that leave Jenner self-conscious, "a thinner version of Big Bird standing out for the world to see and snicker at after I pass."
Excruciating electrolysis sessions and hormone therapy treatments are conducted in secret throughout the mid-80s. Later, Jenner gets more daring, changing into dresses and wigs in a car near the family home – and lurking paparazzi – in Los Angeles. With a low, masculine voice, Jenner makes sure never to speak out loud, except for one Starbucks run to order a vanilla latte.
Applying and removing makeup and false eyelashes, squeezing into undergarments – the daily rituals most women find oppressive, Jenner finds liberating and life-affirming. But Caitlyn's glamazon femininity has earned her few friends in either the transgender or feminist camps. When she gushed about nail polish in her first revelatory interview with Diane Sawyer, her critics were aghast, noting that the struggles of womankind extend beyond chipped nails. Others took issue with Jenner's wealth and her politics: She's a Republican who voted for Donald Trump.
Jenner's memoir presents a person who is deeply conscious of her critics, desperate to avoid confrontation and constantly apologizing – now to her transgender critics, but before that to her three wives and six children for being "consumed and self-absorbed" by a lifelong gender dysphoria. "I am trying to learn as quickly as I can," writes Jenner, who visits with the families of bullied transgender children lost to suicide. "I am very new to the community and I understand some still perceive me as an outsider. My own story, I believe, is worth telling because the pain and fear I experienced was real."
The Globe and Mail spoke with Caitlyn Jenner from Los Angeles.
What does hiding the way you did for five decades do to a person?
Everybody has stuff they have to deal with in life. My identity was my stuff for my entire life. In the fifties and sixties, there wasn't even a word for it. I didn't know why I felt this way. There was no information. This continued all the way through the eighties, when I was really struggling. I couldn't even find a therapist. It was a life of hiding and sneaking around and being embarrassed that my identity was such an issue in my life. It's not like you take two Aspirin and get plenty of sleep and wake up the next morning and you're fine. It was extremely lonely.
After a lifetime of hiding, you are abruptly thrust into the spotlight as a mainstream transgender spokesperson. How was that for you?
The public and the press put me in a position where, all of a sudden, I represented this entire community, which is not the case. I'm a representative for my story.
Disenfranchised transgender women take issue with you as a spokesperson because of your privilege. You seem acutely aware of your critics, writing out the words "I am white. I am entitled. I have wealth" in a bold font in the book. You face a trans protest at one of your appearances and you distinctly remember the protest signs. "You are an insult to trans people," one reads. How does it feel to be an outsider all over again?
It hurts. If a trans woman writes something [critical of me], I have this terrible problem where I just call 'em up. I've done this on numerous occasions. I tell them, "You don't know me. You don't know my intentions." They don't know where my heart is. Yes, I'm white – can't do anything about that. Privileged? My experience being trans is much different than theirs, I will admit to that. But I'll never apologize for working hard all my life and making a good living. That's what this country's all about.
We're all trying to do the same thing: to make it better for our marginalized community and for the next generation. There's no sense in criticizing anybody. I call my critics and say, "I'd like to get to know you. Tell me your story." It changes people's minds.
At the same time, you write about taking some of the "sanctimony out of the sails of the trans community." You make a point of noting that you're not hung up on pronouns.
Pronouns are extremely important, and I get that. I try to do my best to get all the pronouns right but even I've messed up. I was six months into my transition, and somebody working in production called and I said, "Hi, it's Bruce."
My daughters Kendall and Kylie have asked me, "What do we call you?" I said, "'Dad' is going to work for me. I'm your dad. I'll always be your father till the day you or I die." Sometimes "Dad" and "she," they kind of get messed up a little bit. But my daughters do a very good job. I spoke to Kendall on the phone today and she goes, "Yes, ma'am." She's getting it.
But I don't get hung up on it. I know people are going to make mistakes.
You explain that you consider yourself a trans woman, not a woman. What is the distinction to you?
My road to womanhood has certainly been different. I will never have a period. I will never bear a child. So I'm very comfortable with the words "trans woman." It's the way my life has been.
There is clearly division among trans women, but there is also division between feminists about trans women. Some feminists argue that trans women can't just take on the label of "woman" after enjoying the perks of masculinity all their lives. What's your feeling about that?
People criticize trans women because you go from what society treats as the powerful, masculine role to what society thinks is a weaker, feminine role. From this standpoint I think women underestimate themselves and the amount of power they have. I've always been with very strong women.
Your first wife, Chrystie Scott, and your second wife, Linda Thompson, did not take the news of your cross-dressing well. Kris Jenner was less stunned by it but still not into it. What was it like for these wives – who clearly wanted their husband Bruce Jenner back?
I did open up conversations with them, but it was the last thing they wanted to hear. I can't blame them for that. I understand that it's difficult when you transition. I respected if they were not into it. I get it. We're better friends now with both Chrystie and Linda. In a lot of ways, we're fine. With Kris, it was a little closer and tougher for her. Plus, we spent 23 years together.
You say that your stepdaughter Kim Kardashian was the most sympathetic. As you're chucking Bruce's clothes, Kim carts her favourite pieces away. In a clip from Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Kris Jenner smells the suits and cries, mourning that Bruce is gone. Do you empathize with that?
[Chuckles] She can be pretty dramatic at times – on the show. I understand that. It's tough. But we didn't go our separate directions because I was going to go and transition. It had been 23 years and things had changed. We both mutually decided that it was best for both of us to go in separate directions for many reasons.
The book was leaked and tabloids have been obsessing over its final revelation – your gender reassignment surgery.
I had "it" done and that already snuck out and it's been all over the Internet. The tabloids love that, and so does the general public. The book is about honesty, about getting all this weight off my shoulders and getting rid of it. That had to be part of it, but I didn't want to make it the main part. My reasons for doing something like that are in the book, and then I'm not talking about it any more. I want to protect myself and I want to protect the community.
Why is the fixation on surgeries upsetting to transgender people?
Gender confirmation surgery is an extraordinarily personal thing. It's not for public consumption and it's not something trans people really want to talk about. The general public thinks it's all about what's between your legs. It has nothing to do with that. It's about what's between your ears. The day after she has that surgery, a trans woman is no more a woman than she was the day before surgery. She is just more comfortable with herself.
People are pruriently obsessed with your surgeries but also with your sexuality. They want to know if you're gay or straight – post-transition. Where do you stand on those questions?
I have no idea. I'm not looking to date – men, women, anything. I have no problem being by myself in my home. I'm set in my ways. If I can find a really good friend down the way, I would have a friend.
How are the challenges for trans teens different today than what you were facing, completely alone, in the 1960s?
My journey is a lot longer than many journeys of people today. Today it's a different world. The big change for our community was the Internet. It opened the entire community up. Transgender people can now get a lot more information at a very young age, and that's good. It also hurts. Online bullying is worse than getting bullied in person in high school or grade school. The real critical kids are the ones that suffer from depression combined with trans issues. It is devastating for these children, and a lot of them take their own lives. We have to do a better job of accepting the community.
You expressed disappointment after Donald Trump revoked Barack Obama's federal guidelines for public schools to let transgender students use bathrooms of their choice. You asked Trump to call you about it. Did he?
Okay, this is where I'm at. I had talked to Trump during the campaign. We spoke on the phone about a lot of these issues. He seemed to be on our side. I was relatively optimistic at first. When he rescinded the federal guidelines with Jeff Sessions and Betsy Devos, I couldn't figure out why he would do that. It was the absolute wrong thing to do. Why even go there? We've got so many more important issues to deal with in this country. Go deal with those and just leave us alone.
When I was at the inauguration, he said he wanted me to come down and play golf with him – I just don't know if he wants to get beaten by a 67-year-old trans woman. I would love to get four hours out on the golf course with him to be able to talk business. That's how a lot of things get done. But if I went down now and played golf with him, the transgender community would just destroy me. If I do anything now, it's got to be behind closed doors.
A trans friend of yours talks about the first day she wakes up and goes to bed without thinking once about gender. Have you had that day?
I am very pleased at where I'm at in my life. This woman has lived inside of me since I can remember. Maybe it's time to let her live and give her an opportunity. Bruce pretty much did everything – there was nothing left for him to do. Let's take little Bruce and put him inside and let her live. It was very liberating to let her go.
I always want to wake up in the morning excited about the day. In the old days, when I was training, I would wake up in the morning excited for the day to start. I had weights to lift, I had workouts to do, I had competitions coming up. I lost that in my life for many years. I couldn't care about the next day. In going through this transition, that excitement for life has returned. I got the old mojo back.
This interview has been edited and condensed.