I was twenty-three in the spring of 1976 and often played basketball in the Sacramento State University gym and then drove to the all-weather track on the south side of campus and jogged before running wind sprints. People often complimented me for being in good shape, and I considered myself a stud but must’ve known that was a limited assessment. On a windy Saturday afternoon, while I sat in the stands with other self-proclaimed athletes, the real studs ran, jumped, and threw in a tune-up meet for the Olympic Games in Montreal. The most distinguished competitor was Bruce Jenner, already a decathlon world record holder and earning fame for good looks as well as athleticism.
Jenner didn’t win any individual events that day and probably didn’t expect to. Decathletes need to be good in ten events, not world class in any of them. After the meet he and Chrystie, his pretty blonde wife, and a group of fellow competitors and friends sat in the lower bleachers, talking and laughing, and I remember thinking, “What a lucky guy. So talented and relaxed.”
That impression was reinforced during the Olympics when Jenner either surpassed or nearly equaled his personal records in every event, blazing 400 meters in 47.5 seconds, heaving the shot a Herculean 50-feet plus, high jumping 6-8, and, unforgettably, finishing two merciless days of competition by sprinting the final 300 meters of the 1500 to finish in 4:12.6 and set another world record. The gold medal belonged to him, as he’d vowed after a tenth place finish in the 1972 Games motivated him to train six to eight hours a day every day for four years.
Millions embraced Bruce Jenner. Celebrities sought his company. Advertisers featured him, most memorably on a box of Wheaties. Movie and TV producers offered parts. Motivational speaking opportunities abounded. I didn’t follow the specifics of all this. I simply knew he lived in a special place. That seemed to be confirmed in 1981 when a young newspaper correspondent I knew traveled to Los Angeles and interviewed Jenner, who had left his first wife and their two children and married Linda Thompson, once Elvis Presley’s girlfriend and, we later learned, his round-the-clock guardian against drug overdoses. The correspondent told me that Jenner was by far the most confident and dynamic person he’d ever met, and a hell of a nice guy.
After that Jenner receded from center stage. Reports occasionally emerged that he wasn’t an actor but gave good speeches and loved to drive race cars, and had divorced Linda Thompson and, a few years later, in 1991, married a lady named Kris. In 1994 her former surname, Kardashian, became familiar as ex-husband Robert rallied to defend good buddy O.J. Simpson against charges he murdered his second wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Bruce and Kris Jenner avoided the circus, though, and I heard little about him until a year or so ago when I began seeing photos of him in the gossip rags that line the checkout counters of American supermarkets. Jenner is undergoing transgender therapy, he’s becoming a woman, headlines hissed. I dismissed this as lurid gossip and concluded Bruce, in his mid-sixties, had simply let his hair grow too long and needed a cut.
Then the mainstream media, proud arbiters of truth, began running the story, and I thought, oh, no, what about 1976? I still want that Bruce Jenner. Many people do. But that’s impossible and, theoretically, none of our business. What do we have a right to know? When a man is a professional celebrity, and Jenner certainly reaffirmed that when he joined his clan in the reality TV show Keeping up the Kardashians, the answer is: plenty. As seventeen million watched his two-hour interview with Diane Sawyer, Jenner was dignified and articulate, and still somewhat manly, as he explained, “I’ve been thinking about his day forever. I’ve always been confused with my gender identity, since I was this high. I’ve got the soul of a female. My brain is much more female than male. Bruce was always telling a lie. In 1976 I was running away from who I was. I’m going to change the world and do something good. This is my last interview as Bruce.”
Most of the seven hundred thousand transgender people in the United States probably applauded. Now, a gold medal winner, and biological father of six children by three beautiful women, has joined the family, and the new member said, “I was a lonely little boy. When I was eight, I put on my sister’s dress. I still don’t socialize a lot. I don’t fit in. Ninety-nine percent of the time I play golf, I play by myself.”
That stunned me. I thought brooding writers like me played golf by themselves. Trust me, I got a hole in one in 1994 and soon thereafter sold my clubs. Jenner likely has some rousing tales about great shots. Diane Sawyer, still glamorous at age 70, did not follow up on the links, at least not on air. There were more substantive issues. Jenner explained he was never attracted to guys but after the Olympics shared with Chrystie that he did a little cross-dressing. When he fell for Linda Thompson, he said they had a strong sexual attraction, which is “different than gender identity. Genitals don’t equal gender.”
This confuses me. It must have flabbergasted Linda Thompson when Jenner confessed he thought he was a woman. Let’s break it down: a biological man can be strongly attracted to women, have sex with them for decades, and still believe he’s a woman. Does that mean that Bruce Jenner, and those with comparable profiles, even after the chemical procedures are complete, will want to have sex with women? I don’t think Diane Sawyer asked him, and she should have. Jenner did note that for now he considers himself “asexual.”
In the 1980s a doctor prescribed estrogen for about five years during which Jenner underwent electrolysis to remove facial and chest hair and had a rhinoplasty to narrow his nose. He said the hormones reduced anxiety but he decided to discontinue them in order to avoid disturbing his children, the first four of whom lived apart from the Jenner-Kardashian family.
“When I gave speeches, wearing suits, I felt like a liar. Afterward, I’d put on a dress and go out as a woman.”
Jenner said he was well-disguised and undetected. It’s doubtful no one recognized him. It’s certain that Kim Kardashian “caught him in a dress.” So did his two youngest daughters, by Kris, who “could not handle” the changes when her husband resumed taking female hormones. They separated. Jenner next had to tell his children, ten of them including his stepchildren, about who he really was, a task that “terrified” him but, once completed in stages, relieved him. What should they call him? He said, “Dad.”
Bruce Jenner is still in many biological ways a man since he hasn’t undergone “sexual realignment surgery.” He said those in his position are advised to wait at least a year. Perhaps he should wait two, or forgo the procedure, in case he retains some sexual desires he so long expressed.