I am uncertain at what point during the Bruce Jenner-Diane Sawyer tete-a-tete that I first reached across my coffee table to fetch a piece of tissue paper. I just know it was not a one-off.
Fortunately, Kleenex is not in short supply in my modest home.
Yes, I wept freely and often as the former world’s greatest athlete shared his story with Sawyer, because he was telling my story. No, I am not a former Olympic champion and my picture never has graced the front of a Wheaties box. I have zero connection to the Kardashians. The paparazzi do not hound me. Late night gab guys on TV do not crack wise about me.
Trust me, though. Bruce Jenner’s story is my story. It’s just that I’m ahead of him on the curve.
He was born with male junk 65 years ago. Ditto.
He slipped into his sister’s dress for the first time at age seven or eight. Ditto.
He immersed himself into sports as an escape from the torment of gender identity conflict. Ditto.
He has had three failed marriages. Ditto.
He sired six children. Ditto (including an abortion).
He began his male-to-female transition at a very late stage in his life. Ditto.
Where Jenner and I part company is in the areas of family, stage of transition and celebrity. Whereas he is held in the embrace of his family, I am estranged from mine, save for my younger brother. In some cases, that is their choice. In others, it is mine. Meanwhile, I have been living, working and playing as my true self for the past seven years. I have a vagina. He does not. He has yet to begin his real life experience and he confessed to Sawyer that any surgery is a significant distance down the road.
As for celebrity, I retreated from a career in jock journalism in 1999 and have managed to carve out a life well removed from the fishbowl. Jenner is out there, baby. After Friday night’s chin-wag with Sawyer on ABC, I think it accurate to submit that he is now the world’s most famous transgender person.
I suspect that will make the transition more difficult, because haters are going to hate. He shall be mocked, maligned and ridiculed. He will become the butt of more jokes than Kim Kardashian’s caboose. Yet Jenner can take comfort in the knowledge that the most difficult aspect of the journey now is in the rear view mirror. He has told family. He has told friends. He has told the world. He is now free to get on with getting on.
I have no doubt that there are those among us who believe this is a stunt. A gimmick. Just another bottle of snake oil being sold to a gullible public by the Jenner-Kardashian clan. Another reality series, after all, is coming to a flatscreen TV near you in the very near future, at which time we shall be introduced to the she Jenner in all her female finery.
I’m not buying that this is a put-on, though. A circus act, if you will. Too much of what Jenner told Sawyer rang true for me. Hence the Kleenex.
I know what it was like to grow up in the 1950s and ’60s, wondering why your heart, mind and soul said you were a girl but that thing between your legs told you otherwise. I know the emptiness of not having anyone to turn to, someone who might understand and help explain why you felt the way you felt. I know the gripping confusion when some silent voice insists that you to put on your sister’s dress. I know the escape that sports offered, which, in my case, meant the frozen ponds and baseball diamonds of Winnipeg. I also know the painful retreat to my loneliness once the game was over. I know suicide ideation. I know the paralyzing fear of being found out, especially as an adult operating in the alpha-male, frat-boy, misogynistic world of sports.
Jenner did his thing on a global scale in athletics, where he won the gold medal in the 1976 Olympic Games decathlon. I did mine as a jock journalist on a parochial scale for a handful of newspapers stretching from Toronto to Calgary.
Same story, slightly different sound bites, that’s all. And he got to talk to Diane Sawyer, I didn’t.
It took a special kind of courage for Jenner to take this step, and he’ll require more of same as he makes his way along the path. There shall be roadblocks, hurdles and detours. More pain. Most people, of course, cannot understand what he has gone through and what he is yet to experience, but most problematic is the reality that most people will not try to understand.
Everyone can understand this, though: By whatever name Bruce Jenner chooses in a new life, she will be a person. Period. Treat her like one.
(Footnote: In the use of pronouns, I have referred to Jenner as “he” because that is his preference until he begins his real life she experience.)