Ex-Olympian Becomes Brunette Bombshell: Caitlyn Jenner’s The Secrets of My Life

When Caitlyn* Jenner took her place at the starting line of the 1500 meters, the tenth and final event of the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic Games, she could already feel the gold medal around her neck. In approximately four minutes, her life would change forever. At an Olympic Games that represented not only an athletic competition, but a moral competition between the Cold War-era United States and the Soviet Union, Jenner wanted not only a gold medal for her country, but to further separate herself from her Soviet competitors by breaking the decathlon world record. Although Jenner finished second in the 1500 meters, in the home stretch she sprinted full out to the finish line, claiming both the gold medal and the world record. An American flag was thrust into her hand, and she jogged around the track waving it in a moment of personal and national triumph. Her years of dedication and personal sacrifice, of training 6-to-8 hours a day, had paid off: she was the world’s greatest athlete.

Beneath the bright stadium lights and applause, however, this was not the wholly victorious moment it appeared to be in the media coverage and on the glossy orange fronts of Wheaties — “The Breakfast of Champions” — boxes at grocery stores all over the country. Jenner was concealing a painful and confusing secret: as far back as she could remember, she had internally identified as a woman. While her Olympic win brought many amazing opportunities, with it came the realization that the scrutiny of celebrity would make it near impossible to live publicly as her authentic self.

Caitlyn Jenner is, without question, a polarizing figure both inside and outside of the LGBTQ community. Some members of the transgender community regard her advocacy as suspect, pointing out that her class privilege and celebrity status separate her from the vast majority of the community, whose experiences are often characterized by discrimination and economic hardship, thus making her an inadequate spokesperson. Others struggle to understand how she claims to advocate for the LGBTQ community, while also proudly identifying as a Republican and voting for Donald Trump. Many outside of the LGBTQ community have difficulty making sense of Jenner’s transition, namely the seeming incongruity between Bruce, once the world’s greatest athlete and pinnacle of masculinity, and the brunette bombshell that is Caitlyn. Some cisgender (or, non-trans) people have used this perceived disparity to confirm transphobic ideas: that gender is immutable from birth; therefore, trans people are invalid, confused, or mentally ill. How can it be that a male Olympic decathlete identifies as, and became, a feminine woman? The existence of both Bruce and Caitlyn, to them, is an impossibility.

Jenner alone cannot represent the LGBTQ community, nor can she eradicate transphobia with her activism alone. But she can speak for herself; she can tell her story with the hope of educating and raising awareness. There are few people who have not heard of Caitlyn Jenner. Most people, at the very least, can connect a human face to the word “transgender.” Even a decade ago, this simply would not have been a reality. Jenner’s long-awaited memoir, The Secrets of My Life, published this year by Grand Central Publishing, and co-authored with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and journalist Buzz Bissinger, tells her story with the intention of raising awareness about the struggles of the transgender community. Secrets continues the long tradition of transgender memoir as an activist genre, and expands upon Jenner’s 2015 Vanity Fair “coming out” narrative, “Call Me Caitlyn,” also authored by Bissinger.

Jenner’s “coming out” on the cover of Vanity Fair was reminiscent of Christine Jorgensen, the first internationally known sex-change recipient, whose transition in 1952 was publicized under the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell.” Jorgensen, whose story Jenner was fascinated with as a young person, is present in Secrets both as Jenner’s twin and her foil. In literature, a foil is a character who is contrasted with the protagonist, often to highlight particular aspects of the protagonist’s personality, life, or experiences. Though Jenner and Jorgensen share many similarities — they are both the most visible and well-known transgender people of their respective time periods — the details of Jorgensen’s story highlight how far our cultural understanding of transgender lives has progressed. Jenner is not, in fact, an ex-Olympian who has become a brunette bombshell. Rather, she always was Caitlyn even if she could not externally “be” Caitlyn.

“I know that Caitlyn was my gender identity at birth, waiting for the right moment to subsume Bruce.”

Secrets differs markedly from early transgender memoirs, like Jorgensen’s, that focused almost exclusively on transition, medicalized notions of trans identity, and as covert advertisements for doctors who worked with transsexual patients, illustrating how the genre, and public perception of trans issues, has changed over the past century. While Secrets does discuss transition, this information is not shared in a gratuitous way, and surgeries, in particular, are discussed only when they are relevant to the larger context of Jenner’s story. Along with other contemporary transgender memoirs such as Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness (2014) and Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive (2014), Secrets presents a more holistic narrative of Jenner’s life, in which her being trans is only part, albeit a significant one, of her story.

These holistic transgender narratives move beyond a focus on transition to document the diversity and complexity of transgender lives. They present trans people not as “freaks of nature” to be gawked and marveled at, but as legitimate variations within the broad category “human.” Furthermore, they present trans selves as wholly authentic. Trans people do not “become” authentic in their gender identities through hormones, surgery, or other aspects of transition. Rather, one’s authentic gender identity is their personal conception of self. The gender one knows oneself to be is enough. Finally, holistic narratives are often not written with the education of cisgender readers in mind, but are written for a broad audience. They move outside of personal experience to situate the author within their larger social context, and speak to the diversity of the transgender community as a whole. If holistic medicine is about treating the whole person, then holistic memoir is about documenting the whole person, not only the aspects of self or experience that most position them as “other.”

Holistic and complex stories of trans people are vital in a reality where even feminists regularly misunderstand transgender issues, or act in ways they may not realize are transphobic or trans-misogynist. Take, for example, a recent Instagram post by Katy Perry, in which the self-proclaimed feminist pop star posted a picture with the caption “Katy Kardashian.” In the image, Perry tags parts of her body with various members of the Kardashian clan in either an attempt to point out similar features, or to call attention to cosmetic alterations the Kardashians have had. In strategically tagging “Caitlyn Jenner” above her crotch, Perry reduces Jenner, and her gender, to her genitals, and furthers sensationalist narratives that detail trans people’s transition for the purpose of titillating non-trans viewers. As Laverne Cox has astutely pointed out, when we reduce trans people to body parts and surgeries, we effectively sideline the real issues facing the transgender community. Perry has clearly not read Secrets, wherein Jenner reveals she has had, in her words, “the final surgery,” going on to state that she is revealing this information to end speculation, but that this is the first and the last time she will talk openly about this particular aspect of her transition. Not only is the image transphobic, it is also trans-misogynist via Perry openly scrutinizing another woman’s anatomy. By tagging her crotch “Caitlyn Jenner,” Perry has inevitably drawn attention to the very thing Jenner wanted to detract from in favor of discussing more pressing issues. Perry would be well-served to read Jenner’s book, as well as the works of other trans writers, in order to understand how her actions repeat false and harmful notions of what it means to be transgender.

Perhaps most importantly, reading Secrets provides the opportunity to gain a more complete picture of Jenner aside from magazine articles, television appearances, and interviews that are dissected over and over in the media and on the internet, for example, when talk show host Ellen Degeneres called Jenner out when she appeared non-committal in her support for marriage equality. Framed within the larger context of her life, Jenner’s conservatism makes sense. Growing up in the repressive 1950s, where homosexuality was considered a perversion and trans people were seen as “circus freaks” if they were talked about at all, Jenner was terrified that others would learn she was different. When the 1950s gave way to the “free love” ideology and social justice movements of the 1960s, she shied away from anything that might mark her as offbeat or radical. Thus, she adopted the path of least resistance in her political views.

While it is understandable, contextually, why Jenner believes what she does, many wish she would further interrogate her insistence that the Republican party can be made to care about LGBTQ issues. Jenner says she supports the LGBTQ community, but is against “big government,” failing to realize the extent to which strong government-funded social welfare programs could make a profound impact on the lives of the most vulnerable and at risk members of the community, namely, transgender women. Visibility and tolerance are not enough. Our social institutions need to change so that they work in the service of all people, not only the most privileged and powerful. The dissonance between Caitlyn Jenner, activist, and Caitlyn Jenner, Republican, are highlighted within Secrets through Bissinger’s creation of Jenner’s voice that at times comes across as too slick and polished, especially in its commentary on social issues. The narrative, at points, reads like Bissinger’s idea of what a professional activist should sound like, as opposed to Jenner’s authentic perspective on the issues.

In her biography of the poet Audre Lorde, black feminist scholar and writer Alexis De Veaux proposes a concept she refers to as “competing truths”: that two seemingly contradictory facts or interpretations of a person’s life can be equally valid. According to De Veaux, “the truth… is unknown and resides within the unknown because every storyteller performs two acts: telling some things and leaving out other things. Thus, we all tell stories we want to tell truths about.” Different people will see Caitlyn Jenner differently depending on what truths they want to tell about her. Is she a problematic and frustrating figure? Yes. Is she also a role model and activist? Yes. Within De Veaux’s framework of competing truths, Jenner can be problematic and do good for the transgender community at the same time, depending on who is doing the telling, or who is interpreting her actions and words. Human lives are, simply stated, complex. If we expect activists, role models, and spokespeople to be perfect at all times, then we are setting them up for failure and ourselves for disappointment.

Caitlyn Jenner cannot speak for the entire trans community — no one person can. Trans people, like all people, have diverse identities and life experiences. There is no “one-size-fits-all” transgender narrative. But Jenner can tell her story as one way to do good in the world through creating a pathway to education, dialogue, and empathy. Unfortunately, mainstream reviews of Secrets from publications such as Cosmopolitan, E! News, Entertainment Tonight Online, Entertainment Weekly, and Time have played up the supposed “shocking” revelations contained in the book, while minimizing Jenner’s advocacy.

Being seen as anything other than the person one knows oneself to be is inherently dehumanizing. This is why storytelling is a fundamental part of the human experience. The more we embrace our stories, and listen to the stories of others, the more fully and completely human we become. As we tell our stories we liberate each other, and allow those who witness our tale to themselves live with respect, dignity, and authenticity. Jenner’s life shows that freedom ensues truth — that is a fact. For when we tell the secrets of our lives, they lose all power to shackle us in shame and fear.

*Although it would make sense to refer to Jenner as “Bruce” during this period of her life, I have intentionally chosen to refer to her as Caitlyn to avoid perpetuating the false notion that trans people are assigned one gender at birth and then “become” a different gender via medical intervention. As Jenner herself explains, Caitlyn was her gender at birth despite the fact that she socially identified as “Bruce” for the majority of her life. One only need to perform a quick Google search to find frankly gross opinions about Jenner’s transition, such as: “Bruce Jenner might have won gold at the 1976 Olympic Games — but the plastic surgery that turned the gender jumper into Caitlyn Jenner won’t win any medals!” Plastic surgery — or any surgery for that matter — does not make or define someone’s gender. A person is trans because they do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Gender is defined by a person’s internal reality, not their external anatomy. The sexism that has come Jenner’s way is also worth noting. Now that she publicly identifies as a woman, the media has no qualms about scrutinizing her physical appearance and openly speculating about what cosmetic procedures she may have had.

A version of this story was originally published at www.theradicalnotion.com on May 31, 2017.



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Jeffry J. Iovannone

Jeffry J. Iovannone

Historian, writer, and educator with a PhD in American Studies. I specialize in gender and LGBTQ history of the U.S. Email: jeffry.iovannone@gmail.com