By now, Bruce Jenner has revealed his struggle with gender dysphoria.
I never would have dared to speak on this issue before he was comfortable enough to do so first. It is, after all, his truth, so I knew he should be afforded the dignity to reveal that truth on his own time and in the way he sees fit.
I have respectfully kept his secrets private and would have taken his confidences to my grave had he not spoken out.
But now, many years into his remarkable life, he has spoken out. His legacy will likely be sprinkled with references such as "Olympian," "decathlon gold medalist," "world's greatest athlete," "son," "brother," "husband," "father," "grandfather," "friend," and, hopefully, "pioneer" and "trailblazer for the civil rights of the transgender community."
So as much as this is about Bruce, it's not all about him. The sharing of my experience is meant to enlighten and inform -- to lend a modicum of comfort and support for all those disenfranchised, struggling, discriminated against, searching souls.
Bruce's story, and his struggle, is uniquely his; my experiences with Bruce are commensurately uniquely my own.
Following is a brief history of my time with Bruce -- a life experience that shaped my existence immeasurably.
* * * * *
One hot Memphis night in July 1976, Elvis (yes, that Elvis) and I were watching the Summer Olympics that were being held in Montréal.
We were lying in bed (our usual perch) at Graceland and had been watching the telecast for days. We were pretty closely following the American athlete Bruce Jenner, who was dominating the decathlon competition. Bruce was on the final lap of his last race, the 10th event, and as he crossed the finish line to win the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon competition, distinguishing himself as the "world's greatest athlete," Elvis and I were exuberant about the win for the United States! We were also commenting on what an amazing specimen of a man Bruce Jenner was. Elvis remarked, "Damn if that guy is not handsome! I'm not gay, but damn, he's good-looking!" I quite agreed and teasingly said, '"Wow! He is gorgeous! I'm going to marry that guy someday!" Elvis replied, "Yeah, sure, honey, over my dead body."
I met Bruce Jenner at a celebrity tennis tournament three years later, in the spring of 1979. The tournament was a benefit for the John Tracy Clinic for deaf children. The event was held at the Playboy Mansion. I had never been to the mansion before, but Bruce had been living there part-time since his separation from his then-wife Chrystie.
I was a regular cast member on the TV variety show Hee Haw and a fledgling actress of some note (think Aaron Spelling shows), so I was invited to the mansion to hand out the winning trophies to the participants playing tennis. No surprise, Bruce won the tournament, and I presented him with his trophy. That's how we first met: on a tennis court.
Bruce was clad in shorts and a sweaty T-shirt, his well-toned, muscular body still in Olympic form. He was sweet, shy, and very gentlemanly. He asked me if I came to the Playboy Mansion often, and I said, "Oh, gosh, no! I've never even been here before!" I remember thinking I didn't want to give him the wrong impression. I didn't want him to think I was an aspiring Playmate!
His friendliness became a little flirty, so I asked him outright, "Hey, aren't you married?! I watched you win the Olympics, and as I recall, your wife was very present!" Bruce's whole demeanor changed as he sadly responded, "No, I'm separated, and it's really not a lot of fun." He seemed so childlike and lost in that moment that my heart truly went out to him. I said I was sorry to hear that, and we continued to chat for a while, still on the court.
Everyone at the John Tracy Clinic event was reconvening for dinner after tennis, and Bruce had planned to go home, shower, and change clothes before coming back to the event for dinner. However, he kept hanging around and finally explained, "I really don't want to leave you alone here, even for a little while. I've seen how George Peppard and others are looking at you and just waiting for me to leave so they can hit on you."
I thought, "How charming and gallant!" Bruce stayed in his shorts and T-shirt while others were dressed for dinner, and he and I continued to get to know each other. Bruce asked me out for dinner, and, of course, I said yes. Thus began a romantic relationship that lasted several years and produced two wonderful sons.
Bruce already had an adorable young son named Burt, and during a brief reconciliation with Chrystie, they were blessed with a beautiful baby girl named Cassandra. Burt and Casey (as I call her) have always been a tremendous blessing and gift in my life.
During the course of our dating, Bruce and I traveled to Australia to promote his upcoming film with the Village People, Can't Stop the Music. Alan Carr had produced the movie, and we became fast friends. Alan was very flamboyant, funny, creative, and generous. Alan insisted that, on our return trip from Australia, Bruce and I let him treat us to a pre-honeymoon of four days on the incredibly gorgeous island of Bora Bora in Tahiti.
Bruce and I had a relaxing and romantic time on this enchanting island. We stayed in one of those thatched-roofed, over-the-water huts, so we could just step off our deck into the crystal-clear water and be swimming with the multicolored fish instantly. At night we would lie under the stars and talk about our future and the magical quality of the universe in which we lived.
The Bruce I knew back then was an easygoing, down-to-earth, casual, romantic, good and loving man. I was extremely happy to have found such a remarkable partner with whom to share my life. I found him to be honorable and, well, just too good to be true. Just too good to be true indeed.
I found myself pregnant for the first time in my life. When the doctor's office called me to tell me the results of the pregnancy test, I fell to my knees with joy and prayed that I would be worthy of carrying that precious life. It is a feeling I'll never forget. I really felt in that moment that whatever had transpired in my life of any negative nature, any transgression I had ever perpetrated, had somehow been cleansed away from my being. This was a new start for my life. Clearly I was deliriously delighted with the news.
* * * * *
Bruce and I were married Jan. 5, 1981. We were married at the beautiful, beachfront Hawaiian home of Alan Carr. There were only about 35 people in attendance, including our parents. Bruce's son Burt served as the best man, even though he was only 2 years old and was constantly interrupting our nuptials with "I want up." It was very sweet and lent a warm, familial touch to the ceremony. My nieces, Jennifer and Amy Thompson, served as the flower girls, and my sister-in-law Louise was my matron of honor. It really was quite an extraordinarily beautiful wedding. We said our I-dos at 6 p.m., just as the sun was setting over the placid, blue Pacific Ocean.
It should be noted that Bruce was a very secure man, because the music I chose to walk down the aisle to was Elvis Presley's "Hawaiian Wedding Song." It had always been my dream to get married in Hawaii. It was a dream that had been spawned by Elvis' movie Blue Hawaii. I had watched that movie over and over as a little girl and always thought, "How very romantic it would be to get married in such a beautiful paradise!" To Bruce's credit, he went along with my fairytale plans for a cinematically inspired, sunset wedding in Alan Carr's Japanese garden at the base of Diamond Head, on Waikiki Beach, on the beautiful island of Oahu, Hawaii. Only Elvis was missing in my fairytale wedding.
Brandon Thompson Jenner was born June 4, 1981. I thought I knew what love was before giving birth to my baby, but whatever I had experienced in the past paled in comparison to the utterly unconditional love I immediately felt for the little bundle I now held in my arms. Burt and Casey came to the hospital and got to see and bond with their new little brother Brandon.
Those were very happy days for me. I truly loved Burt and Casey, and Brandon was the absolute sunshine in every day of my life! This newfound motherhood thing seemed to be my natural calling in life. I had already practiced on Burt and Casey, since Bruce and I frequently had them in our home, and they were still very young. So I felt prepared to be a mommy to Brandon. I loved having this little ready-made family to enjoy and spend time with.
Bruce and I actually made quite a great couple at the time. We got along exceedingly well and enjoyed many of the same activities, once he taught me how to do the sports that he enjoyed. Bruce taught me how to jet ski, water ski, snow ski, play tennis, eat healthfully, work out regularly, and basically lose my fear of getting my hair wet and opening my eyes underwater. Well, I may be exaggerating about losing my fear, but it is fair to say that Bruce unleashed a natural athlete in me. I became a pretty good tennis player, and Bruce and I even hosted our own celebrity tennis tournament benefiting United Cerebral Palsy in Children for several years. It was called the Bruce and Linda Jenner Love Match.
Bruce and I appeared on red carpets regularly, and we were perceived as a "glamour couple." We also lent our time to charitable causes. We were the national honorary chairpersons of the Juvenile Diabetes Association and regularly supported the Special Olympics.
* * * * *
One day we got a call from the White House asking if we would be available to meet President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office as representatives of the Juvenile Diabetes Association. I was still nursing Brandon, and the timetable was, basically, "We would need you here in Washington the day after tomorrow." We didn't want to miss the opportunity to have an audience with the leader of the free world, so I barely had time to store up some breast milk, find something appropriate to wear, and get on that plane to our nation's capital. It was a quick turnaround. We were back in Malibu in a matter of hours, but the honor of meeting the president of the United States is a lasting memory. I was very content to be back home in Malibu with my sweet baby Brandon in my arms and an interesting memory to tell him about when he was older.
Bruce possessed such a natural athleticism in everything he attempted to do. He seemed to excel in every sport he tried. Whatever he did, he was daring and cut an amazing form. Bruce was pretty much the perfect specimen of a man. Men aspired to be like him and wanted to hang out and play sports with him, and women were clearly attracted to him. The Bruce I knew back then was unstudied, affable, and seemingly very comfortable in his own skin. So it seemed.
One summer Bruce and I were asked to do a summer stock production of Li'l Abner in Birmingham, Alabama. We thought that sounded like fun, so we agreed to do it. Bruce was surprisingly very musical and liked to dance. We traveled to Birmingham and went into rehearsals. Of course we took Brandon along, and he had a great time parading onstage right along with us, in his very own Li'l Abner costume. We actually got good reviews, although I discovered live theater was incredibly nerve-racking. I had done plays in high school before, but this was a full-on musical and was really quite demanding.
Bruce and I spent our days living at the beach, jet skiing, walking on the beach every morning with our coffee, sailing on a Hobie Cat, playing tennis, and otherwise just enjoying each other and many of the same activities. I thought we lived a pretty idyllic life.
* * * * *
Those were the happiest days of my life. I had a wonderful husband, who was the most athletic, high-spirited, energetic, easygoing, manly man imaginable. I had two beautiful, healthy baby boys. I had two great stepchildren. Life was just about as good as it gets. We had moved into a sweet, one-acre mini-estate where I planted roses, fruit trees, and flowers, and where many lasting memories were made.
Bruce traveled a lot, doing motivational speaking, working for NBC SportsWorld, racing cars, and throwing himself into other assorted jobs and activities. I often accompanied him, always bringing our sons, and sometimes I stayed home with the boys while he traveled.
When Brody was about 18 months old and Brandon was about 3 and a half years old, Bruce came to me one day with a very somber look on his face and said, "There's something about me that I really need to tell you, something you need to know." I truly thought he might possibly tell me he had had an affair while on the road. But that's not what he wanted to confess to me. Bruce told me that he identified as a woman. Not understanding exactly what he meant, I questioned him. "What do you mean you identify as a woman?" I asked. "What does that mean?" He replied that it meant that for as long as he could remember, he had looked in the mirror and seen a masculine image staring back at him where there should have been a feminine reflection. Bruce lamented, "I have lived in the wrong skin, the wrong body, my whole life. It is a living hell for me, and I really feel that I would like to move forward with the process of becoming a woman, the woman I have always been inside."
People have asked me, "Were there any signs or clues through the years that Bruce might have had this issue? Any evidence he wore your clothes?" No. Not a clue. Nothing. Nada. Never.
I would venture to say that 30 years ago, very few of us were adequately educated about the world of gender dysphoria. I certainly wasn't. I was living in my little Malibu cocoon of marital, motherly bliss with my world-champion, muscular, athletic, handsome husband. So my reaction to Bruce's shocking declaration was one of confusion, even desperation. I suggested that we go to therapy. I needed to understand fully what Bruce's issue was, and then to determine if it was something we could overcome or "fix." I was naïve. As I said, I was pretty ignorant of the fact that being transgender isn't something that can be overcome, fixed, prayed away, exorcised or obliterated by any other arcane notion. Being transgender, like being gay, tall, short, white, black, male, or female, is another part of the human condition that makes each individual unique, and something over which we have no control. We are who we are in the deepest recesses of our minds, hearts and identities. I had to learn that life lesson and apply it to my own expectations for my future and the future of my family.
I found a therapist who specialized in gender dysphoria. Her name was Dr. Gertrude Hill, and we began going to her right away. She was a lovely woman who very calmly, and as gently as she could, massacred me with the information that broke my heart into a million pieces. She told me in one of the first few sessions, "Linda, this is who Bruce is. His identity is that of a woman, and that will never, ever go away. You have a choice to make. If Bruce goes through with his gender reassignment, as he is now planning to do, you have the option of staying with him after he becomes she, or you can divorce him and move on with your life." She told us that 25 percent of transgender people commit suicide because they are so depressed and feel so hopeless.
Around that time Bruce considered traveling out of the country, possibly to Denmark, to have the gender-confirmation surgery and then come back to the U.S. identifying as female. I asked Bruce, "What about the children?" He thought maybe he could reenter their lives as "Aunt Heather."
As devastated as I was, my heart bled for Bruce and what he must have lived with his entire life. It's impossible for those of us who are comfortable living in our own skin to fully grasp what an imprisonment that must feel like to be born into the wrong body. I know it's difficult to understand, to emotionally or even intelligently wrap your head around. It was extremely difficult for me to comprehend, and adjust my life accordingly to, the realization that the man I had married -- the very masculine, gorgeous, ideal, wonderful hunk of a man -- would be no more. The human entity was still alive, but it truly was like mourning the death of the person I had grown to know and love.
Bruce and I separated after going to therapy for about six months -- just to exhaust any hope of keeping our family together. Being married to a woman was not what I had envisioned for my life.
I was so heartbroken that I would get in my car day and night and aimlessly drive up and down Pacific Coast Highway, crying. I mourned the death of my marriage, my man, and my dream of enjoying a lifetime of family togetherness. But I was also empathetic to, and mourned for, the pain that Bruce had experienced every day of his life. As earth-shattering as his confession had been for me, pulling the proverbial rug out from under my world, Bruce's struggle made mine pale in comparison. I now had to "man up," support Bruce and his decisions regarding his own body, take care of my sons, and move on with my life.
Bruce went to see a Dr. O'Dea and began taking female hormones. Thirty years ago the only hair removal that was permanent was electrolysis. There were no laser hair removal places then, as far as I know. Poor Bruce began the process of having electrolysis performed on his heavily bearded face. He then began having the hair on his chest removed. One excruciatingly painful hair at a time was targeted by an electrical current. Unimaginable. Bruce began to grow breasts as a result of the female hormones he was injecting. My life, my psyche, my femininity, my sexuality, my sanity was in a state of upheaval. I panicked about what I would ever tell my two boys about their former Olympian father, and how I would raise them alone. And then I would experience waves of crippling sorrow, not only for myself and my sons but for Bruce.
I may be the only woman in the state of California to have waived child support and alimony. But when Bruce and I divorced, that's what I did. As confused and sad as I was, Bruce was also very confused and extremely distraught. Again, Dr. Hill had told me that one in four transgender people commits suicide. I knew I didn't want that to happen. I had an open-door policy for Bruce when it came to visitation, letting him see his sons any time he wanted to. Brandon and Brody went over to his home occasionally but never spent the night there.
One day, after having spent a little time at Bruce's house, both boys came into the kitchen and said to me, "Mommy, we saw Daddy getting out of the shower naked, and Daddy has boobs!" That day I began trying to cover for Bruce, trying to protect him and trying to explain away what was clearly happening to his visage. I said, "Well, boys, you know how your dad was super-muscular and trained very hard for the Olympics? He had big muscles, and some of those muscles are called 'pectorals.' When you stop training and you stop lifting weights, sometimes the muscle turns to fat. So his pectoral muscles have probably just gotten a little flabby and look like boobs." I was trying to shield Brandon and Brody from the truth and protect Bruce at the same time. It was exhausting.
I began dating David Foster, whom I subsequently married a few years later. Bruce dated several women, even though he had begun his transition and showed signs of it. He had no facial hair, no chest hair, and boobs, and he had gotten a nose job and trimmed his Adam's apple. Clearly he was still confused and conflicted as to how fully he was ready to commit to changing his life completely.
If Bruce had told me about his gender issue when we first began getting romantically involved, I would not have married him. Pure and simple. But looking back, I'm so grateful to God, the universe, and Bruce that I didn't know, and that Bruce played the role in my life that he did. What a tragedy that truth, if Bruce had confessed it in 1979, would have been for my existence as I have known it! I would never have experienced the joy, the honor, the privilege of being the mother of the two most precious gifts I have ever known, Brandon and Brody. As life has a way of unfolding as it is meant to, I have learned to trust life.
I felt such a reverent obligation to keep Bruce's gender dysphoria a secret for Bruce to reveal or not that I did not even tell my sons until they were 31 and 29 years old, respectively. I wanted Brandon and Brody to experience enough life and garner enough knowledge, confidence, and compassion to be able to deal with their father's true self. We are not defined by our parents, but we don't know that as young children. I tried to raise my sons to embrace open hearts, forgiveness, kindness, tolerance, and compassion. They have been imbued with good values and are remarkably noble, showing incredible acceptance, understanding, and forgiveness toward Bruce and others.
* * * * *
I wouldn't be completely forthcoming if I didn't disclose in this writing that after Bruce and Kris married, there were periods of several years going by without Bruce attempting to contact or visit his sons. No birthday cards or phone calls, no "Merry Christmas," no "Everything OK?" after the big Northridge earthquake. Brandon and Brody will never have those "Hallmark memories" of father-and-son moments. They were saddened by his lack of participation in their lives, and my heart ached for them. When Brandon asked me, "Mom, what kind of a father doesn't come to his son's graduation?" I meekly replied, "Honey, your dad may have been the world's greatest athlete physically, but emotionally, you have to view him in a wheelchair. If he had emotional legs, he'd get up and walk to you, but he just doesn't right now. Just try to understand him, love and forgive him." It was an analogy that seemed to soften the blow at the time, and I do believe that forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves; it's really not even for the person we choose to forgive but for us. We only do harm to ourselves when we harbor resentment and vitriol toward another. I do believe that everything is forgivable; some things are inexcusable but forgivable.
After Brandon and Brody were grown and I did reveal their father's issue, I think the knowledge helped them put the pieces together and explain some of Bruce's dysfunctional parenting. I certainly did my share of rationalizing through it all.
* * * * *
After having harbored his secret, and feeling in my heart and mind that I have protected him through these years, I can now breathe a little easier, knowing he now has found the strength and the courage to fulfill his dream. He can finally realize his need to be who he authentically is, who he was born to be. That takes tremendous courage. For that I commend him.
Bruce has already "gone through the fire," suffered unfathomable discomfort and pain, been held prisoner in his own flesh. It is certainly not our place to judge him or others who may feel trapped, ostracized, or alone.
My hope and my prayer is that humanity has evolved enough and been properly educated to exercise kindness toward those who have struggled or who we may perceive to be "different." Our uniqueness, our individuality, and our life experience molds us into fascinating beings. I hope we can embrace that. I pray we may all challenge ourselves to delve into the deepest resources of our hearts to cultivate an atmosphere of understanding, acceptance, tolerance, and compassion. We are all in this life together.
As Henry James so wisely advised, the three most important things in life are:
- Be kind.
- Be kind.
- Be kind.
More from The Huffington Post about Bruce Jenner coming out as transgender:
- Bruce Jenner Comes Out As Transgender
- Diane Sawyer And ABC Nailed The Bruce Jenner Interview. Here's Why And What Needs To Happen Next.
- Celebrities React To Bruce Jenner's Diane Sawyer Interview
- Bruce Jenner Says Kim Kardashian Accepted Transition With Help From Kanye West
- Bruce Jenner Says Time He Won Olympics He Was 'Scared To Death'