As a young reporter at the San Francisco Examiner in the early 1980s, I was assigned to interview Bruce Jenner. He was in town to work with a disadvantaged youth group. I met the Olympic Gold Medalist in a public rec area, where he was showing the kids how to toss the javelin. He was wearing gym shorts and a tank top, looking as if he stepped off a Wheaties box.
I don't remember what we talked about. What does stand out is what happened after my interview was published. I got a letter from his first wife, whom he was divorcing. The letter said I should tell the world the shocking truth about her famous husband: He liked to wear her clothes, she said.
"He's really a woman," she wrote.
I showed the letter to my editor. We laughed it off, figuring it was the revengeful act of an angry ex. In those days, gender categories were limited. You were either a man or woman — or a freak. Jenner was definitely not in the latter category.
I left San Francisco in the mid-1980s to be a writer at People magazine in New York. It was there I got to know the late Dr. Leah Schaefer, a psychotherapist who was a giant in the field of transexualism.
Her patients were largely men and women undergoing required counseling in order to have a sex change. I, too, went to see her for counseling, though not about changing my gender. What I needed was a job change.
Dr. Schaefer blurred the lines between patient and friends. We both loved jazz singing. One night we went to hear a former patient of hers perform at a downtown nightclub. During a break, I asked her something I couldn't wrap my head around: Why would anyone want to have a sex change? It's a long, painful process. And when it's over, one often ends up a social outcast. "Why not just stay gay, like me?" I asked.
"Because you're not a woman," she replied. "Your brain tells you you're a man. The need to let the world know who you really are is a very strong drive. You can try to suppress it, but it eventually wins out."
I knew from sitting in Dr. Schaefer's waiting room the emotional suffering that her transsexuals patients endured. I would see them leaving her office, often in tears. I once saw a young woman who was transitioning into a man leaving with his mom and dad.
When I was with Dr. Schaefer at the nightclub, I asked her what she said to those parents. How did she comfort them?
"I told them they might have lost a daughter or son, but they didn't lose their child," she said. "Inside, it's still the same person."
I thought about those words during Jenner's interview with Diane Sawyer, where he officially confirmed the rumors that he's transitioning from man to woman.
"My whole life has been getting ready for this," he proclaimed.
We haven't lost him. Whether wearing gym shorts and a tank top, or a dress and heels, he will always be Bruce Jenner, American hero.
That will never change.