The Olympic gold medalist and reality-TV star formerly named Bruce Jenner appeared on the July 2015 cover of Vanity Fair posed like a Vargas pin-up girl. Perched on a stool, legs demurely crossed, luscious brown hair tumbling down her back, and her shoulders and cleavage showcased by a white satin corset, Jenner looked a dishy decade younger than her 65 years. Her chin coyly dipped, but her gaze confident, the cover line told readers to "Call Me Caitlyn." Inside, more lush images of Jenner in couture gowns shot by Annie Leibovitz, with a generous accompanying profile by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger.
Though Jenner's gender identity had long been speculated about – cruelly and dismissively, more often than not – the Vanity Fair story, preceded two months earlier by a pretransition interview with 20/20's Diane Sawyer, served as her official coming out. After decades of emotional isolation and self-loathing, after three doomed marriages and a series of parental fails, after years of therapy, after hours of surgery, it was, at last, the debut of an integrated and honest self. Bruce was "always telling lies," Jenner told Bissinger. Caitlyn, however, "doesn't have any lies."
That glam photo shoot and story make up the hopeful climax of Jenner's new memoir, The Secrets of My Life, co-written with Bissinger. With the ending already revealed, the authors use the book to fill in more of Jenner's backstory, jumping between current-day Caitlyn and the six decades she spent living as Bruce. (A note on language: Jenner defines herself pretransition as "Bruce" and uses masculine pronouns for that period. This review will follow Jenner's conventions for her pronoun and name usage.)
Much like Jenner herself, the book is both compelling and maddening, both sympathetic and exasperating. Even before her coming out, Jenner was a polarizing figure. The long-running reality-TV mega-hit, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, starred Jenner's third wife Kris Kardashian and the couple's blended brood of famous-for-being-famous children. Bruce, a long-ago sports legend, floated fecklessly on the periphery of his attention-thirsty clan, retreating to his expensive cars and exclusive golf club.
But given the family's penchant for exposure, Jenner's announcement of her gender transition became a ratings-driven media event. (One of her first calls was to a public relations executive.) A conversation with her kids and stepkids about her gender identity aired as a two-hour, two-part TV special and was spun off to the E! series I Am Cait.
Jenner's coming out coincided with a rise in trans visibility and a robust new activism over issues like discriminatory bathroom bills. A year earlier, actress and activist Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of Time magazine with the headline "The Transgender Tipping Point." Jenner – wealthy, white and a long-time Republican with dubious views on LGBTQ civil rights – made for a problematic public figure at a time when many younger and more progressive trans people were speaking out. It had taken her decades to enter her community, and it seemed her community was already passing her by.
Which isn't to say there is nothing to be learned from Jenner's story. Bruce's early life was wrenching. He was aware from a young age that he was different, but there was no language to explain his secret visits to his mother's closet to try on her clothing and makeup. In 1952, when Jenner was just 3, a U.S. army veteran named Christine Jorgenson became the first American publicly known to have had gender reassignment surgery. (The New York Daily News ran her story with the headline: "Ex G.I. Becomes Blonde Beauty.") But it would be years and years before Jenner met another transgender person.
Bruce found a distraction in sports, and by the time he finished high school, he was a champion football player, water skier and a track and field star. The section on Bruce's athletic career beautifully reflects Jenner and Bissinger's deep understanding of the ways in which sports expose America's anxieties about race, gender and sex. (Bissinger wrote Friday Night Lights, about a championship West Texas high school football team.) As Bruce's sense that his body didn't reflect his gender persisted, athletics became a way to ease his doubts about his masculinity. Sport was "the perfect cover in the 1960s, the kingdom of the male, specifically the white male (and it is still the perfect cover now)."
And at the height of the Cold War, Bruce's gold medal triumph over the Soviet record-holder in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics made him an American hero. He appeared on Wheaties boxes and scored a broadcasting contract at NBC. He was a staple on the deliciously cheesy late-1970s circuit of talk shows and variety specials, appearing on The Mike Douglas Show and Battle of the Network Stars. Before Christopher Reeves was cast as Superman, Bruce was in the running to play the man of steel.
This marked the beginning of Jenner's complicated relationship to celebrity, the spoils of fame battling with her reluctance to be in the spotlight. Being Bruce provided approval, adoration and most importantly an income, but "Bruce" was largely a fiction and one that prevented Jenner from being her true self. In the original Vanity Fair profile, Bissinger called Jenner "one of the greatest actors of our time" and that role demanded a kind of double life. For years, Bruce gave motivational speeches about his masculine athletic prowess, while wearing a bra and panty hose under his conservative suits.
Bruce's two early marriages fell apart, partly because of his wives' discomfort with his cross-dressing and his questions about his gender, but more so due to Bruce's despair and growing solitude. Alone and living in "self-imposed exile" in the mid-1980s, Jenner decided to transition, taking estrogen and undergoing electrolysis treatments. But then (financial) reality set in. "If I become a woman, I will be my real self," Jenner writes about deciding in 1989 to stop transitioning. But, "Bruce still has earning potential. Bruce pays the bills. Bruce is tired of being lonely and isolated and wonders if as a trans woman she would be even more lonely and isolated."
Had Jenner had a braver temperament, had she searched for community earlier, had it been 2009 instead of 1989, maybe her life would have had a different trajectory. (Bruce met and married Kris Kardashian soon after he stopped taking estrogen and began living again as a man.) Two decades later, there would be support groups and websites and a vast and vibrant trans rights movement to tap into.
Instead, Jenner's struggles were largely solitary. As a result, she has little insight to offer beyond her own experience and a limited engagement in the struggles of others. She suspects, for instance, that had she come out in 1976, she would have been stripped of her gold medal for competing in a men's event. But she doesn't address the ongoing humiliating practice of sex-testing female athletes like track stars Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand, whose gender identities have been questioned and policed by sports bodies like the International Association of Athletics Federations.
Jenner's self-interest reveals itself elsewhere, too. She's aware enough to acknowledge that as Bruce, she "lived in a world of white male privilege" and yet is still entitled enough as Caitlyn to have voted for the Donald Trump-Mike Pence presidential ticket.
And what to make of her glib response to the criticism she faces from the LGBTQ community? She writes that it "was easy to come out as trans. It was harder to come out as Republican." Is she serious? In the first two months of 2017 alone, seven trans people of colour were murdered in the U.S.; at the very same time, the Trump administration revoked landmark guidelines directing American public schools to allow trans students to use the bathrooms of their choice. It's unlikely that any of the children now imperilled by the hard-hearted decisions of Republican lawmakers find coming out as trans "easy."
To her credit, Jenner has raised considerable sums of money for trans organizations and, as she pointed out on a recent reunion interview with Sawyer, she's still finding her path. "I've grown into Caitlyn," she said. "It's tough to take 65 years of being Bruce and being male, and then like, overnight, everything changes." Hopefully now that she's no longer confined by her secrets, Caitlyn Jenner will continue to grow.
Rachel Giese is editor-at-large at Chatelaine. Her book Boys: What It Means To Become a Man in the 21st Century will be published next year by HarperCollins Canada.