A Love Letter to the Former Mr. Bruce Jenner
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because history is only his story some of the time.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Dave Chappelle. Ricky Gervais. And a handful of other comedians of lesser note suddenly seem, for reasons largely occult to people who are otherwise fans of trans folks, to have chosen the trans experience to make mock of. So right up front and from the outset, it should be said this is not that.
This is a weekday afternoon in 1976 when a class I was taking in video production at New York’s School of Visual Arts decided to take a trip to see how a real TV show was made. “Real” versus what we did pursuant to some sort of accreditation as bona fide TV producers or people. The show in question? Bill Boggs’ afternoon talk show. Boggs, also a comedian in part, had a show that was equal parts Oprah (minus the tragedy), Phil Donahue (with fewer histrionics) and Mike Douglas (with fewer fawning shucks).
Our professor told us what to watch for, what we should attend to, and that he expected us to take notes to compare later and to guarantee that we were paying attention. No Ferris Bueller-esque malaise, though we were geeked to be here. Totally. And some of us more so than others. Me, in particular, since at 14 I was bicep-deep in what had begun five years earlier as a lifelong obsession with bodybuilding, physical fitness and the kinds of glories that could only be achieved via athletic competition. And, as luck would have it, Bruce Jenner was the guest.
Which is to say, you ever give a standing ovation for someone and you’re the only one standing? Yeah. Sort of like that.
It’s a heavy lift to get to what he represented and who he was back in 1976. Jenner qualified for the 1972 Olympic decathlon team after training for it for only one year. A single year. Though this led to him only finishing 10th, Jenner, after his first Olympics, won AAU titles, PanAm championships and broke world records as he slid his way back into the 1976 Olympic Games, where he won a gold medal. Then? Presumably straight to Bill Boggs’ show.
“Take your seats, everyone.” The clipboard-toting production assistant waved us over to our seats, and I hustled for one as close to the raised stage as possible. I was gearing up for a Wheaties box moment with a guy who had actually been on a Wheaties box. Though my time on the track and field team was brief, I still ran, swam, lifted weights and was all around eager as shit to see Jenner.
Canned jokes, TV talk show stuff and then Boggs geared into introducing the Olympian to applause and finally Jenner, striding out from the wings, in the flesh. As the stepson of a media professional, I was pretty blasé about famous people. Met Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. Cool. But so was I. Met genius journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Forgot I had met genius journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Met Curtis Mayfield, but loved Curtis Mayfield, even if I kept my cool.
Something about Jenner was different though. I wasn’t into basketball, football, baseball, sort of into hockey, but the sports-dude gene? Totally absent. And unless we were talking about bodybuilding then, still a fringe sport typically done by people who, in film terms at least, were suspect and frequently called on to play psychotics — one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first TV roles was playing a flipped-out bodybuilder on The Streets of San Francisco) — I had no time for it.
But Jenner was, as really were all non-team athletes, an autarkist — symbolizing the height of self-sufficiency as a guiding principle. And switching from football to track? Jenner was even more praiseworthy.
“Who put this thing together? ME, that’s who!” screamed Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface, and as a teen I could relate and more importantly could relate to Jenner’s individual efforts to achieve something over and above even our casual imaginings. So when Jenner appears, totally unexpectedly, I lost it.
I remember very clearly what happened after he answered me: I started arguing with him.
Which is to say, have you ever given a standing ovation for someone and you’re the only one standing? Yeah. Sort of like that. Also, sort of like clapping too long and, very possibly, too loud. Which caused Boggs to peg me; he nodded for me to sit down and I did.
So while Boggs answered what I thought were unsurprising and unnecessary questions about the food in the Olympic Village, I was dying and hoping for something that now it dawns on me only I could have wanted: training tips. But then the magic words.
“Do we have any questions from the audience?” Boggs had asked, and before I could stop myself and while he was actually already nodding at me, I shot straight up.
“Hah! Eager. So you have a question?”
“Yes!” I answered, almost waving Boggs out of the equation.
“Well, first, tell us where you’re from,” Boggs asked me.
“Huh? Oh. Um, Brooklyn.”
”Brooklyn? Great. But what school do you go to?”
“Stuyvesant High School.”
Now irked, either because I wasn’t getting his interest in plugging the School of Visual Arts or because I was clearly annoyed having to deal with him at all, he got a little steely on me.
“What group are you here TODAY with?”
And I answered and got to Jenner as quickly as I could. “In the weight training you did when you were getting ready, did you go for heavy weights to build pure strength or moderate weights and high reps?”
Jenner answered, but while I remember only hazily the first thing he said to me, I remember very clearly what happened next: I started arguing with him.
It could have been that Jenner downplayed how much weight training he had used. It could have been that he had picked up on Boggs’ annoyance. It could have been that I was just an annoying cuss. But we argued about weights. I made the claim that muscle was good. Jenner made the counterclaim that it’s how you use the muscle that made the difference. I knew what I knew from five years of lifting and reading muscle mags. He knew what he knew because, well, gold medal.
I eventually got waved back down to my seat. But in the fullness of time I got exactly what Jenner was saying to me about how you use what you have, and while I miss Bruce, I’m proud to have had a moment with him and even prouder that I can now call Jenner by her rightful name: Caitlyn.