The Heartlander is back, and this week’s Heartlander is Caitlyn Jenner.
We first got to know Caitlyn when she was Bruce, gold medal Decathlete. I’m vaguely old enough to remember 1976 and 1975 and what a craptastic self-image the United States had of itself back then. A controversial War ends with a Legislative defunding and a botched evacuation, political scandals and exposes of “Military Intelligence” that is spying on virtually every American adult, and this was a Country that needed a birthday party, something to celebrate a couple of nice presents—Happy Birthday, you made it to 200! Here’s a gold medal in the most difficult Olympic sport.
A reminder that “America” was not about the instantaneous and the spectacular, that “America” to some of us, at least, is about the long, slow, pace grind, the step by step journey that at times is shrouded, mysterious, unknown, uncertain, obscure. That “America” is about a type of introspection, of self-driven goals, of “who cares, I just want to do this for myself as much as anyone else.”
I was a bit too young in 1976 to understand what a Decathlon was—I barely understood the Olympics—but there was a dark-haired man with a Breck Girl doo in his underwear on Daddy’s Wheaties box and everyone thought it was a big deal and he did something like Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill and it was a big deal because America hadn’t done that one before. And Deca meant ten. (This would come in useful a few years later in elementary geometry class.) And people were cheering and happy.
Like most major athletes, Bruce aged out of his sport and retired to a behind the scenes life that probably included some coaching and popping up occasionally on a Christmas Special. Bruce next reappeared to most of us as the Hollywood Superdad on the “Kardashians” franchise. Lots of daughters, lots of grandkids, lot of patience. Then the heartbreak that another long-term marriage was coming to an end—“Doesn’t anybody stay together anymore?”
And then the big surprise moment that kind of reminds me of the moment in “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” where the Dad asks the widowed neighbor’s daughter to marry him instead of the widow next door and everyone is happy but everyone is screaming and clapping and passing out—“Bruce” will soon be “Caitlyn”. In the vintage vernacular, for some time, he has felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body. OK, now we all feel better about Mom and Dad’s divorce.
As the story is emerging, her Hollywood friends have known for some time that Bruce felt the need to be Caitlyn and had time to learn and adjust (or perhaps reject and depart). For the masses, it has been a bit of a shock, one that is becoming the long, slow, paced grind that we associated with Bruce. Caitlyn is progressing through another “Decathlon”, and much like ’76, we are all caught up in an enormous achievement in its own way. And she is leading the way, bring many of us to a place we never thought we would be.
Watching her acceptance speech at the ESPY’s last week, a plea for rational understanding, I really felt comforted. I think I’m fairly liberal on Gender and Sexual Rights, although I do admit I have concerns about body alteration, generally, although on my third hand I realize it is a process that is not undertaken lightly by the medical community, complex and not really my business. Transgender is a difficult topic, and one that now had a leader in America. She’s a leader we remember from another time and it’s a topic that has lacked leadership. I don’t know that I’m completely resolved to the topic of transgender, but it does somehow feel good to be lead. This, of course, is a difficult admission of my own for a Contrarian Gen Xer.
And, like other women, I also feel completely outclassed by America’s new “Woman Who Does Everything Better Than You” fantastic dress, 65 and still has Breck hair, fabulous home, amazing children, grandchildren, and totally resolved relationship with her X. OK. She’s been a woman for a few months and she’s already better at it than me.
Congratulations, Caitlyn, you’re stepping through the events, 100 meters, long jump, shot put . . . it will be a while until we watch you run the marathon, but you’ve got our attention and we’re on the edge of our seats, cheering for you the whole way.