The other morning I learned that Bruce Jenner is now a woman named Caitlyn.
As far as I know she is the only reality show Olympic decathlon champion to ever grace the cover of a Wheaties Box and Vanity Fair Magazine in two different decades with two different names and two different genders.
Who says there are no second acts in life.
Years ago I received a call from one of my best friends from college. We met in the dorms and later shared a disheveled house that only men could tolerate as we eased our way into responsibility. For a long while after we graduated we worked odd construction jobs during the day and drank beer and laughed at night until slowly our personal interests started to carry us into disciplines such as graduate school, higher paying jobs, and serious girl friends.
As we each settled down to careers and families on opposite ends of the country, we maintained our friendship even though we only saw each other occasionally. There are no friends like old friends, and I have always believed that over time true friendship is measured by the effort that is put into maintaining it.
He called to say hello and because there was something he wanted to share with me.
I listened intently with a smile on my face, happy to hear his voice.
And then midway through the conversation I dropped the phone. Quite literally. I dropped the phone.
You are WHAT?
Trans-sex-u-al. noun. A person who psychologically identifies with the opposite sex and may seek to live as a member of this sex especially by undergoing surgery and hormone therapy to obtain the necessary physical appearance.
Imagine waking up one morning to learn that you live in the southern hemisphere. Or that the sky is not blue as you had always thought. Or maybe that the Cubs are world series champions.
That is how I felt. There was absolutely nothing about him that could lead me to believe such a thing was true. Not his looks. Not his demeanor. Not his character. Not his way of life. Yet now he claimed to be someone else. Even his name was different. There was no ground beneath my feet and as we talked I went into freefall.
I listened and learned that gender confusion was something he had wrestled with since he was a boy. I learned that when he was a teenager he frequently took a bus into the city so he could find books in the public library that would explain what he was feeling. I learned that he had painfully hidden his preferred identity all his life and had become very, very good at it.
I learned that he left his family.
I learned that many of his acquaintances now no longer wanted anything to do with him. And that uncomfortably polite acceptance at work was insincere or stifled at best.
And I learned other things that I wasn’t ready to learn.
As selfish as it sounds, I felt betrayed. Here he was, a close personal friend, yet I never really knew him.
But then again, he was a close personal friend, and I did know him. Just not everything. You can’t erase years of shared memories.
As we talked, betrayal changed to a less debilitating form of confusion.
Not long after that phone call, on a trip to California to visit family, I made arrangements to see him. He had moved out of his house into a one bedroom apartment in San Francisco. He was now a she, but my use of accurate pronouns was still lagging far behind my growing acceptance of his new identity.
I was nervous. I knew the likelihood of inadvertently saying something embarrassing was pretty high. Like calling him by his male name I had known for over thirty years. Or calling her him. As I approached his apartment building I repeated a mantra: Think before you speak. Think before you speak. Think before you speak.
I realized I was also rolling over an old familiar melody in my head. The Kink’s Lola. El-oh-el-aye Lola, la-la-la-la Lola . . .
Think before you speak. Think before you speak. Think before you speak. . . Girls will be boys and boys will be girls . . .
I waited at the elevator for him to come down. Her. Her to come down.
Hoping to minimize the shock to my system, I turned away from the elevator and stared at a painting in the apartment lobby. Better to let him arrive and call my name than to wait expectantly for an elevator door to instantly unveil a sky that was no longer blue.
Think before you speak. Think before you speak. Think before you speak . . . it’s a mixed up muddled up, shook up world, except for Lola, la-la-la-la Lola . . .
And then a familiar dark brown voice called my name and I wheeled around with rehearsed nonchalance to greet him.
Her. Beneath the strands of long blond hair was unmistakable cleavage.
And with all the familiarity of a decades long guy friendship I blurted out without thinking: Hey man, how is it going?
After an awkward pause, she responded with a laugh. “Well . . . I am not a man anymore. . .”
I don’t remember if I gave him a hug or shook her hand or both. I didn’t have an edition of Transexuals for Dummies to guide me. But I did have a long history of mutual friendship to fall back on.
As it turns out, that was enough.
I don’t know how the celebrity behind Caitlyn Jenner’s transition from male to female will impact public perception of the T in LGBT. Maybe like me, people will grow to be comfortable feeling a little uncomfortable.
And maybe a little more sensitive to pronouns.
It is probably a start.