"This is my journey. Yes, it is different than other trans people. But when I wake up in the morning, I’m happy with myself," the legendary gold medalist tells PEOPLE exclusively

By Jason Sheeler
June 10, 2020 08:30 AM
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We first met Caitlyn Jenner five years ago this month. “Call Me Caitlyn,” she declared on the cover of Vanity Fair. Then she sat down with Diane Sawyer and later appeared on her own reality show, I Am Cait.

Jenner had transitioned at the age of 65, after a life spent battling gender dysphoria. She had compensated by overachieving — earning a gold medal and becoming an American icon in the process. Later, she became part of a culture-shifting reality show seen in more than 150 countries.  By the end of 2014, after divorcing her third wife Kris, Jenner was the target of relentless paparazzi coverage. Telephoto lenses chronicled her every move.

But Jenner says she first felt truly seen when she held her driver’s license photo in July of 2015. “It was so emotional,” Jenner, now 70, tells PEOPLE. “There I was. Caitlyn Marie Jenner. But then, I wondered, did Bruce deserve to be thrown away like this? He did a lot of good things. He raised 10 kids. But I wasn’t turning around.” Jenner pauses. “Bruce did just about everything he can do. He raised 10 kids. Now what does Caitlyn do?”

Caitlyn Jenner
Peggy Sirota

Jenner began to embrace that idea.“I thought, what a great opportunity to change the world’s thinking; 51 percent of trans people attempt suicide. The murder rate — we’ve been losing one trans woman of color every two weeks,” she says.

But as a lifelong Republican, she held political views that didn’t match those of most in the LGBTQ community. She was uninvited to fundraisers she’d donated to.

  • For more from Caitlyn Jenner, pick up this week's Pride issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

“They said I’m ‘too controversial.’ And that hurt,” she says. “I think I had been wearing rose-colored glasses. I thought I could change the world. Now I know I can only try and change one person at a time.”

Jeff Olde, who co-created Jenner’s show I Am Cait and has defended her within the LGBTQ community, knows she’s made mistakes. “But what I respect about her today is that she’s willing to learn,” he says. “And learning can be painful.”

Anderson Cooper and son Wyatt on the cover of PEOPLE's Pride Issue
Melanie Acevedo

Jenner feels like she’s made meaningful progress. “I’ve changed my thinking in a lot of ways,” she says. (She now identifies as “economically conservative, socially progressive” and believes “we need equality for all, regardless of who’s in the White House.")

“I love my community. I truly want to help," she says. To that end, she has been quietly giving trans students college scholarships over the past three years and has realigned her foundation to focus on trans youth.

“This is my journey. Yes, it is different than other trans people. I get it,” she says. “But the bottom line is this: When I wake up in the morning, I’m happy with myself.”