By Jennifer Finney Boylan
August 21, 2015 11:30 AM
James White for E!

Caitlyn Jenner made the emotional decision to reveal her true self to the world. This essay by transgender scholar and activist Jennifer Finney Boylan opens PEOPLE’s new special edition book, The Caitlyn Jenner Story, which reveals insight on Jenner’s entire journey from childhood to the Olympics to the woman she is today.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I walked up the path to Caitlyn Jenner’s house and knocked on the front door. This was back in May 2015, before her unveiling in Vanity Fair, before her documentary series on E!, back when the very question of her appearance was still a secret, a mystery right up there with the true meaning of Stonehenge and the Colonel’s recipe for KFC chicken.

I was nervous, to tell you the truth. I’d been a very public face of the transgender community since my 2003 memoir, She’s Not There, was published, and since then I’ve met thousands of trans women. It’s striking to me how much difference there is in their experiences, varying across lines of race and class and social privilege, but also in their expectations of what womanhood actually means. I’ve known trans women who are fashion models, whose lives revolved around beauty and performance; I’ve known others who are soccer moms, whose days are filled with children and family; I’ve known still others, like the chair of the department of astronomy and astrophysics at an Ivy League university, for whom the transition itself is a footnote in a life much more defined by work, in this case the search for supernovas.

And I’d known many – far too many, in fact – for whom coming out as transgender had brought about a series of heartless disasters: sundering of family ties, loss of jobs, exposure to violence, one mortification after another delivered to people no less deserving than any other soul of love, and respect, and dignity.

In the winter of 2015, I got a phone call from the producers at the Diane Sawyer show. Would I be willing to participate in an upcoming documentary, its subject not yet revealed? It took a couple calls before I realized that we weren’t talking about transgender people “in general,” but, in fact, about a very specific transgender person – one who lived in Malibu, in the very house upon whose threshold I was now standing.

The door swung open. “Jenny,” Caitlyn said, smiling, and she opened her arms.

Holy cow, I thought. She’s a knockout.

“Welcome. Let’s go in.”

Caitlyn Jenner and Jennifer Finney Boylan
Courtesy Jennifer Boylan

She beckoned me into her house – and her life. We talked for hours: about our experiences as people bearing, and then revealing, a complex secret; as women who dearly wished to avoid causing any trouble to the people we loved; as individuals who had come out at relatively late moments in life (me in my late 30s; she in her mid 60s). And most of all, we talked about our families, our sons and our daughters.

As she spoke, I am sorry to admit that a thought crossed my mind: Gosh, I wish I were that pretty. And just as swiftly, I felt ashamed at the shallowness of this thought. Given the many complex burdens that each of us had carried, each in our own fashion, it felt truly bizarre that one of my first reactions to Caitlyn should be jealousy, especially since I spent part of that first evening lecturing my new friend about the dangers of defining your womanhood in terms of your appearance. Surely, I told her, we were here for reasons more urgent, and more eternal, than what we look like. It is exactly this that feminist scholars have been trying to get through people’s heads for generations now.

But as I spoke, there was also a little voice in the back of my head: I wonder if I could get my hair to do that. Having been through, a decade and a half ago, the transition that Caitlyn was now only beginning, the thought made me astonished and amused. And yet it reminded me that all of us – men and women, gay and straight – are all still learning what it means to live an authentic life, still learning, sometimes at great personal cost, what it means to be ourselves. It’s a process, I suspect, that never really ends.

As Cait and I have become closer, I now know many things about her that I didn’t know that first night. The greatest of these is the sincerity of her dedication to helping people whose circumstances are more desperate than her own. She knows that she has become one of the most famous women in the world, that all eyes are upon her. Some people would simply enjoy that ride for whatever it’s worth. But Caitlyn Jenner has a different agenda. She seems determined to change the world – by giving at least one very public, if atypical, face to the trans movement, and by using her fame to draw attention to some of the most important issues facing our community – the violence, the high rate of suicide and homelessness, the elusiveness of dependable medical care. All of this needs to change, and Caitlyn hopes to use the platform she’s been given to jump-start that process.

She is indeed a knockout – but not in the way that I first imagined. Sure, she can work a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, and yes, she does very much enjoy getting her photograph taken. But I know plenty of women who are not transgender of whom similar things might be said. And focusing only on her appearance, or her celebrity, or her improbably famous family, misses the point. The most important thing about her, as GLAAD’s Sarah Kate Ellis has noted, is that now, everyone in America knows at least one person who is transgender. And that person, Caitlyn Jenner, is determined to educate people about our community, and to be a one-woman force for good.

In 1976, Bruce Jenner became a champion. In 2015, Caitlyn Jenner became a champion all over again. This time, if she does succeed in her mission to open hearts around the world, it is all of us who’ll get to win the gold. She opened the door to me that day. Now she’s holding it open for you. Welcome. Let’s go in.

For more on Caitlyn Jenner’s remarkable path to living an authentic life, click here to buy PEOPLE’s The Caitlyn Jenner Story , out now

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