Caitlyn Jenner in Aspen: ‘Girls, I’m on the team and I’m not leaving.’

Andrew Travers | The Aspen Times
Caitlyn Jenner closed the Aspen Institute’s Spotlight Health festival Sunday morning in conversation with journalist Buzz Bissinger.
Aspen Ideas Festival/Courtesy photo |

When Caitlyn Jenner took a brief walk in downtown Aspen over the weekend, more than 70 people stopped the most famous transgender woman in America for selfies and small talk.

Jenner, who closed the Aspen Institute’s Spotlight Health festival Sunday morning in conversation with journalist Buzz Bissinger, said those kinds of daily interactions are central to her mission to destigmatize the trans community and be a beacon of hope for trans youth.

The former Bruce Jenner, star of the reality series “I Am Cait” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and record-breaking 1976 Olympic decathlete, noted that the suicide rate among transgender people is nine times higher than the general population and that 40 percent of trans men and women younger than 21 attempt suicide.

“The mental health of the trans community is by far the most difficult,” she told the audience at Greenwald Pavilion. “I struggled with it all my life, but I had my ways of diversion — I had the games; I had tremendous family.”

Living with the soul of a woman while becoming an American sports hero and later a reality-TV star, she said, meant living in fear for years before transitioning in 2015 at age 65.

“My life was hell, to say the least,“ she said. “Mentally, it’s extraordinarily difficult.”

Jenner said she considered suicide herself a few years ago before she came out as transgender. Hounded by paparazzi over rumors she was transitioning, Jenner had surreptitiously gone to a doctor for an early-morning Adam’s apple shaving one day, she recalled. A security guard, she said, tipped off the tabloids. When TMZ’s Harvey Levin acquired a photo of her leaving the doctor’s office with a bandage on her neck, he called Jenner, who begged the paparazzo not to publish a story.

“I said, ‘Harvey, don’t do it,’” she recalled. “‘Why? Because it ruins my life. It ruins my family’s life. Don’t publish the story.’”

Of course, TMZ would publish it. And Jenner, over that sleepless night in her Malibu home waiting for it to go online, considered shooting herself. That low point, however, proved to be a new beginning, she said.

“I don’t want my story to end that way,” she recalled thinking. “I’ve done all these wonderful things in life — I’ve raised a great family, the games, all that stuff. What a horrible way to end my life. It was the beginning of the turning point, saying, ‘Hey, if the worst thing in life is that I’m trans, I can handle it.’”

That experience, she said, is what’s led her to come out in the Vanity Fair cover story — penned by Bissinger — that helped make transgender rights a kitchen-table conversation around the U.S. It also motivated her to spend this new phase of her life talking to trans people struggling against intolerance and with their own mental health.

Bissinger, who is working with Jenner on a memoir, said Jenner talks and texts daily with countless trans people and their families.

“Don’t sell Caitlyn short,” Bissinger said. “She is committed.”

Bissinger also, in a burst of profanity, shamed a journalist who recently claimed Jenner was unhappy as a woman and would be transitioning back into a man. He also called out The New York Times and the Washington Post for picking up the false story. Jenner attempted to set the record straight, saying, to applause: “Girls, I’m on the team and I’m not leaving.”

“My life over the last year has been the best, most rewarding year of my life by far,” she added. “Bigger than anything else I’ve ever done.”

Jenner recalled meeting with her pastor about her decision to transition.

“He said, ‘God loves you,’ this and that. … I thought, ‘In God’s eyes, maybe this is the reason he put me on Earth.’”

Bissinger peppered the conversation with a few light jabs and jokes at the expense of the Kardashian and Jenner women whom the world got to know — along with Bruce — on reality television. But Jenner also noted some vital advice from Kim Kardashian about taking style and presentation seriously whenever going out in public in order to avoid gotcha photos from the tabloids that might embarrass her and undercut her efforts to break down barriers for trans people.

“She said, ‘You’ve got to rock it every day you go out the door,’” Jenner said. “‘If you don’t, they’ll kill you.’”

In her stiletto heels, the 6-foo, 2-inch Jenner towered over the diminutive Bissinger, who joked that the pair should remake the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Danny DeVito film “Twins.” They closed their conversation with a hug, met with a standing ovation from the institute crowd.