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When my friend John became Jennifer
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By Andrea Peyser
February 23, 2015

When my friend John became Jennifer

I picked up the phone and heard a vaguely familiar voice on the line.

“It’s Jennifer,” said the caller.

“Jennifer who?” I asked.

Pause. The high-pitched voice dropped several octaves. “You used to know me as John.”

To say I was thunderstruck is to underestimate the power of nature. For I remembered my old friend John Leitham as a smart, talented and handsome, if somewhat effeminate, musician who was decidedly male and presumably straight. John played the upright bass left-handed with the jazz singer Mel Torme and with ex-“Tonight Show” trumpeter Doc Severinsen, among others, and married and divorced a woman.

And here was my pal crushing my sense of reality with this seismic sexual shift.

“I’m still the same person I always was,” Jennifer tried to assure me. “You don’t just undergo the operation and become a woman. I’ve always been a woman. I’ve been a woman from the moment I was born.”

I avoided speaking with Jennifer for the next several years.

People all over are reacting with shock at the budding breasts and long hair sported by Bruce Jenner. At age 65, the thrice-married father of six and 1976 Olympic gold-medal decathlete is transforming before our eyes into a woman.

Jenner is to discuss this sexual transition on the E! reality show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Jenner is also set to speak on a new, unscripted E! reality show and to talk to Diane Sawyer on ABC News.

Earlier this month, Jenner plowed his SUV into two cars, causing a driver’s death, law-enforcement authorities said. Now the sex-change process is slowing down — but not stopping — a source told Radar Online.

John and I met during a summer when I was in my teens and he was in his 20s. We both worked at Grossinger’s Country Club in the Catskills — he as a bass player in the lounge band and I as a waitress. Late at night, after the band’s schmaltzy singer had left, I would wander into the lounge and listen to the jazz musicians play. During a break in one of these jam sessions, I told John I was a fan of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’’ whose male star played a kinky transvestite.

John confessed to me he enjoyed dressing in women’s clothing.

Big whoop?

I lent John my eyeliner and pantyhose, figuring that dressing in drag was a harmless quirk.

Years later, I wondered if the cross-dressing triggered something deeper. What had I helped create?

Jennifer is now 61, lives in Pasadena, Calif., with two rescued cats, and still performs and records jazz. She underwent sex-reassignment surgery in 2001 at age 48 and received hormone treatments but not breast augmentation. This was hard for me to accept because I believed in the old adage: “God doesn’t make mistakes.”

But then, He also created someone so unhappy about being saddled with a penis that she went under the knife to correct what she believed to be a cosmic error.

Jennifer told me she still dates women primarily, but also has been involved with men. After a while, I realized I’d played no role in bringing about her sexual reinvention.

I plan to watch the 2012 documentary about her transition, “I Stand Corrected,” which has not been distributed but played at film festivals.

According to a study from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, a staggering 41 percent of transgender and “gender nonconforming” individuals reported having attempted suicide, compared with 1.6 percent of the general population. Nearly four times as many of these folks live on less than $10,000 a year, as compared with other people.

Since the sex change, many friends have abandoned my friend. She was fired from a high school where she taught music.

But there isn’t a day that she regrets becoming Jennifer.

“I’m so frigging normal,” she said.

I wish Jennifer Leitham well. Bruce Jenner, too.

I admire their bravery.

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