This post was updated on May 15 at 9:36 p.m.
The Bruins had a problem.
Josephine Bruin, a live Himalayan brown bear donated by alumni in 1961, was getting too big for her home in the Rally Committee chair’s backyard. So she was shipped off to the San Diego Zoo, and the Rally Committee began the search for a new mascot.
They had a bear costume, purchased by the alumni, but no one to wear it.
Enter Charles Dennis, an undergraduate student – who would later become a professor at UCLA – with no particular aspirations to be a mascot. His Phi Delta Theta fraternity brother, Doug Nichols, was the head cheerleader in 1963, when they were both juniors.
“At the fraternity house he was asking, ‘Who would like to wear this costume?,” Dennis said. “Doug kept pushing the beer, free beer.”
Dennis agreed to be in the suit, to wave to fans, to cheer on the football team, hidden from view.
“It was kind of fun, we would ride on a bus down to the (Los Angeles Memorial) Coliseum,” Dennis, now 75, said. “Of course, there was a keg on the bus.”
But all the while he held a secret. The costume hid Dennis from the crowd, but inside the suit, he was struggling to find his own identity.
“Have you ever tried to hold an inflated beach ball underwater?” Dennis said. “I kept that beach ball underwater for 50 years. 24/7.”
He had known from around the age of 5 that he liked things that weren’t traditionally masculine.
“It was a different time,” Dennis said. “There wasn’t even a word to describe what I was.”
Dennis was Joe Bruin for the 1963 season. He tumbled around the sidelines of home games with a balsa wood staff, tripping and falling as he helped the cheer squad excite the home crowd. The heat of the costume fogged up his glasses.
“People thought it was a part of the act,” Dennis laughed. “But I couldn’t see a lick.”
The traditional rivalry between the UC flagship schools created a raucous and festive environment at the Coliseum, even though the game would have little outcome on the standings.
“Oski, the (California) mascot, came up and blew an air horn in an eye hole of my costume,” Dennis said. “So, I gave him a smack with my balsa wood staff. Both teams started chanting, ‘fight, fight, fight.’”
No fight happened, but the Golden Bears won 25-0. The Bruin football team went 2-8 that season, including a demoralizing loss to the Trojans in front of 82,460 people at the Coliseum three weeks after that.
Fifty-five years later – and with a lot less fanfare – Professor Michelle Dennis now teaches in the Luskin School of Public Affairs’ public policy department at UCLA.
Without the Joe Bruin costume, hiding in plain sight for half a century wasn’t easy.
“Periodic cross -dressing, and accumulating – in secret – women’s clothing,” Dennis said. “That’s pretty common.”
Dennis met a girl; they got married in 1964 and had children. As a man, Dennis progressed through a career in public service, working for Los Angeles County from 1965 to 1983, and then for the City of Santa Monica – first as a director of finance, then as the city controller – before retiring in 2003. In 2004, Dennis returned to UCLA to teach, still using the name Charles Dennis.
Dennis led a double life as a man in public, and when possible, a woman in private. She discovered a growing community on the internet that shared the same sense of dysphoria.
In the mid-’90s, she found a word: transgender.
By 2000, Dennis’ two children were grown and out of the house, and she felt the time had come to make the transition. She and her wife got their children together and told them.
To Dennis’ surprise, her son and daughter had each guessed at the truth and were both accepting. Her daughter had accidentally discovered a bookmark about transgender identity on the browser of her dad’s computer; her son had found women’s clothing in the back of Dennis’ closet.
“My son said, ‘I knew Mom didn’t wear size 10 shoes,’” Dennis recalled with a giggle.
Not everything went as smoothly as that. Dennis and her wife separated, eventually divorcing in 2004.
Age being a factor, Dennis decided it was too late to make a biological transition, so she decided against having gender confirmation surgery. She felt her self-identification was enough.
“Transgender people are always the same person inside, always,” Dennis said. “The external maybe gets presented differently, but who they fundamentally are, from the beginning, is always the same.”
At the same time, she, as Professor Charles M. “Mike” Dennis, was teaching at UCLA in the Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Four years ago, she approached the head of her department.
“I really wanted to teach as Michelle,” Dennis said. “They said fine, as long as you keep it consistent.”
The school changed her picture and bio on its website to reflect her self-identification as a trans woman.
“It didn’t seem to make any difference to the students,” Dennis said.
And so the professor taught as she was meant to, as a woman, and has since 2014.
She met another woman in 2010, and they got married. Her relationship with her adult children is still strong, and she has since become friends with her ex-wife.
“That’s what happens in life: You go along and all of a sudden you come to a crossroads and you’ve got to make a choice and be responsible for the choice,” Dennis said. “(I) didn’t plan this ultimate destination, but I’m very grateful that this is the way it is.”
Meet Jo Bruin, home again.