Caitlyn Jenner Talks Respect And Community In Powerful ESPY Speech

Caitlyn Jenner was honored at the ESPYs last night with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, and boy, did she bring it. The award honors people “whose contributions transcend sports,” and more specifically, individuals “possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”

Jenner gave a powerful speech, acknowledging Ashe, who, after receiving an HIV diagnosis in the early 1980s, made his diagnosis public and worked hard to educate the public about HIV and AIDS. “How do we start?” Jenner asked. “We start with education. I was fortunate to meet Arthur Ashe a few times and I know how important education was to him. Learn as much as you can about another person to understand them better.”

She paid tribute to the transgender athletes who are barred from playing sports in a cis-normative sports atmosphere, contending that they should be “given the chance to play sports as who they really are.”

“I owe a lot to sports,” she continued. “It has shown me the world, it has given me an identity. If someone wanted to bully me, well, you know what? I was the MVP of the football team. That wasn’t going to be a problem.”

There has, however, been some doubt about whether Jenner deserves the Ashe award. Critics have been quick to point out that such luminaries as Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela have received it in the past, and doubt that Jenner is up to that kind of snuff. Bob Costas said that ESPN was making a “crass exploitation play,” and that Jenner wasn’t close enough to sports at this point in her life to receive the award. (Which, was Mandela? Jenner is an Olympian.) NPR’s Frank Deford said that Arthur Ashe would be laughing at Jenner receiving the award, going on to say:

“Courage is usually involved with overcoming something. Caitlyn Jenner is being forthright and honest, but this is something that she wanted, and she has a good fallback position — a reality show, fame and lots of money. There’s not a great deal of risk involved in the same way that someone who worked down at the body shop would experience. Bruce Jenner had a good idea that he wasn’t going to lose by doing this; his family is in support of him.”

Which, beyond the fact of deadnaming Jenner, is blithely offensive in the idea that Jenner hasn’t overcome anything. Jenner noted that, “Before a few months ago, I had never met anybody else who was trans, who was like me. I had never met a trans person, never.” Living alone and silent, forced to be someone she wasn’t in a world of people who believe that this is merely a matter of preference, a matter of getting “something that she wanted,” and doing that for 65 years, is courageous. Being public about being transgender is absolutely a risk: As Jenner pointed out in her speech, hate crimes against transgender men and women abound. Transitioning publicly takes a lot of bravery.

But Jenner maybe said it best:

“For the people out there wondering what all this is about — whether it’s about courage or controversy or publicity — well, I’ll tell you what it’s all about. It’s about what happens from here. It’s not just about one person. It’s about thousands of people. It’s not just about me. It’s about all of us accepting one another. We are all different. That’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing and while it may not be easy to get past the things you do not understand, I want to prove that it is absolutely possible if we only do it together.”

[Washington Post (1), (2)]

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