CC image courtesy of Synergy by Design on Flickr.
I’ve been seeing some backlash on social media about Caitlyn Jenner winning the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY awards. I really don’t understand the controversy. Caitlyn Jenner is the perfect choice for this honor, and I’m going to explain why, using language from ESPN’s description of the award.
What is the Arthur Ashe Courage Award? From espn.go.com:
“The Ashe Award is one of the most prestigious in sports. Recipients reflect the spirit of Arthur Ashe, 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. The award is inspired by the life that Ashe lived, using his fame and stature to advocate for human rights, although, at the time, those positions may have been unpopular and were often controversial. From speaking out against apartheid in South Africa to revealing to the world his struggle with AIDS, Ashe never backed away from a difficult issue, even though doing so would have been easier. Winners of the Ashe Award strive to carry on Ashe’s legacy in their own lives – – inspired by those who do so each day.”
So, why Caitlyn Jenner?
First off, Bruce Jenner, the athlete, was a big fucking deal.
If you only know Bruce Jenner as the put upon patriarch of the Kardashian clan, get the hell out of here and watch a documentary about the 1976 Summer Olympics and get back to me. Or you know what? Watch Miracle and substitute Bruce Jenner for the entire American hockey team. That will give you an idea.
When Bruce Jenner won the men’s decathlon in the 1976 Summer Olympics, he was considered the world’s greatest athlete. If I had to compare him to someone more relevant to my generation, the best I can come up with is Michael Jordan. (For you kids out there…LeBron James?) Jenner not only set the world record for the decathlon, he did so by defeating the Soviets, which was a big deal at the time. If the Ashe Award is one of the most prestigious in sports, it makes sense to choose one of the most prestigious athletes in sports. At one time, Bruce Jenner was a bald eagle in a Superman cape, high-jumping over communism. Respect the athleticism, people.
Athletic accomplishments aside, there are people who don’t think Caitlyn Jenner, as a transgender woman, is as deserving of this award as other contenders, like Noah Galloway or Lauren Hill.
Noah Galloway is a former United States soldier and double amputee who appeared on the November 2014 cover of Men’s Health. (He was also the third place finisher on season 20 of Dancing with the Stars.) I don’t think anyone would argue against fighting for your country being one of the bravest things you can do. Coming back from severe injuries to achieve a superior level of physical fitness is motivational to say the least.
Then there’s Lauren Hill. Hill was a freshman basketball player who resolved to continue playing for the Mount St. Joseph’s women’s basketball team even as she battled terminal brain cancer. She died earlier this year at the young age of 19, but not before helping raising over $1 million for pediatric cancer research and undoubtedly inspiring multitudes of sports fans.
Noah Galloway and Lauren Hill are obviously two shining examples of courage, but do you know what else takes courage? Being your true self and paving a way for others like you, knowing that most of the general public will ridicule you for it.
Here’s the part where I remind you about the bit in the description of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award that says, “The award is inspired by the life that Ashe lived, using his fame and stature to advocate for human rights, although, at the time, those positions may have been unpopular and were often controversial. From speaking out against apartheid in South Africa to revealing to the world his struggle with AIDS, Ashe never backed away from a difficult issue, even though doing so would have been easier.” Human rights. Unpopular. Controversial.
To my knowledge, nobody criticizes Noah Galloway for having sustained life-threatening injuries while defending his country. He’s considered a hero. Lauren Hill was so popular that when her school played Hiram College, the game had to be moved to the 10,250 seat Cintas Center on the campus of Xavier University. Theirs is the kind of bravery that makes everybody stand up and cheer. Caitlyn Jenner’s bravery is met with public ridicule and criticism. She’s not referred to as a hero; she’s the punchline to an off-color joke. How much braver do you have to be to fight your personal battle when you don’t have the public on your side? Could you do it?
In the last ten years, we’ve seen more and more gay, lesbian and bisexual celebrities come out of the closest. Marriage equality is now the law of the land. But what about transgender men and women? How are they fairing in this battle for acceptance and equality? Research shows that transgender men and women, specifically transgender women (and more specifically transgender women of color), are more likely to be victims of discrimination and violent crime than gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals.
Part of the continued discrimination against transgender men and women could be because there aren’t many visible transgender celebrities. I mean, how many can you name? Okay, the lady from Orange is the New Black. (That’s Laverne Cox, by the way.) Chaz Bono? Anyone else?
There are literally millions of transgendered men and women in the world. Millions. You can probably count the number you are aware of on one hand. Now think of all of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual celebrities you can. Two of them – Michael Sam and Robin Roberts – have won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, in 2014 and 2013, respectively. Doesn’t there seem to be a correlation between increased public visibility of LGBT individuals and increased acceptance?
What do you think happens to a young person who feels isolated from everyone around them, is constantly ridiculed for their differences, and has nobody to look up to? According to a 2011 report on transgender discrimination, 41% of transgender respondents reported having attempted suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population. They are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty. They experience discrimination and harassment at school, in the workplace, and by the justice system. This is unacceptable and it must change.
Caitlyn Jenner can help. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like her. It doesn’t matter if you think she’s a publicity whore. Maybe ESPN chose her because they knew it would boost their ratings. It doesn’t matter. Her story will save lives.
A superior, record-breaking male athlete coming out as a transgender woman in a world of omnipresent social media and criticism is one of the most courageous things I can imagine.
Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” He also said, “We must reach out our hand in friendship and dignity both to those who would befriend us and those who would be our enemy.” I think Caitlyn Jenner is doing that.