Just shy of 40 years after winning the Olympic gold medal and only three months after coming out as a transgender woman during a televised interview with Diane Sawyer, Caitlyn Jenner accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the sports equivalent of the Oscars, the 2015 ESPY Awards.
And a ballroom full of the world’s best and most popular athletes leapt to their feet to cheer on her acceptance of the trophy. The highest-profile members of the sports world—a world traditionally, and perhaps stereotypically, defined by strength, hyper masculinity, and extreme heteronormativity—respectfully stood to applaud the courage of a trans woman.
Some things you never imagined you’d see.
“While it may not be easy to get past the things you don’t always understand,” Jenner told the crowd, “I want to prove that it is absolutely possible if we only do it together.”
It’s the inspiring, and unlikely, power of Jenner’s very public transition and insistence of candidly living it in the spotlight that makes her latter wish—togetherness—graduate from what many once thought would be an impossibility to what may now, if we’re lucky, be an inevitability.
As should be a shock to nobody, sports and the LGBT community haven’t traditionally been the jolliest of bedfellows.
Few places are as inhospitable to an effeminate or outwardly gay person, let alone a trans person, than a sports locker room. In a realm where masculinity and brutishness is lionized, homosexuality—regardless of athletic ability—is such fodder for bullying, shame, and even discrimination that now, in the year 2015, there is still only a handful of out sports superstars with professional careers. For so long, the relationship between sports and the LGBT community was defined by cruelty, shame, and intolerance.
But Wednesday night at the ESPY Awards, that very community showered support on Caitlyn Jenner, a woman who was once a heroic athlete indisputably deserving of respect for, then, his athletic prowess, and who now is seizing the spotlight the public interest in her transition is affording her to educate and advocate for the trans community.
There are people who have been wondering about the purity of Jenner’s intentions, particularly as her fame explodes with magazine covers, TV specials, and a soon-to-premiere reality series focused on her transition. It’s perhaps understandable given her association with the shameless horde that populates Keeping Up With the Kardashians. (To their credit, all of Jenner’s children were in attendance at the ESPYs, tearfully supporting her.)
But Jenner shut down such talk. “The people out there wondering what this is all about, whether it’s about courage or controversy or publicity…it’s not just about one person,” she said. “It’s about all of us accepting one another. We’re all different. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”
Women’s World Cup soccer champion Abby Wambach, herself an out gay superstar athlete, introduced Jenner’s award, using the moment to draw attention to startling statistics: 20 percent of trans people are homeless at one point in their lives, and 41 percent have attempted suicide.
Mad Men star Jon Hamm narrated a clip package that poignantly and essentially revisited Jenner’s Olympic glory days. After all, that’s what is making her transition all the more inspiring. Jenner’s gold medal and the press he received for it made him, as Hamm says, “the epitome of masculinity, not to mention marketability.” His gender became his brand. His masculinity became his business, his identity.
“The ironic part is that the whole world thinks they know who I am—and they know nothing about me,” Jenner says, remembering his feelings at the time.
Jenner’s mother, daughter Kendall, and trans activist Janet Mock all were interviewed for the clip package. “It takes an incredible amount of courage and strength to go against the grain of what people want you to be,” Mock said. “It’s never too late to be who you really are.”
Many wondered what kind of speech Jenner would give Wednesday night. Skeptics would have been wise to remember that Jenner has spent decades giving motivational speeches around the world, trading on stories about what it took to achieve Olympic success in order to inspire people’s own personal greatness.
Her ESPY speech adhered much to that same mission, but with a more pointed message: Personal greatness requires interpersonal compassion.
Some might have groaned at Jenner’s decision to open her speech with jokes about picking out the right dress and pleading for the Fashion Police to go easy on her, but such “dad jokes,” for lack of a better phrase, were very typically Bruce Jenner, and now Caitlyn Jenner.
But the crux of her speech was a plea, a plea to save lives through the simplest way possible: acceptance.
“I know people in this room have respect for hard work, for training, for going through something difficult to achieve, something you desire,” she said. “I trained hard. I competed hard. And for that people respected me. But this transition has been harder on me than anything I could imagine. And that’s the case for so many others besides me.”
Then came the quote that, within seconds, began to go viral on social media. “For that reason alone, trans people deserve something vital,” she said. “They deserve your respect.”
There are those who still cannot believe that the Adonis athlete who won that 1976 Olympic gold medal is now fronting the cover of Vanity Fair dressed in tasteful lingerie. There are those who may find it fruitless to think that the world of sports, which still has such institutional homophobia that gay athletes still feel shame and fear in coming out, would inch toward tolerance just because Caitlyn Jenner used a 10-minute speech to educate them.
Why was it so important, and so refreshingly forward-thinking to award Jenner at the ESPYs? This is a community that so many people would never imagine fully embracing a trans person. Rightfully or not, and perhaps trading in stereotypes, the things that are most celebrated in the sports community—machismo, dominance, hetero camaraderie—are the very things that breed mindsets that often lead to the bigoted and even dangerous discrimination of the LGBT community.
And yet the most important members of the sports community stood up. They stood up for Caitlyn Jenner.
The showing of respect for her efforts and even just her very presence on that stage, in front of those people, may hint that progress is on the way. And, proving her unrivaled value as a trans activist, Jenner used her platform to explain why that progress can’t come soon enough.
“It is an honor to have the word ‘courage’ associated with my life. But on this night another word comes to mind, and that is ‘fortunate.’ I owe a lot to sports. It showed me the world. It’s given me an identity,” she said. “If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead. Because the reality is I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”
Thanks to Caitlyn Jenner’s courage, maybe they soon won’t have to.