Since 1993, the television network ESPN has distributed awards at the ESPYs (an acronym for Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award) for achievement in sport. These include awards such as Best Male Athlete, Best Female Athlete, Best Team and even Best Moment. The most profound out of the awards is the Arthur Ashe Award, which is given to one person whose contributions transcend sports.
Every year, the award is given to someone involved in sports who has displayed a tremendous amount of courage and there is usually no debate over it. This year, however, was different.
This year it was given to Caitlyn Jenner for coming out as transgender and beginning the transition from being a man to being a winner. There were several people who very much supported Jenner, but there was also a large number of people who thought she was undeserving of the award, as she didn’t display “true” courage in their eyes.
Before debating if she deserved the award or what courage actually means, it is important to examine her life from when she was Bruce up through her transition into Caitlyn. Jenner played football in high school and college, but was forced to start competing in the decathlon due to a knee injury. Jenner steadily improved at the decathlon, placing 10th at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics and progressing to 1st place at the 1975 Pan American Games.
Where Jenner really garnered attention, however, was at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. Famously, Jenner brought home the gold in the decathlon for the Americans and set a world record score in those games. Additionally, Jenner was the first American to wave the flag around during the victory lap, which is still a tradition to this day.
Jenner took the spotlight and ran with it following the 1976 Olympics. There was a New York Daily News article that referred to Jenner as a “bronzed, 26-year-old Adonis” and even mentioned how he was being considered for the role of Superman. Jenner was on the box of Wheaties cereal, which has seen the likes of Walter Payton, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky before and has existed for many years as a milestone measure of athletic achievement and fame.
Everything I listed can be perceived as fun trivia facts, but I think these accomplishments of Jenner point to something else. Bruce Jenner, at the time, was the epitome of masculinity and patriotism. Jenner is an Olympic champion, one of America’s best athletes and even an “Adonis” in the eyes of the media. Now, contrast that image the media portrayed with how we now know Caitlyn sees herself.
At one point, Jenner could be considered a man’s man, but Caitlyn was living what she considered to be a partial life. Yes, Jenner is lucky now in the sense in that she’s a celebrity, has money and a supportive family. Those are all things most transgender people don’t have. However, I doubt you could find an example of someone as famous and notable as she is who was portrayed as the epitome of one gender and then transitioned to the opposite gender.
For that reason alone, Caitlyn Jenner was courageous. Transgender people still can’t serve openly in the military. They are still often labeled as freaks and pariahs in our culture. The transgender community faces a disturbing amount of discrimination and bullying and it’s been reported that 41% of transgender people have attempted suicide, according to surveys conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Not only that, but the transgender community has largely been ignored in a decade marked by monumental strides for the gay rights.
The people who say that Jenner did nothing courageous have no idea what they are talking about. I’d like those people to try to tell a family member who’s trying to come out as transgender that they have no courage. My guess is that if this were something that they personally were going through, they’d be more understanding and not outwardly ignorant.
There is a valid debate that maybe someone else was more deserving of the award. Even then I completely disagree and I’d point to her speech as the reason why. It would have been easy for Jenner to do a cliché acceptance speech and thank her friends, family and God for everything. Instead, she took the moment to educate every listener about transgender issues.
Jenner transitioning has ushered in more respect and recognition for the transgender community. That is what the Arthur Ashe Award is all about – rewarding someone whose contributions transcend the world of sports.