Without so much as a “Bye, Felicia” to those who said she was an unworthy choice, Caitlyn Jenner silenced her critics with a stirring — and at times, quite funny — speech accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage at the 2015 ESPYs.
Jenner, of course, was known as Bruce when winning the 1976 gold medal in men’s decathlon, then found renewed fame playing husband and dad on E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Jenner made national headlines again in April by revealing she is a transgender woman who goes by the name Caitlyn
While the coveted Courage award has gone to a number of athletes whose post-sports careers have shone spotlights on important social issues — think Billie Jean King (equal pay for women), Muhammad Ali (Parkinson’s disease) and Dewey Bozella (wrongful imprisonment) — and figures from outside the world of sports such as Nelson Mandela and the United Airlines Flight 93 heroes, Jenner’s inclusion whipped some pundits and fans into a frenzy. NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas, for one, said ESPN’s decision to honor Jenner was “a crass exploitation play,” while conceding it did take “some measure of personal courage” for Jenner to become a very public face of one of the last unexplored human-rights frontiers in our nation’s history.
Preceding Jenner’s speech was a sweet intro by U.S. women’s soccer star Abby Wambach (explaining how the award was another step in making the U.S. “a better place to live, and a better model for the world”) and a lengthy intro reel narrated by Jon Hamm, who recollected the way, from a young age, Jenner’s on-the-field exploits simply helped her “fit in” dealing with crippling “gender dysphoria.”
Jenner, with children Kim, Khloe, Kendall, Kylie, Brody, Burt and Cassandra in attendance, underscored in her speech the bravery it takes to live one’s own authentic life — coming out with that struggle at age 65, doing it amidst a maelstrom of media scrutiny and knowing that perhaps her own story will educate a nation that is still in its infancy when it comes to discussing and understanding transgender issues. (Seven transgender women were murdered in the U.S. in the first seven weeks of 2015 alone.)
Among the highlights of Jenner’s big moment:
* A punch line-packed intro — “Picking out this outfit! OK, girls, I get it!” Caitlyn joshed about the pressure to select her wrap-waisted white gown for her awards-show moment. “And next, the Fashion Police!”
* Jenner’s frank discussion of the murder of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, a transgender woman stabbed to death this year in a field in Mississippi, and the suicide of a 15-year-old transgender boy just days before Jenner’s own ABC interview.
* Jenner’s wish that her time in the spotlight might “reshape the landscape of how we view trans people” — and her hope that in some way her story will push people toward “accepting people for who they are.”
* Noting that her journey to come out as transgender has been harder than any of her athletic or reality TV endeavors — Jenner insisted that anyone going through the process of questioning his or her identity “deserves your respect.” She also “acknowledged all the young trans athletes out there…given the chance to play sports as who they really are.”
* Jenner thanked her family, tearfully explaining, “I never wanted to hurt anyone else, most of all my family and my kids,” before adding, “I am so so grateful to have all of you in my life.”
* “If someone wanted to bully me, I was the MVP of the football team: That just wasn’t going to be a problem. And the same thing goes tonight: If you wanna call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead. Because the reality is, I can take it.” Jenner challenged, while extolling the power of sports in shaping who she is as a person. “But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”
* “So for the people out there wondering what this is all 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,” Jenner concluded. “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’re 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 always don’t understand, I want to prove that it is absolutely possible if we only do it together.”