Caitlyn Jenner May Not Be Your Hero, But Here’s Why She Deserves the Arthur Ashe Courage Award

by Nicole Plyler Fisk

On Monday, ESPN announced that Caitlyn Jenner is the recipient of their annual Arthur Ashe Courage Award. ESPN executive producer, Maura Mand, explained the appropriateness of their choice: “Bruce [Jenner] has received many accolades over the years for being one of the greatest Olympians of our time, but The ESPYS are honored to celebrate Bruce becoming Caitlyn. She has shown the courage to embrace a truth that had been hidden for years, and to embark on a journey that may not only give comfort to those facing similar circumstances, but can also help to educate people on the challenges that the transgender community faces.”

Mand’s rationale certainly seems in keeping with the Arthur Ashe Award description, as printed on ESPN’s Web site. Note the emphasis on “human rights” and “never back[ing] away from a difficult issue, even though doing so would have been easier.”

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Unsurprisingly, the news of Jenner’s win sent many of her detractors, already worked up over her Vanity Fair photo shoot, into paroxysms of rage. Because it’s National LGBT Pride Month — and because it’s the right thing to do AND in keeping with the spirit of the award — let’s tackle some of the status updates and blog posts that have gone viral and explain why Caitlyn Jenner deserves both this award and our applause.

Yesterday morning, Orie Pancione from West Virginia posted publicly a status update criticizing Jenner that has since been shared 148,841 times (and counting). Pancione accuses ESPN of ignoring cancer victim Lauren Hill and wounded veteran Noah Galloway in favor of Caitlyn Jenner, who is “trending” for “play[ing] dress up.”

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First: as Deadspin’s Nick Martin explains, “This is an award ESPN doles out based on what they decide, not what is voted on, so anything you think is automatically arbitrary. If you don’t like who wins it, don’t watch the ESPY’s—simple as that. The award does not dictate who is the most courageous person in the world, nor does it diminish what Galloway or Lauren Hill—who people also said should have been the recipient instead of Jenner—have accomplished.”

I’d add: the type of courage defined in the award description (e.g. “using fame and stature to advocate for human rights, although at the time, these positions may have been unpopular and were often controversial”) is a very different type of courage than that used to fight a deadly disease or an enemy soldier.

The award that is more in keeping with either Noah Galloway’s or Lauren Hill’s struggles is the Espy Perseverance Award, which is going to Devon Still and his daughter Leah, who is battling cancer. That award is about having the courage to persevere in difficult circumstances. No one is accusing the Stills of taking an award away from Noah Galloway or Lauren Hill. Rather, they’re attacking the trans woman, saying that she should hand over her award, despite the fact that it would make no sense according to the award description and is quite simply a mean-spirited thing to say — which people seem to get when the honoree is a 5-year-old with pediatric cancer. But trans people are too often treated as less than human and their struggles dismissed.

Second: Caitlyn Jenner is not playing dress up, and to suggest otherwise not only reveals a gross misunderstanding of what transgender means but also perpetuates a stereotype that no doubt contributes to discrimination and violence against the trans community. Jenner has explained to us that her gender identity (female) is different from her assigned gender at birth (male) and that she has made the unpopular and controversial choice to live out the rest of her life as the woman she’s always been. Our job, which is admittedly *really* easy, is to say “Good for you, Caitlyn”; to stop referring to her as “Bruce” and using male pronouns; and to treat her like a human being rather than a child preoccupied at the play station with all the costumes.

Also this week, Emily Suzanne, a conservative Christian blogger penned “Bruce Jenner is Not a Hero” that has racked up over 10,000 Facebook shares in two days. The thesis — that Bruce Jenner is neither a woman nor a hero — is built upon assertions about gender that, in the 21st century, we know are false.

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People who insist that God wouldn’t “make the mistake” of confusing gender categories are understandably stumped when passed a copy of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s “The Five Sexes” or an article about Caster Semenya, the South African woman was was scrutinized because she outstripped other female runners to such an extent that officials had her gender-tested and discovered that she had both a vagina (female part!) and inverted testicles (male part!).

The male/female categories aren’t as clear as Emily Suzanne and her ilk think. Their experience of the world as cisgender isn’t the experience of everyone else; so, maybe (just maybe) they would do well not to play God, leaving instead a person’s gender classification up to, you know, the person; and God’s judgement up to Him . . . or Her.

I said as much in a blog comment, but it remains unpublished, still awaiting Emily Suzanne’s moderation.

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So, I’m taking my comment out of moderation by writing my own blog post — because I want to be courageous in the way Caitlyn Jenner is, although it makes me sad that too often the “unpopular” and “controversial” opinion to voice is one that should be universally accepted, namely: that the transgendered community is not comprised of people who are “mistakes,” but rather people who are more often than not mind-bendingly courageous in the face of adversity (which includes being pelted with countless transphobic comments, like those above).

Here’s to their courage . . . and that’s cour·age \ˈkər-ij, ˈkə-rij\ according to the most “Arthur Ashe” definition of the word.

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