Caitlin Jenner made a gracious and powerful appearance at the ESPYs last night to accept the Arthur Ashe courage award. Her speech was personally stirring, and informative about transgender issues — but perhaps she had the most to teach us about how power, platform, and privilege can be leveraged, even by non-activists, for a broader social justice cause.
After an obligatory crack about the difficulty of dressing for formal occasions as a woman (the heels, the makeup, the hair), Jenner almost immediately turned the spotlight to the plight of trans youth, stabbed in hate crimes or desperate enough for self-harm: “They’re getting bullied, they’re getting beaten up, they’re getting murdered and they’re committing suicide,” she said.
Just last month, the body of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, a transgendered young woman of color, was found in a field in Mississippi stabbed to death. I also want to tell you about Sam Taub, a 15-year-old transgendered young man from Bloomfield, Michigan. In early April, Sam took his own life…
It may have been uncomfortable for many in that audience of glamorous athletes and celebrities to hear these stories of raw violence, and to implicitly have their own potential discomfort with Jenner’s award connected to those stories. But Jenner was unflinching, explaining her sense of responsibility to these less-famous trans people. “If there’s one thing I do know about my life, it is the power of the spotlight. Sometimes it gets overwhelming, but with attention comes responsibility,” she said. “As a group, as athletes, how you conduct your lives, what you say, what you do, is absorbed and observed by millions of people, especially young people.”
It was Jenner’s award, and she had a right to focus on herself and the journey that she noted was the hardest thing she’d ever been through, yet she spent almost no time expounding on her own story. In fact, almost the entire speech was focused on others — the youngest, most vulnerable victims, the transgender celebrities and athletes who had gone before her, and the family and friends, including Diane Sawyer, who had stood by her during a difficult time. As she said: “Tt’s not just one person, it’s about thousands of people. It’s not just about me, it’s about all of us accepting one another.” Of course, she has her reality show, her Vanity Fair profile, and more for the purpose of telling her personal tale. But it also seemed that she had very soberly considered the fact of her large platform, as well as the award’s meaning, and was eager to use it to embrace a larger group of people, in a moment free of the tabloid feel that critics who opposed her receiving this award speculated it might have.
This is guesswork, of course, but it seemed to an observer reading between the lines that Jenner’s transition has given her a crash course in privilege, in understanding that the problems she faces as an out trans woman are magnified for people who don’t have her good fortune — and her past as a glory-winning athlete. She all but said this towards the end of her ten-minute remarks:
You know, it is an honor to have the word ‘courage’ associated with my life. But tonight another word comes to mind, and that is fortunate. I owe a lot to sports. It has shown me the world, it has given me an identity. If someone wanted to bully me, well, you know what? I was the MVP of the football team. That wasn’t going to be a problem. And the same thing goes tonight. 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 who are coming to terms with being true to who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.
In showing a great deal of comfort speaking of her life as Bruce and her life as Caitlyn in tandem, while simultaneously moving the focus off herself, Jenner implicitly pushed back on critics who thought she didn’t deserve the award “simply for coming out.” She showed that in our age of celebrity, being a civil rights icon doesn’t necessarily need to be limited to being an activist. It can, indeed, consist of being heartfelt and comfortable with yourself in the glare of fame and attention — helping people feel that they know and understand someone else who is different.