Caitlyn Jenner: A worthy recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award

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By Matt Silich

Summer is a time to enjoy the outdoors and appreciate the beauty of life. Gone are the strictures of school and campus life, wherein many students only feel light on their skin when it’s emanating from the blank Microsoft Word documents on their computer screens.

Yet, in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as a transgender woman on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, seemingly all of America sprinted back inside to deliver steaming hot takes about transgender individuals on Facebook and other social media outlets.

Shortly after the Vanity Fair cover was released, ESPN announced that Caitlyn Jenner would be honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPYS because of her courage in coming out publicly.

ESPN claims that the award “is presented each year to individuals whose contributions transcend sports.” 

Jenner’s acceptance of the award at the ESPYS, which will air July 15 on ABC, will be her first public appearance since undergoing her transition. In a press release announcing the award’s recipient, ESPN did not name any other candidates for the award who had been passed up in favor of Jenner.

In spite of this, a meme is sweeping across the Internet claiming that Jenner was selected for the award at the expense of two particularly inspiring people. One is army veteran Noah Galloway, who lost two limbs in Iraq and now runs marathons and has been a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.

The other supposed nominee for the award is Lauren Hill, a 19-year-old basketball player who played in spite of her terminal brain cancer and ended up raising a boatload of money for cancer research.

Obviously, nobody would ever try to discount the heroism of those people. Both Galloway and Hill have incredible life stories and certainly match the qualifications that ESPN ascribes to its award.

That said, there’s a disturbing underlying theme to the vast majority of social media posts claiming that these two should win the award instead of Jenner. Instead of heaping praise upon their preferred candidate, many people merely insult Jenner. Phrases disparaging Jenner’s accomplishments such as “he is not a hero” or “that doesn’t take any courage” have become all-too-common sights this week.

Lauren Hill and Noah Galloway are inspiring figures by any measure, which is why it’s all the more reprehensible to hide one’s own insecurity-driven discrimination and hatred behind their visages.

Further, questioning the courage required to transition as a transgender individual, like Caitlyn Jenner, serves only to prove one’s own ignorance of the difficult lives that transgender people lead.

A survey of 6,450 transgender men and women done by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 90 percent of the survey participants experienced harassment or mistreatment in the workplace because of their gender identity. 

Due to fear of such harassment, 71 percent of participants said they tried to hide or delay their gender transition. To come out and confidently state a gender transition like Jenner did, especially after a long life lived under public scrutiny and with such incredible athletic achievements, is an act absolutely worthy of a courage award. 

Seventy-eight percent of transgender people who transitioned from one gender to the other said they felt more comfortable at work and their job performance improved, even in spite of the dramatically increased level of mistreatment and harassment. 

If even one transgender individual’s self confidence increases as a result of Jenner’s public transition, or if even one of the vast number of transgender people who tragically commit suicide each year relents, then the press Jenner is receiving is completely worth it.

Perhaps the reason many people have trouble empathizing with the struggles of transgender men and women is because the feeling of a mismatched sex and gender identity is very difficult to imagine or comprehend. Still, that doesn’t make Jenner’s act any less courageous, and it certainly doesn’t justify heartless posts comparing her to a science experiment like a recent Instagram picture by Snoop Dogg.

The namesake of the ESPYS Courage Award, Arthur Ashe, was the first and only black man to win the singles titles at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. He was a breaker of barriers and inspiration for younger generations of black men.

Jenner could potentially be a similar icon for transgender men and women. It seems to me that Jenner is a worthy recipient of the same award received by Nelson Mandela, Michael Sam and other transcendent public figures.

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Tweet: Daily Illini columnist Matt Silich shares his opinions on Caitlyn Jenner’s recent receipt of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.