Being your true self is the greatest act of courage possible.
I have to admit, I didn’t follow Caitlyn Jenner’s story as she came out publicly as transgender. I’ve never watched the Kardashian show, so I only know as much as I happen to grab in headlines at the grocery store and most of that I readily forget.
But recently Caitlyn accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPY Awards. I only knew this because I saw a meme online of wounded soldiers that sarcastically said, “Please excuse us, we’re on our way to thank Bruce Jenner for being so courageous.”
I soon noticed a great deal of backlash against Jenner receiving the award.
I’m the first one to admit that we, as a country, merely honor our veterans in word but certainly not in deed. But, I’m not here to make a case debating Caitlyn's worthiness for the award over our brave solders at home and abroad. I am here to say that I’m encouraged that she's being honored at all.
This is the first public display that I can think of that has honored a different kind of courage; a quietly bold, game-changing courage that we need brought to the forefront of our minds.
For time immemorial we have revered the physical kind of courage it takes to do the dirty work of our world. Whether it’s running headfirst into a fire, combat, or stopping a violent crime, we understand there are significant risks people take in order to help the rest of us remain safe and protected.
It’s an obvious kind of courage because we know that not all of us are willing (or capable) to do those physical feats as a part of our daily existence.
In 1993, Jim Valvano, college basketball player, coach and broadcaster, received the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award just weeks before he succumbed to cancer. He’s best known for the quote, “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”
In his acceptance speech for the Ashe award, he said something even more powerful: "There are three things we all should do every day … every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. … Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. … Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it: If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special."
Other recipients of the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award include:
- Tommie Smith and John Carlos who gave the Black Power Salute in the 1968 Summer Olympics risking everything they’d worked for to help create a turning point in the American Civil Rights movement.
- Pat Summit, there’s an entire documentary about her comeback season called A Cinderella Season: The Lady Vols Fight Back. Diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, Summit said “There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that,” when she had to hand over the reins in 2011
- Robin Roberts, ESPN and Good Morning America broadcaster, basically had to “come out” twice. Once for an MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome) diagnosis and again for her same-sex relationship with long-time girlfriend Amber.
- And Michael Sam who kissed his boyfriend while cameras were rolling after learning he’d been drafted by the Rams.
My point —this award was never about the in your face, death defying kind of courage.
This award has always been about the guts and grit it takes to be honest ... first, with yourself, and second, with the world.
Whether we’re talking about illness, color, sexual orientation or, now, gender identity — the journey to finding ourselves is a difficult one laden with obstacles within us and imposed on us by society. Being terminally ill, black, gay or transgender doesn't alone make your courageous. What takes courage (and it takes so much it’s hard to imagine where it comes from) is the willingness to shed the identity others expect or impose on you and adopt the identity that is truly yours ... and fully own it.
I know there are people bashing Caitlyn’s character and doubting her intentions. Only Caitlyn knows her own heart.
Even if she does, for whatever reason, regret the decision to transition into womanhood, that could never take away the fact that she has stepped boldly and publicly onto a path of self-exploration. And for that, I applaud her and ESPN for recognizing her.
When we recognize and support the kind of courage it takes to live out loud, even when so many are wishing we wouldn’t, we create a safe environment in which others feel safe and supported to live their deepest truths, as well.