Sometimes what you are most afraid of doing, is the very thing that will set you free.
This year I had the ESPY awards marked on my calendar in large part because I wanted to hear the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage speak. I had been mildly aware of some of the controversy surrounding this award being given to the Olympic gold medalist now known as Caitlyn Jenner and I wanted to explore how I felt about this from the front row of my own perception, rather than through the second hand opinion of a journalist.
Although I was not well read on the Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner story, my baseline feeling about her transition was always one of neutral compassion. It was this courage award and the negative response it was inciting that had captured my attention. I wasn’t sure how I felt about her being the award recipient and I wanted to see the event unfold for myself. Were the detractors correct? Was this ceremony and her acceptance speech just one more publicity shot or was there something more that might emerge?
As I bolstered myself to stay awake for the award presentation, I had no preconceived notion of what to expect from Caitlyn Jenner. The last time I had had any real interest in Bruce Jenner was when I was 9 years old and watching the Olympics. I had not tuned in for the Diane Sawyer interview and the last real glimpse I had gotten of Bruce Jenner came last year when walking past the TV while my 20-something daughter watched ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians.’ To be honest, the few times in the past decade that I had paid any attention at all to Bruce Jenner, I perceived a truly lackluster human being. He had a dull, bland energy that did not hold my interest at all.
I was nervous as I watched the 6’2” Caitlyn make her way to the stage. I was hoping that this person who was about to speak would be authentic and inspiring, not someone who would gloat in the spotlight and make this a ‘look at me’ moment. I grimaced a little bit when a rather baritone voice began to emerge from a decidedly female face…but the words that flowed quickly dissolved any disparity I may have perceived.
Caitlyn was eloquent, intelligent, passionate, and incredibly even in her tone. She made easy work of turning a ‘me’ moment, into a ‘we’ moment. She was on pointe as she deftly delivered the following monologue:
“All across this country, right now, all across the world, at this very moment, there are young people coming to terms with being transgender. They’re learning that they’re different and they are trying to figure out how to handle that, on top of every other problem that a teenager has.”
“They’re getting bullied, they’re getting beaten up, they’re getting murdered and they’re committing suicide. The numbers that you just heard before are staggering but they are the reality of what it is like to be trans today.
Caitlyn continued and with her next flurry of words she tackled the subject of the spotlight directly:
‘If there is one thing I do know about my life, it is the power of the spotlight. Sometimes it gets overwhelming, but with attention comes responsibility. 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. I know I’m clear with my responsibility going forward, to tell my story the right way — for me, to keep learning, to do whatever I can to reshape the landscape of how trans issues are viewed, how trans people are treated. And then more broadly to promote a very simple idea: accepting people for who they are. Accepting people’s differences.”
And then she addressed the controversy surrounding this award for Courage:
‘You know, it is an honor to have the word courage associated with my life. But on this night another word comes to mind, and that is, fortunate. I owe a lot to sports. It showed 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.”
With that statement Caitlyn’s ‘We’ moment expanded into a ‘They’ moment.
And then as she kept talking…. Her next statement upped the verbal ante a little more… and the volition of what she was saying created a powerful ‘You’ moment:
“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. 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.”
Nothing in this world moves me more than human authenticity. Many times during my twenty-five year career as a psychotherapist I have had the great gift of watching someone’s authenticity reveal itself before me. When safety is present and trust is certain there is an opportunity that some take; an opportunity to reveal the parts of themselves that they have spent their entire lives hiding. When those hidden parts are allowed to come forward, it is like watching the wet fragile wings of a butterfly emerge from the dull lusterless shell of the chrysalis that entombed them.
Watching Caitlyn Jenner speak, it was very clear to me that gone was the dull lusterless cocoon that had held the Bruce Jenner I had found so uninteresting in times prior. Caitlyn had those same wet fragile wings I had seen emerge for others…. I had only seen them emerge behind the closed doors of my office- a place that was supportive, confidential and safe. I was deeply moved by the fact that Caitlyn Jenner had broken through her cocoon in front of the whole world.
As for the controversy over this award….from the front row of my own perception, she sure looked like courage to me.