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LGBT Sports history: Caitlyn Jenner receives Arthur Ashe Courage Award

Former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender in 2015, and instantly became the most famous trans person in the world.

The 2015 ESPYS - Roaming Show
Caitlyn Jenner (R) accepts the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from former professional soccer player Abby Wambach  during The 2015 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater on July 15, 2015 in Los Angeles, Calif.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage

All month long, Outsports has been revisiting key moments in gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer sports history as part of LGBTQ history month. Today, we conclude our review with Caitlyn Jenner, the retired Olympian and reality TV star who presented as male and had a different name prior to June 2015.

As a child and throughout most of her adulthood, Jenner hid her female gender identity from the world. Starting in 2009 and through 2014, there were a few clues and a lot of gossip that she had begun a gender transition, which was confirmed when she came out on national TV as transgender.

Even then, she confused some people by still using the name she was given at birth, and male pronouns, for a few more months.

In that interview, Jenner spoke about how she lettered in gridiron football, basketball, and athletics in high school in Connecticut, and independently took up waterskiing, becoming East Coast all-over champion in 1966, 1969, and 1971. She won a college football scholarship and played for the Graceland Yellowjackets before incurring a knee injury that required surgery, then switched to track and basketball.

Jenner took part in her first decathlon in 1971, she placed 10th in the Munich Olympic Games the following year. In 1976 she won a gold medal in Montreal and set a new world record, all while hiding the truth from the cheering fans, her coaches, her family, that she was not a man.

Flash forward to July 2015, one month after she came out as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, 65-year-old Jenner received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs in Los Angeles. I was there, covering the red carpet. We would meet a few weeks later for the launch of her “I Am Cait” reality television series, and again in January for a one-on-one interview at her mountain-top home high above the clouds in Malibu, Calif. Among other things, she told me she thought being banned from a men’s golf tournament was “cute.”

In spite of her instant worldwide fame, Jenner has been dogged by controversy, mocked by athletes, commentators and comics and scorned by LGBT people disappointed that she did not abandon her lifelong affiliation with the Republican party.

Since then, and especially after the cancellation of her show following its second season, Jenner has retreated from the spotlight. But she has not stopped donating to causes benefiting the transgender community, as well as funding research. Those efforts haven’t all been publicized, and that’s to her credit. Jenner should be applauded, and not just for turning 70 years young on October 28th.

While some of her public statements have gotten her into hot water, it is Jenner’s acceptance speech at the 2015 ESPYs that stands as her shining moment, a plea to the sports community to do better by transgender people. Here is the transcript, first published by Outsports co-founder Jim Buzinski on July 16, 2015. If you choose, you can watch it in full, below, courtesy of ABC News Nightline.

“Thank you so much. It is so wonderful to be here tonight. The last few months have been a whirlwind of so many different experiences and emotions. But to tell you the truth, every time I turn around in life, I’m putting myself in these high-pressure situations. Competing in the Games, raising a family. But I’ve never felt more pressured than I ever have in my life, than the last couple of months. Picking out this outfit — O.K., girls, I get it! You’ve got to get the shoes, the hair the make-up, the whole process is was exhausting. And next, the fashion police — please be kind on me, I’m new at this.

”But anyway, I just want to say a quick shout out to our soccer team. Ladies, you clean up very well.

”Well the real truth is that, before a just a few weeks ago... few months ago I had never met anybody else who was trans, who was like me. I had never met a trans person, never. Now, as you just saw, I dealt with my situation on my own in private and that turned this journey into an already incredible education.

”It’s been eye-opening, inspiring, but also frightening. 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.

”Just last month, the body of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, a transgender 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 transgender young man from Bloomfield, Michigan. In early April, Sam took his own life. Now, Sam’s story haunts me in particular because his death was a few days before ABC aired my interview with Diane Sawyer. Every time something like this happens, people wonder, ‘Could it have been different, if spotlighting this issue with more attention could have changed the way things happen?’ We’ll never know.

”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.

”My plea to you tonight is to join me in making this one of your issues as well. How do we start? We start with education. I was fortunate to meet Arthur Ashe a few times and I know how important education was to him. Learn as much as you can about another person to understand them better.

”I know the people in this room have respect for hard work, for training, for going through something difficult to achieve the outcome that you desire. I trained hard, I competed hard, and for that, people respected me.

”But this transition has been harder on me than anything I could imagine. And that’s the case for so many others besides me. For that reason alone, trans people deserve something vital. They deserve your respect. And from that respect comes a more compassionate community, a more empathetic society, and a better world for all of us.

”There have been so who have traveled this road before me. From, in sports, Renée Richards, to Chaz Bono, to Laverne Cox, and many others. Janet Mock is here tonight. And I want to thank them all publicly, and the ESPYs, and the late Arthur Ashe, for giving me this platform to start the next phase of my journey. I also want to acknowledge all the young trans athletes who are out there — given the chance to play sports as who they really are.

”And now, as of this week, it appears trans people will soon be serving in the military. That’s a great idea. We have come along way. But we have a lot of work to do.

”I’d like to thank personally, my buddy Diane Sawyer. You know, you can only tell your story the first time once and Diane you did it so authentically and so gracefully. And me and the community is so thankful for that. Thank you so much Diane, I’m so proud to have you as a friend.

”Here comes the tough part. I’d like to thank my family. The biggest fear in Caitlyn Jenner coming out was I never wanted to hurt anyone else. Most of all my family and my kids. I always wanted my children to be so proud of their dad because of what he has accomplished in his life. You guys have given so much back to me, you’ve given me so much support, I’m so so grateful to have all of you in my life. Thank you.

”And certainly last, but not least, my mother. My mom who, just a little over a week ago, had to have surgery and I didn’t think she was going to make it, but she is here with me tonight to share this night. Now, you know I always thought that I got my courage and my determination from my dad. He landed on Omaha beach and fought all the way through World War II. But you know what I’m realizing now, Mom, is that I got all those qualities form you. I love you very much. I’m so glad you’re here to share this with me.

”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.

”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.

”Thank you so much for this platform. Thank you so much for this honor bestowed on myself and my family. Thank you.”