Stop Defending the Sanctity of the ESPYs

Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. (Photo by Annie Leibovitz)

Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. (Photo by Annie Leibovitz)

Bruce Jenner was the most put-upon man in America.

There are so many reasons to be struck by sadness while watching an average episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. That you have found yourself watching it is reason enough. But to see an Olympic hero, one of the most dynamic and accomplished athletes in American history, reduced to a national joke — a punching bag for his famous-for-being-famous family — was what did me in. If Jenner was escaping out the back door for a good cry away from prying eyes, who could have blamed him? Stumbling upon the show for fifteen minutes is intolerable enough. Imagine it being the inescapable reality of your life.

Watch any episode and you will see the ridiculous condescension and disrespect this champion endured for affording these ingrates the fabulous life they lead. What strength it must take to endure all that.

Little did we know of the depths of that strength. And little did we know of the depths of that sadness.

Jenner’s reveal as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair this past Monday came weeks after the celebrated decathlete announced “he” had been a she all along, and the mild derision that news came with largely melted away when that cover dropped. It was an astonishing thing, that wide-spread acceptance. Many will point to the fact that she is conventionally beautiful as being responsible for that, and sure, that’s likely part of it. But in one morning, Jenner had gone from sad-sack Bruce, America’s most put-upon man, to Imperator Caitlyn, Warrior Queen of the Maligned.

It was, in short, awesome. Not just for the courage and audacity of its publicness, but that the public met it with such deep love and acceptance. It signalled a death-knell to “acceptable” transphobia. Polite society has known for some time now that racism and homophobia is no longer tolerated, but transphobic hate? I mean, hell, we barely even know what to call those people, so have at it.

Not on Monday. Those who boldly chose to stand on the wrong side of history were rightly raked over the coals for their bigotry, but with that public shaming comes an evolution in hatred: the need to couch one’s unacceptable hatred inside a seemingly acceptable opinion.

Enter the ESPYs.

Not long after Caitlyn Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair and was rocketing her way to a million Twitter followers, ESPN announced it would be awarding her the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at this year’s ESPYs, the network’s annual awards show celebrating the best the sports world has to offer — in a way that is, uhh, completely different from the trophies handed out within each sport. With that announcement came an eruption of venomous bile, masked as outrage over the elevation of Caitlyn Jenner over “more deserving nominees.” Indeed, you’ve likely seen it yourself seeping out of the most lecherous corners of your Facebook feed.

“What of Lauren Hill, the inspiring girl who fought through cancer to play basketball right to her dying day?” these people ask, with much more flagrant abuse of the Caps Lock button. “What of AMERICAN HERO Noah Galloway, a soldier who still competes hard in athletics despite losing two of his limbs in combat? Or Jim Kelly, who brought the same fight to cancer that he did to the football field?”

I am paraphrasing not to diminish the accomplishments of these three fighters, but because to directly quote this kind of argument would be to give the microphone over to blatant disrespect of Caitlyn Jenner. From the telling way in which these arguments refuse to call Caitlyn by the name and pronoun she has chosen for herself, to reducing the troubles of transgender people to “playing dress-up”, the implication that this is just a decision Caitlyn has made for attention, and finally, the demand that Jenner prove herself a true hero by refusing to accept this award. They write about Jenner as if she has died, expressing deep concern for what her children and grandchildren must be making of these turbulent times (nevermind that Jenner is the living embodiment of the top lesson we teach children: that they can be anything they want when they grow up).

The barely-veiled contempt of these arguments would be enough to put them in a burning dumpster where they belong, but they’re all built on a big lie: that anyone cares who wins the ESPYs. The sports awards that matter all get handed out at the end of the playoffs, which makes the ESPYs just another frivolous award show no more or less important than the Oscars, Grammys or Kids Choice Awards.

Your heroes are your heroes, and they won’t stop being heroic because they weren’t named Hero Magazine’s Hero of the Year. Acknowledging the courage of Jenner’s actions does not make Hill, Galloway or Kelly any less deserving of recognition, or their accomplishments any less courageous. Not winning an award doesn’t make you a loser.

And let’s get one thing straight here: Caitlyn Jenner is courageous. Go back and look at Keeping Up With The Kardashians again, and see the sadness of that put-upon man. It’s not the flippant disrespect that weighs him down, but the quiet heartbreak of providing a life of glamour and dresses and photo shoots and red carpets to his wife and daughters — a life he always wanted for himself, but was sequestered to watching from the sidelines, holding someone’s purse somewhere out of frame.

It takes no small amount of courage to go after anything you want in life, and even more when what you want is thought to be impossible. It is a difficult thing for private people, nevermind someone whose life is lived under the watchful eye of the public and all the derision that brings with it. There was no part of this change that was not a glorious act of rebellion, right down to spelling Caitlyn with a “C” — the ultimate F-U to Kris and the K Clan. It gives trans kids the world over something they have all too few: an icon. A warrior. A hero.

If you can’t understand that heroism, then fine, whatever. Follow Caitlyn Jenner’s lead and just do you. Live your life. But stop pretending that you give a shit about the ESPYs.