In her first major public appearance since announcing her decision to transition, Caitlyn Jenner mesmerized the crowd at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles on Wednesday as she accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPY Awards.
Jenner spoke about her own personal experience so far as a transgender woman. But she also dedicated a significant percentage of her speech to a thoughtful and touching discussion of the vast number of issues facing the larger transgender community.
"Trans people deserve something vital. They deserve your respect," she said. "And from that respect comes a more compassionate community, a more empathetic society and a better world for all of us."
"At this very moment there are young people coming to terms with being transgender," she added at another moment, noting the high levels of bullying, homicide and suicide the transgender community must grapple with still today. The trans community, she said, needs the American community's empathy and understanding.
Jenner admitted she had never talked with another transgender person up until very recently, in what she said was a truly educational experience. "It's been eye-opening inspiring but also frightening," she said of her overall experience since she told ABC's Diane Sawyer in April that she was transitioning.
In a video about her experience preceding the speech, Jenner discussed about what she has learned about trans-related issues since then and how she decided over time she would become not just a trans woman, but a trans advocate.
"I came to kind of a revelation that out of all the things I have done in my life, that maybe this is my calling," she said. "To take my struggle, throw it out in front of the world, maybe I can bring understanding on this subject. It’s time that I do my best. This is an issue we can deal with. This is not something people have to die over."
Maura Mandt, the ESPYs co-executive producer, told Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch in the lead up to the show that Jenner's decision to transition in such a public forum "displayed enormous courage and self-acceptance."
"Bruce Jenner could have easily gone off into the sunset as this American hero and never have dealt with this publicly. Doing so took enormous courage," Mandt told Deitsch. "He was one of the greatest athletes of our time. That is what the Arthur Ashe Courage Award is about, somebody from the athletic community who has done something that transcends sport."
Jenner became a household name in 1976 when she won the men's decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics. But after ESPN announced the selection of Jenner in June, the network faced large amounts of backlash from those who believed there were more deserving candidates. Bob Costas called the decision "a crass exploitation play" and criticism became so loud that ESPN issued a follow-up statement several days after the initial announcement:
The Arthur Ashe Courage Award is meant to honor individuals whose contributions transcend sports through courageous action. Sometimes that courage is demonstrated over the course of a lifetime and sometimes it is demonstrated in a single act that shines a light on an important contemporary issue. At all times, there are many worthy candidates. This year, we are proud to honor Caitlyn Jenner embracing her identity and doing so in a public way to help move forward a constructive dialogue about progress and acceptance.
The award is given to those "possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost."
ESPN's Ramona Shelburne summed up the feelings of many on Wednesday: