I’m not a sports fan and I didn’t watch the ESPYs. I only caught a glimpse of the controversy through some of the postings about Caitlyn’s speech. I admired her line about “call me whatever you want, I can take it. But transgender children shouldn’t have to.” While trans rights and advocacy aren’t my primary focus, they’re on my radar as part of larger issues of social justice and equity for all people. I met a friend for dinner this evening, though, and he asked me my opinion, so I had to think it over more carefully.
He’d expressed a familiar sentiment, something along the lines of “why did she have to make a big deal of it? why did she deserve an award? why couldn’t she just do it quietly and not put herself in the spotlight?” Those are common questions when someone does something that makes people uncomfortable, makes them question what they know and, often, how they see themselves. It’s a sign of privilege, of whatever kind, that we feel affronted and inconvenienced by someone else’s statement of identity or independence.
But with regard to Caitlyn’s ESPY award, I’m reminded of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, and the controversy that raged around when it was awarded. I had my own mixed feelings. He didn’t really “do” anything to deserve the prize, but he certainly represented an enormous step for the US in moving toward a more equitable future. Whether someone’s symbolic value deserves that level of international, global recognition isn’t clear, but I believe that awarding that prize to Obama was an attempt to recognize our nation and its (bumbling) efforts to progress.
I believe the same is true of Caitlyn’s ESPY. While Bruce was an Olympic athlete deserving of every honor, he was out of the sports world for decades, and Caitlyn has never competed. But I think the award was bestowed for a similar reason as the Nobel – as a symbol of progress toward our betterment as people. That we can accept a trans woman as a high profile public figure, celebrate her courage and beauty, and give her a platform to be a role model for others struggling for acceptance, is astonishing.
So while I remain of mixed thoughts about both awards, I believe that they were given in a spirit of recognition – as a way to respect and honor what they represent, if not the individual themselves.