By: Terrence A.Merkerson
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
In 1976, Bruce Jenner was a rockstar. He and Stevie Wonder were likely the two most popular people in America that year. Jenner competed and won the gold medal in the 1976 Olympic Men’s Decathlon, earning him the accompanying title as the “World’s Greatest Athlete.” He was America’s Golden Boy. He was white, male, good looks, athletic, hard-working, and a champion. He was America’s champion. Women wanted him and guys wanted to be him, yet all he truly wanted to be was who he knew he really was. Ok, now let’s talk about courage.
In the past few weeks, following the announcement that Caitlyn Jenner was to be awarded the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2015 ESPY Awards, there has been much commentary on people trying to quantify the term “courage” and qualify why Jenner deserves or does not deserve to be associated with it and an award recognizing it. It has been said that what “he” did is not courageous and that the award should have gone to some one “more deserving”, like a military hero or to Lauren Hill, a young woman who passed away from cancer, but lived out her dream to play for her college’s women’s basketball team. Our servicemen sacrifice so much to preserve our freedom and they deserve our admiration and respect. If a serviceman had have been chosen, I would not have contested the selection. Lauren Hill’s story is captivating, powerful and inspirational. She would be have been an excellent selection for the award as well. That is the beautiful and powerful thing about “courage”; there are so many wonderful and exceptional ways it can be exhibited and it can mean so many different things to so many different people. For the most part, we can all agree that finding success in doing something that is challenging, dangerous, or adverse takes strength, resolve, and courage. Whether it’s a poor black kid who manages to navigate his or her way through all of the pitfalls that come with being poor and black to accomplish something great or a women’s collegiate athlete (from a city whose population was 97.91% white, with only 3% of families living below the poverty line) who courageously battled brain cancer or a serviceman who risks life and limb to preserve our liberties, they ALL would be very great and deserving candidates. But it was not any of those equally deserving stories that was selected for this particular award. It was Caitlyn Jenner’s story that was chosen and she is just as deserving as any one else.
Bruce Jenner making the choice to be honest with himself and, in consequence, be honest with all of us as well, is one of the most courageous public acts that we have witnessed in quite some time. Allow me to quantify AND qualify why any person who makes the choice to be who they truly are, knowing that they will be hated, discriminated against and marginalized because of that simple and fundamental choice, is one of the most courageous people you will ever meet. As harmful as homophobia has been and largely continues to be, transphobia is an issue in the fight for acceptance and equality that is often overshadowed. Unfortunately, those voices and stories often go unheard and unrecognized.
Over an estimated 41% of all people who identify as transgender or gender non-confirming, have attempted suicide at LEAST once. Around 20% of ALL violent hate crimes are committed against those who identify as transgender or gender non-confirming. Whether or not Caitlyn Jenner decides to be the public face for the transgender community, her profile and celebrity brings much-needed attention to this group and forces us to have dialogue about the many issues that transgender individuals face. Whenever a high-profile individual takes or makes a stance as a member of a marginalized group, he or she bears the honorable burden of taking a tremendous amount of criticism on behalf of the entire group. Accepting that role takes a significant amount of selflessness and yes, COURAGE.
I am not saying that Caitlyn Jenner is a deserving choice for an award honoring individual courage, but I will say that Caitlyn Jenner is as deserving as any other possible selection. Jenner does not have to be your hero nor does she have to be mine, but for an abused, neglected and marginalized community and those who (truly) advocate for equality, acceptance, and human rights, Caitlyn Jenner is a hero. Caitlyn Jenner is deserving. Caitlyn Jenner is courageous.
Terrence Merkerson is the Founder & Creator of Avenue Fifteen. Terrence earned Bachelor’s Degrees in both Political Science and Gender/Race Studies from the University of Alabama. Terrence also completed Graduate School at the University of Alabama earning a Master’s Degree in Communication Studies.
He currently resides in Baton Rouge, LA.