The internet reacted with vitriol when the trans advocate was given an ESPY award for courage. But as this writer, the military wife of a combat veteran, knows, you can’t quantify bravery.
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Caitlyn Jenner being chosen as the recipient of the 2015 ESPY Arthur Ashe Courage Award was the award show move that launched a thousand memes. If you’re on social media, you know the type: A split-screen image, with a photo of Caitlyn Jenner on one side, and a photo depicting a military injury, action, or ceremony on the other. The text says, roughly, “Caitlyn Jenner Isn’t Brave! This (insert soldier-type person here) Is Brave!”
As a mil. wife since 2002 (my husband is a now-retired combat veteran who served for 20 years as an Army officer), I call bullshit.
The most-publicized deployment of this meme concept came from Lone Survivor director Peter Berg. The morning after the ESPYs aired, he posted on Instagram a side-by-side of Jenner and U.S. Army veteran Gregory D. Gadson (an amputee and athlete), with the caption: “One man traded 2 legs for the freedom of the other to trade 2 balls for 2 boobs. Guess which man made the cover of Vanity Fair, was praised for his courage by President Obama and is to be honored with the ‘Arthur Ashe Courage Award’ by ESPN?”
Amid much backlash, Berg took down the image, issuing something of a non-apology to reporters: “I deleted it because I am deeply saddened over the rage and hatred on both sides it is responsible for.” The image’s removal was also likely hastened by a demand from the AKM-GSI, the agency that licensed the photo of Gadson. While initial reports stated that the agency didn’t want the image used without payment, Perez Hilton posted that a representative from AKM-GSI told him “we asked Peter Berg’s rep to take down our image … because we don’t agree with his message.”
Award-worthy sports performance is quantifiable—it all comes down to what’s on the scoreboard, scale, yardstick, or stop watch. It’s clear who the winner is, and there can be only one. But award-worthy courage isn’t measured by concrete units. These “brave-splaining” memes in the face of the Jenner commendation are a pointless exercise that twines transphobia (and trans-ignorance) around a false dichotomy: that the courage required for gender self-determination isn’t as valid, or as deep, as the courage required for combat. If you examine the statistics of violence against transpeople (quite apart from the snarky comments and jokes), you’ll actually see that, overall, being out as a transperson represents a tremendous threat to one’s physical person. As dangerous as combat? Depends on where he or she lives. In a hostile community, I’d dare say yes.
Jenner’s acceptance speech affirmed her worthiness as a recipient by shifting her challenges as a transperson into a call to activism. She acknowledged her privilege as a wealthy, world-famous former athlete while petitioning for the rights of others less fortuitously gifted. “You know,” she said, “it is an honor to have the word ‘courage’ associated with my life. But tonight another word comes to mind and that is fortunate. I owe a lot to sports. It has shown 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.”
Let’s see you make a meme out of that, haterbros.
Should you fear that military members approve of these trans-baiting memes, rest assured it’s not true. This Facebook message from 23-year-old soldier Joey Vicente was posted last Friday and quickly went viral. “Your negative opinions on Caitlyn Jenner and her deservedness of an award that you didn’t even know about until a few days ago are irrelevant,” he wrote. “Your definition of what or who a hero can or cannot be is irrelevant. 40 percent of the transgender community have attempted suicide. What if I told you that her speech last night saved even one human being from attempting to take their life. I’d call that a victory on any scale,” he continued. “I’d call that (gasp) … heroic? You don’t like that a female who used to identify as male got an award at a ceremony run by ESPN? Here’s a hint: Get over yourself. You are on the wrong side of history. Like many bigots of the civil-rights era, you will one day have to answer for your hate, whether it is to your God, a loved one, or your few hundred Facebook friends that you think give the slightest bit of a sh*t about what kind of sandwich you ate or what kind of workout you got in today. You want to voice your opinion? Please, I beg that you do,” he said. “But in using terms like ‘freak’ or ‘fa**ot’ you paint a much more vivid picture of yourself than you ever could of Caitlyn Jenner, a human being just now finally finding her comfort zone.”
Any yahoo who doesn’t think Jenner’s very public transition and activism represents courage should take a look at the massive amount of hostile reactions swirling in its wake. That tells you something—that she is working against a great deal of prejudice and resistance. Soldiers, for their myriad sacrifices and acts of bravery, toil in the upper echelon of admiration, gratitude, and above all, reverence. As Jenner herself said in her speech, “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.” It is respect that appears to be the missing factor among Jenner’s detractors. They don’t see her struggle as real, or her cause as legitimate. Or at least not as legit as others’, particularly the deservedly vaunted American soldier. But it’s not true. Just as there is more than one way to attain athletic excellence, there is more than one way to be courageous.
The timing of the memes juxtaposing a transwoman with a soldier is ironic, as they occurred in the very same week that the Pentagon announced it was continuing studies that might well end the military’s ban on transgender soldiers. Maybe someday soon, the next great military hero will be trans, and the false dichotomy will collapse on itself for good.
One of the internet comments criticizing Jenner for now identifying as female was a cheap shot fired down to the cellular level—that no matter how much surgery Jenner has or how many dresses she buys, Jenner still has XY chromosomes (a fact of which Jenner is probably well aware). The comment concluded thusly: “Just because you say that yellow is blue doesn’t make it blue.”
By that same token, just because someone’s acts of courage don’t meet your approval doesn’t make them any less courageous. Caitlyn Jenner is commendably brave and the protestations of the ignorant don’t change that … no matter how they dress it up.
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