Caitlyn Jenner, at ESPYs, pleads for acceptance of transgender people in first public appearance

Caitlyn Jenner, at ESPYs, pleads for acceptance of transgender people in first public appearance
Caitlyn Jenner accepts the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

"Ladies and gentlemen, the courageous, the stunning Caitlyn Jenner!"

With those words, soccer player and coach Abby Wambach introduced one of the most anticipated TV moments of the year -- the first major public appearance by Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce.

The introduction of Jenner by Wambach at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles came during the last hour of the ESPYs, a three-hour awards show on ABC honoring this year's highest achievements in sports. The Olympic champion was receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, an honor that has brought celebration and criticism.

Dressed in an elegant fitted white gown and with flowing brown hair that extended below her shoulders, Jenner, sitting in the front row with her mother and sister, rose to a standing ovation from an audience filled with celebrities and athletes. She took a deep breath as she stood on the stage.


At first Jenner seemed a bit nervous. The moment had been preceded by a 15-minute film narrated by Jon Hamm tracing Jenner's journey from Olympic gold medalist to her celebrity status as part of the "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" reality show franchise.

The piece focused on the pain and anguish she had endured struggling with her identity, particularly with a public image of strong masculinity.

"Wow, I have to talk after that?" Jenner said. But she immediately gained her poise. "Thank you so much. It is so wonderful to be with you tonight."

Jenner said the last few months had been "a whirlwind of so many different experiences and emotions. But to tell you the truth, it seems that every time I turn around in life, I'm putting myself in these high-pressure situations -- competing in the Games, raising a family. But I've never felt more pressure in my life than I have over the last couple of months."

She then quipped, "Picking out this outfit. OK, girls, I get it! You got to get the shoes, the hair, the makeup, the whole process. It was exhausting." She asked for leniency from the "fashion police. Please be kind on me -- I'm new at this."

She said that until a few weeks ago she had never met a transgender person like herself. She had dealt with her situation privately, and in that process had gained "an eye-opening education -- inspiring but also frightening."

She spoke of the dangers for transgender youth: "They're getting beaten up. They're getting bullied. They're getting murdered, and they're committing suicide."

Speaking of "the power of the spotlight," Jenner said, "I know I'm clear in my responsibility in going forward, to tell my story the right way, for me to keep learning, to reshape the landscape of how trans issues are viewed, how transgender people are treated."

She said she wanted to promote "a very simple idea -- accepting people for who they are."

Comparing her experience to her years as an athlete, Jenner said, "This transition has been harder on me than anything I could have imagined, and that's the case for so many others besides me."

She said she had been fortunate: "If someone wanted to bully me, I was the MVP of the football team and that wasn't going to be a problem.... If you want to call me names, make jokes of my intentions, go ahead. Because the reality is, I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with who they are, they shouldn't have to take it."

Toward the end of her speech, Jenner thanked "my buddy Diane Sawyer," who conducted the interview in which Jenner publicly revealed her transition for the first time. Sawyer sat in the front row at the ESPYs.

Jenner choked up while thanking her children and stepchildren, some of whom were sitting in the audience, including Kim Kardashian. She said her biggest fear in coming out was that she didn't want to hurt anyone, particularly her children, and she praised them for their support.

Jenner's honor has provoked debate, with sports personalities and others maintaining that awarding her the Ashe trophy was a gimmick to raise ratings. NBC's Bob Costas called it "a crass exploitation play, a tabloid play," and that Jenner had pushed out lesser, more deserving athletes for the award.

Speculation has revolved around a purported deal between ABC and Jenner, who granted an exclusive interview about her transition to Sawyer. Industry insiders say the award was a payback for the interview. ABC and ESPY producers denied the speculation.

Earlier in the evening, the telecast featured a tribute to Lauren Hill, a 19-year-old freshman at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati who battled an inoperable brain tumor to reach her dream of playing college basketball. She also helped raised money for cancer research.

Hill, who died in April, was the candidate that many in sports and entertainment circles said was far more deserving than Jenner of the Ashe honor.