The Courage of an Olympian

What exactly is courage?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines courage as “the ability to do something you know is difficult or dangerous”, and “the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty”.

Courage has been on my mind this week as Caitlyn Jenner was last night awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the annual ESPY’s hosted by ESPN. Before we talk about Ms. Jenner, let’s backtrack a bit and talk about Arthur Ashe.

According to ESPN, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award is “one of the most prestigious in sports. Recipients reflect the spirit of Arthur Ashe, 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. The award is inspired by the life that Ashe lived, using his fame and stature to advocate for human rights, although, at the time, those positions may have been unpopular and were often controversial. From speaking out against apartheid in South Africa to revealing to the world his struggle with AIDS, Ashe never backed away from a difficult issue, even though doing so would have been easier.”

Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was an American professional tennis player. He was the only black man to ever win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, or the Australian Open. He retired in 1980. A few years later he contracted HIV, believed to be from a blood transfusion. He went public with his diagnosis in 1992 and began working to educate people about HIV and AIDS before his death on February 6, 1993.

Arthur Ashe - tennis champion and AIDS advocate
Arthur Ashe – tennis champion

In the world of 2015, calling someone an advocate for HIV and AIDS patients perhaps doesn’t convey the grit and personal conviction that was required of such a person back in the early 1990s. In 1982, around the time Mr. Ashe would have contracted the disease, the condition was referred to by varying names which all related in some way to male homosexuality: GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), “gay cancer”, “community-acquired immune dysfunction”, and “gay compromise syndrome”. The term AIDS wasn’t even suggested until September 1982, and throughout that year the American Centre for Disease Control (CDC) was still assessing the growing stream of reporting of this new illness.

The press began to refer to victims of the disease as the “four H club” (homosexuals, heroin addicts, haemophiliacs and Haitians), even though victims actually represented a much broader range of social groups (ie. anyone and everyone). The stigma and discrimination against members of these groups, already a serious issue, was made worse by the rapidly growing rate of infection and the lack of understanding about the nature of the disease. This combined with a very real fear that diagnosis meant almost certain death: at the end of 1981, of a total of 270 cases among gay men in the United States, 121 of those individuals had died. That’s 45%.

Fear of the disease was so great that victims were essentially pushed out of society. This problem was driven home by the story of a young boy, Ryan White, who was diagnosed at age 13 and was prohibited from attending school in 1985. His fight for his basic right to education, aided by some brave young teenagers pushing the envelope with their parents, led to federal legislation bearing his name: the Ryan White CARE Act, underpinning the US government’s efforts to improve the quality and availability of care for medically under-served people affected by HIV/AIDS. Ryan White died at age 18, a few months before the legislation was signed into law in 1990. It has been renewed multiple times since then. In 2005, federal funding for the law was 2.1 billion dollars.

We are so knowledgeable about AIDS now, I bet you had forgotten all about the red ribbon
We are so knowledgeable about AIDS now, I bet you had forgotten all about the red ribbon

So this is the environment that Arthur Ashe lived in, and this is the environment where he publicly emerged as an African American AIDS patient, eschewing his former glory on the tennis court for the horror, pity, and probably revulsion of the AIDS victim in 1992. His lending of his voice to the fight for the rights of HIV and AIDS patients in this setting was nothing short of an act of courage. He had “the ability to do something he knew was difficult or dangerous”, and “the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty”.

But unless you are an ESPN fan or an AIDS advocate, you’ve probably never heard of Arthur Ashe, so why is Caitlyn Jenner receiving the award suddenly in your newsfeed? It’s not like ESPN hasn’t previously courted controversy and spotlight; last year’s winner was Michael Sam, the first openly gay football player to be drafted by the NFL. After publicly acknowledging his homosexuality, Sam was drafted much lower than expected (the seventh round), and was eventually cut by the St. Louis Rams at the end of training camp. After spending time on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, he signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League (CFL) for the 2015 season.

At the time of Sam’s ESPY win, he talked about unintentionally becoming a role model, and the impact of his public proclamation. Sam recounted the story of a Missouri marine, who came out as gay to his father after seeing Sam’s public acknowledgement on ESPN.

But for all the attention on Sam after his coming out and the 2014 NFL draft results, there was no template for the controversy surrounding Caitlyn Jenner’s ESPY win this year. The public response has been vehement and spans the spectrum of full support to open disdain to simple ignorance. A quick Twitter check on the night of the awards revealed more than one user who questioned why Caitlyn Jenner should qualify for the aware because she’s “not even an athlete” (umm… if you are questioning Jenner’s athletic chops, click HERE or HERE).

Some were openly supportive, while others – not so much. Some called it a publicity stunt while others scoffingly supported her “journey” (their “quotes”, not mine).

The truth is, transgender people in the US and Canada today face much the same discrimination as that faced by the HIV and AIDS community back in the 80’s and early 90’s. According to the Washington Post, one survey found that 41% of transgender people had attempted suicide compared with 1.6% in the general population. Transgender people were nearly 4x more likely to face poverty and were 2x more likely to be unemployed. One fifth had been homeless (one third of respondents were turned away from homeless shelters), and nearly 25% had been sexually assaulted. Transgender respondents also face challenges accessing medical care and lost jobs because of their status.

In Canada, a study of youth found that 37% of trans students reported being physically assaulted, 49% reported sexual harassment, and 64% reported feeling unsafe at school. 90% of trans youth report hearing transphobic comments daily from peers or teachers, and were more likely to be the victims of theft. For adults, an Ontario-based study found that 50% of trans people were living on less than $15,000 per year, and hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation more than doubled between 2007 – 2008 and were the most violent of all hate crimes.

So, bringing it back to Ms. Jenner. Despite the burgeoning support for the LGBT community, living as a trans person clearly remains a minefield of torment. Even if you are an established, accomplished individual with a vocal and supportive family, standing on the public stage as a transgender person takes real, well, courage. The mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty. The ability to do something you know is difficult or dangerous. Or, if you’re Caitlyn Jenner and you acknowledge that you have an army of support around you, the ability and willingness to speak up for the transgender youth and adults who aren’t so fortunate. To take the pummeling so that hopefully, they don’t have to.

A statement of courage
A statement of courage

Whether or not you are yet comfortable with the transgender community, let’s all agree that Caitlyn showed courage. Let’s stop arguing that there are others more worthy.  Many who face adversity show courage, and honouring one is not to diminish another. Let’s celebrate those who speak up for the weak. Whether you hold yourself to a religious or to a secular moral code, let’s just show empathy and compassion and respect for each other.  Perhaps then there wouldn’t be such an exceptional need for courage.


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