My Review: Caitlyn Jenner’s ESPY Award Speech

Caitlyn Jenner accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award with a high-profile speech at the ESPYs last night.

Her recognition was greeted enthusiastically by many, but with a fair bit of skepticism by others who questioned whether someone who went through gender transition was really the best symbol of bravery.

Against that backdrop—and bearing the hopes of many who struggle with their identity—she proceeded to deliver a knockout speech that hit almost all of the right notes.

As I watched her talk, I kept thinking that many groups, once considered outside of the mainstream, had a person (or several) who helped change public perception by serving as a symbol for the broader group. Mildred and Richard Loving, for example, helped make mixed-race marriage more acceptable. Ellen DeGeneres helped gay women enter the mainstream. And Caitlyn Jenner, who has arguably become the highest-profile transgender woman in the world, wore her responsibility beautifully last night.

Jenner was careful to make the focus of her speech other people, not herself. She spoke movingly about transgender people—including teens—who have faced relentless bullying (or worse).

“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 coming to terms with who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”

She did one specific thing that I thought was brilliant. Speaking to a room full of athletes (at least some of whom, presumably, are not fully comfortable with transgender people), she sought to shrink the gap between athlete and transgender people by connecting them both through their similar qualities:

“I know the people in this room have respect for hard work, for training, for going through something difficult, to achieve the outcome that you desire. I trained hard. I competed hard. And for that, people respected me. But this transition has been harder on me than anything I could imagine…for that reason alone, trans people deserve something vital: they deserve your respect.”

Caitlyn Jenner ESPY
The only off-note in the entire speech was at the beginning, when Jenner made a few fashion-related jokes. That introduction felt inauthentic; her forced laugh made it clear to me that she was trying to connect to the audience even while feeling somewhat disconnected from that material. If I had coached her, I would have advised her to drop that bit—or shrink it to a line or two. It’s a good reminder that humor at the beginning of a talk is challenging, even for experienced speakers.

But that’s a small point. The bigger and much more substantial one is that this was a beautiful speech that helped move an entire group of people forward,

My new book, 101 Ways to Open a Speech, is now available at Amazon. You can read more about the book here