“[Jenner] could have lived his entire life and let everyone believe the lie, believe the myth of the American hero. It takes an incredible amount of courage and strength to go against the grain of what people want you to be.” -Janet Mock, writer and trans advocate
What defines courage?
Last week Caitlyn Jenner was presented with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPYs after her transition earlier this year as a transgender woman.
There was controversy over this decision with a lot of people claiming that she didn’t deserve the award, that there were other, more deserving people, or even saying that the things Caitlyn has done did not require courage. I have heard people criticize her decision to become a woman by saying that it’s only a publicity stunt because Bruce Jenner was losing visibility. I’ve even heard that she didn’t go far enough in becoming a woman to be considered courageous, because she didn’t get gender reassignment surgery. So what should we make of Caitlyn Jenner? Is she a publicity seeking celebrity that will stoop to any level to get ratings? Or a hero who, in becoming her true self, has taught us to treat everyone with respect and dignity, no matter our differences? Or somewhere in the middle?
I have to admit that two months ago I had no idea that the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage even existed. So I took the time to look it up. Arthur Ashe was a professional tennis player who became the first black tennis player chosen for the United States Davis Cup team. He was also the first black man to win Wimbledon and the first black American to be ranked number 1 in the world. He was a political activist who used his position as a black man in a predominantly white world to advocate for education and social reforms here in the US and across the world. He contracted HIV in the early 80′s and turned his efforts to raising awareness of the disease while still advocating for the causes he believed in, speaking before the United Nations and petitioning in Washington D.C. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. Following his death to AIDS, an award named in his honor is given each year during the ESPYs to someone whose contributions transcend sports through courageous action. Past winners include Michael Sam, the first openly gay football player to be drafted by the NFL; Robin Roberts, a black woman who broke into the white male dominated world of sports journalism and a survivor of breast cancer and a rare blood disorder; Dewey Booth, a boxer convicted of murder who served 26 years in prison before his conviction was overturned; Nelson Mandela, South African president who worked to reconcile white and black South Africans through hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup; and Billie Jean King, a tennis player who won the 1972 US Open, but threatened to refuse to play again unless the women’s prize money was equal to the men’s prize money; along with many other notable sports figures who have gone above and beyond the sports world to fight for justice and equality.
To me, it seemed especially fitting that Caitlyn Jenner be honored with this award that has recognized athletes who break barriers and advocate for minorities and oppressed people groups. However, many others disagreed with me. Through this controversy I observed a few things:
First, most people have the idea that courage is somehow quantifiable. It can be measured by what you do. It seems everyone who disagreed with the decision had someone else in mind who was more courageous, who did more, or who overcame more.
Second, all the criticism I’ve heard has come from cisgender persons (cisgender, as opposed to transgender, is someone whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth). It strikes me as quite arrogant for someone who have never experienced gender dysphoria to be so critical of someone who does. If you’ve never experienced it, you can’t begin to guess what the struggle is like. Which brings me back to the idea that courage can be quantified. It’s hard to measure the courage it takes to face something you’ve never had to face.
Third, ironically, all the arguments for why Caitlyn doesn’t deserve the award for courage are actually proving the opposite. She has demonstrated courage just by putting up with all the criticism against her. She acknowledged this in her acceptance speech last Wednesday: “If you want to call me names, make fun of me, 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 being true to who they are; they shouldn’t have to take it.”
Which brings me to my last observation: Caitlyn Jenner is promoting awareness and acceptance of a group of people who have been bullied, ostracized, and victimized. Twenty percent of transgendered persons are homeless, often being sold into sex trafficking. Forty-one percent of transgendered persons will attempt suicide in their lifetime. I’m not going to tell you whether or not Caitlyn’s transformation was right, but if her public appearance stops one trans person from attempting suicide, then she’s a hero for me.
Courage in the Bible
Before we can say whether or not Caitlyn deserves an award for her courage, let’s take a look at courage in the Bible.
The most popular verse about courage is Joshua 1:9 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” These words were spoken to the nation of Israel as they were on the precipice of entering the land God had promised them. They were a small tribe, weary from a generation of wilderness wandering, discouraged by the reports of the powerful nations dwelling in the land, and ready to turn back to a life of slavery. Joshua calls for them to proceed in spite of their fear, to have confidence in the promises of God, to display courage in entering the land.
Throughout Israel’s history we see many people who displayed courage in spite of fear because of their faith in God. David went toe-to-toe against the well trained battle soldier Goliath because his faith in the God of Israel was greater than his fear of death. Daniel, though a war captive in a foreign land, “resolved not to defile himself” (Daniel 1:8) and risked demotion, execution, and later even a den of lions, each time displaying courage as he made the choice to honor God with his actions. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego also stood up to the king (literally) by refusing to bow before his golden image. When facing the possibility of death in a fiery furnace they told the king: “ If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18). When Mary finds out she is pregnant, facing social stigma, possible divorce, and even stoning for being an unwed mother, she responds with courage “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38).
Peter and John display courage in their act of civil disobedience in Acts 4. When told to stop speaking in the name of Jesus they answer, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard. (Acts 4:19-20).”
Jesus displayed courage when, hated by the religious leaders, jeered and insulted by the Roman leaders, and shouted down by the crowd, he chose to submit to the humiliation and pain of death at the violent hands of the humans he had created rather than use his power to escape their grip. Jesus endured the death of the cross, not because he wanted to prove something, but simply because of his love for us.
From the names listed in Hebrews 11, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab and many others, to the martyrs in Revelation and throughout church history, we have a great legacy of courage in the faith. They were men and women who acted with courage, facing their fears, some enduring death, all because they chose to do what was right instead of what was easy.
Can We Just Stop the Competition?
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” -Arthur Ashe, athlete and political activist
As much as I admire what Caitlyn has done for the transgender community, I don’t know that I would have chosen her for the award if it were up to me. I have a hard time saying who is most courageous because I don’t think courage is something that can be measured. We all have it, in some amount, and it shows up in different ways for different people.
Do you remember the scene in the 2004 movie Mean Girls where Cady was voted Spring Fling Queen? During her acceptance speech she acknowledged the many girls who were also deserving of the title. And as she did, she broke the crown into pieces, tossing them to the girls.
I feel like we should do that with an award for courage. This year I left my comfortable job for the unknown. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I finally had to face my fears and do what was right for my life. I feel like I deserve a little piece of the award. I have a friend who is in the middle of a divorce. She chose to leave her controlling and emotionally abusive husband even though it has been very unpopular with her evangelical Christian community. I feel like she deserves a little piece of the award. I have another friend who is forging her own life after growing up in a controlling, fundamentalist childhood. She’s been free for several years, but she lives every day with the echoes of her past. I feel like she deserves a little piece of the award. I know of a pastor in my denomination who celebrated a same sex couple in his church despite the public stance of the denomination. He will likely have to face consequences for that decision. I feel like he deserves a piece of the award.
Courage is something you may not even recognize in another person if you don’t know their struggles. I’m pretty comfortable with public speaking, but I know some people who are mortified by it. They display courage whenever they stand in front of a crowd. For me, a sober day is just a normal day, but for an addict, a sober day is a day of courage. Just getting out of bed in the morning and going about their routines is a great act of courage for someone who struggles with depression.
Courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, or pain. And you don’t know what courage another person needs to face their own demons.
Whether you’re looking at Caitlyn Jenner, a US soldier, a child fighting cancer, a recovering drug addict, or your own neighbor, you can’t measure courage from the outside looking in. Instead of trying to figure out who has more, let’s embrace it where we find it and practice it where it’s needed.
Where do you find courage? And how do you celebrate it?