By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) I was asked a good question Wednesday night on Twitter that needs way more than 140 characters to answer.
@TimBaffoe honest question: is it possible to understand and embrace trans people but still feel the award should go to Lauren Hill?— Ryan (@RyanQDavis) July 16, 2015
It should be first noted that to measure one person’s deemed courage against another person’s deemed courage for the sake of a sports award show is semantical, silly and devalues and inappropriately qualifies courage. It also puts both people in unfair positions. Though, I don’t see the intention of this question as such. Producers at ESPN have done a perfectly satisfactory job of explaining the choice of Caitlyn Jenner for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs, but what Caitlyn and Lauren represent beyond a trophy merits further discussion.
Lauren, the late Mt. St. Joseph University basketball player, did receive an award at the ESPYs — “Best Moment.” If we’re being really honest with ourselves, hers is both one that honors her fight and, cynical as it sounds, is much the same award in spirit as Caitlyn’s. Both honor someone in the sports world doing something extraordinary to sports.
“Courage” is subjective, and its various interpretations are spread across locker rooms, car bumpers and Facebook statuses worldwide. What is unfortunately a very familiar example of courage to us all is a loved one living with cancer. That cancer touches us all and is so unfairly common makes those who battle it no less courageous or inspiring.
But the fight for acceptance in the LGBT community (and by that not merely the right to not be arrested, assaulted or ostracized but to live as a human being who loves and hurts with the same passions and emotions as anyone else — the constant quest to not only be not considered abnormal but to get everyone to ask themselves the rhetorical question of “What the hell is normal anyway?” and hopefully laugh at its lack of an answer) doesn’t touch us all as cancer does.
It doesn’t receive the embrace that the fight to defeat cancer individually and wholly does, and that particularly goes for the T of LGBT. Transgender people are shunned, are told that what they know is themselves is a chosen cancer of the mind, are abused in myriad ways and aren’t allowed to live as people because too many supposed “normal” people are too scared of something they don’t understand and don’t want to try to understand (the ironic hallmark of American “normal” really).
Cancer has taken my mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and teenage students. It hasn’t battled hate crimes, reductive language, epithets or attempts by fellow humans to dehumanize. It hasn’t had to ask someone to reconsider his or her obstinacy over previous control of gender pronouns for the sake of someone’s dignity. When someone with cancer asks to be referred to as “living with” instead of “suffering from,” it’s celebrated. When a transgender woman asks to be referred to as “she,” as “Caitlyn,” it’s met with scorn and jokes.
Transgender people are actively prevented from living happy, productive lives by people for whom “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is fine so long as it fits their comfort zones. That the harmless happiness of someone so shakes fragile, rigid minds and influences authority figures to condemn that happiness is a daily life I can’t fathom. What I do know is that to attempt to live happily in the face of condemnation by loved ones and/or vocal, influential strangers is one of my subjective definitions of courage.
Caitlyn is literally saving lives and educating minds for the better. She’s creating lasting happiness that goes beyond the quick doses of pathos of an awards show achievement award.
Speaking up for people considered subhuman by many inconsiderate people is something beyond asking for cancer research donations. And it’s different than Jimmy V, Stuart Scott or Lauren Hill inspiring universally. Because it’s a special kind of courage that sticks up for those hardly respected by the masses but no less deserving of that respect. And when we try to put “courage” into a more universal, comfortable box, we’ve stripped the word of its spirit. Courage is decidedly uncomfortable.
Caitlyn Jenner’s celebrity and platform carries more weight than the average transgender person, because of what she represented for so many decades ago as a champion athlete and still represents for many as a champion athlete. And in spite of the cynics who use her celeb status illogically against her, she’s using it to encourage and inform.
Those who fight bravely for themselves and others. Those for the moment too afraid to be what they know they are or to fight for others. Those who have had it gradually, systematically, physically, verbally, suddenly, passively or harshly beaten into them that it will never get better. And those who have done that beating.
That to me is an example of courage of which I’m not capable. It’s also courage for which getting an award in no way diminishes anything about Lauren Hill or anyone else clamored for to receive an ESPY.
And if receiving a subjective award on national TV amid accusations that it’s all a ratings grab helps people unfairly made to feel different instead feel better about themselves as human beings? And if it gets other people to do some self-reflection about their scruples, something that even the most touching cancer speech can’t quite do and shouldn’t have to do?
Then I’m all for it. Just as I’m all for people like yourself asking respectful questions in order to better understand uncomfortable things.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.