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The Lesson Behind Caitlyn Jenner’s Acceptance Speech At The ESPYs

At the 2015 ESPY Awards on Wednesday night, Caitlyn Jenner made her first big public appearance to accept the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

Inspiring a pool of watery eyes in both the Microsoft Theater and around the globe, Jenner taught us a number of valuable lessons in what will go down in history as one of the most important speeches in the world.

One of the biggest takeaways of Jenner's speech was her dialogue on acceptance.

It’s a not a foreign word to us, and we express our familiarities with the term as often as it headlines the news. But, the novelty of the word, as well as its prevalence, often trumps its definition.

And, in a single sentence, Caitlyn Jenner reminded us:

“Learn as much as you can about another person to understand them better.”

It's such a simple lesson, but it’s one that often gets lost in the chaos of any transition, struggle and circumstance thrown into our lives and the lives of those around us.

You see, Caitlyn Jenner's lesson did not begin the moment she stepped onto that stage. It did not follow the breath of the aforementioned words.

You may think it began when she first came out in her interview with Diane Sawyer, and you’d be partially right. That story did shift many people's perceptions and notions of tolerance.

But, the true lesson of acceptance unraveled when Jenner was announced as the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Award.

Going back a bit further — when the former Olympian first dropped “Bruce” and graced the cover of Vanity Fair — there was an uproar of positive feedback in the community of people who supported her transition.

That same uproar was muted a bit when the ESPY honor was announced. Why is that?

The big difference between the two announcements is the platform in which they were announced and the reactions they required.

The Vanity Fair cover and exposé of Jenner's new life required nothing but the public's acknowledgement. There was nothing to do with the issue other than to process and affirm.

In smaller communities and remote efforts, movements and action had taken place in support of Caitlyn. But, for the community at large, the deemed “acceptance” was a lazy version of the notion.

Whatever the term for “surface-level acceptance” is, that’s what we did.

Call it “shallow acceptance.” Call it “neutral acceptance,” or call it what it is: a barely-there tolerance.

We acknowledged Jenner. We processed what she is: a transgender woman. And we moved along.

But, we failed to process the one important thing, the only thing that actually matters: who she is. And this was proven in the events and reactions leading up to last night.

Acceptance on a greater scale could not be measured until Jenner took to a platform that did affect a larger community, the 2015 ESPY Awards.

This was a ceremony that affected the masses and Jenner was the headline. The public had to do more than acknowledge the former athlete.

They had to, at that point, accept her.

So, while the positive messages were abundant in the acknowledgement of her transition, there were many mixed reactions with the acceptance of it.

Many of the reactions focused on the disapproval of the chosen recipient of the Arthur Ashe Award.

Many people disputed what it means to be courageous. Many people were appalled that someone who is so big in the media would win an award in sports over another courageous athlete.

Many people forgot Jenner is a gold-medal-winning Olympic champion.

Fear and misunderstanding, more than anything else, led to those hateful and disapproving remarks. And it just stems from failing to accept Caitlyn the first time around.

Many of us never really understood her or learned enough about her from the start.

Acknowledgement is not acceptance. Acceptance does not reveal itself until it’s put into action.

And it most certainly does not exist without empathy, human compassion, insight and understanding.

We’re often told to mind our own business, but if you don’t consider someone else’s “business,” then how can you stand up and say you support him or her?

We were all “there” for Caitlyn when she came out: “Yes! YOU GO, GIRL!” “You are so brave!” “You are so beautiful!” “I ACCEPT you as a happy transgender woman.”

But, do you? Why do you accept her? I mean, most of us never knew her personally, and most of us never will.

So, if tomorrow, someone you respected and loved came forward and said something hateful about Jenner’s transformation, what would you say?

Would you stand up for her after claiming your acceptance?

Because, after all, you mind your own business. So, what business do you have defending her? Your “barely-there tolerance” doesn’t give you much ground to cover.

That is, not until you start thinking about the prospect of your father taking the same journey. Or your mother. Or your son, your daughter, your sisters and brothers.

And only then will you really examine the situation, its intricacies, the lives it affects and the emotions it uncovers.

You unravel the bits and pieces of this process you know so little about, but you realize it’s probably incredibly intense and unequivocally the greatest liberation someone must feel.

That is when you exercise empathy. That is when you get it. That is when you accept the person.

We don’t do that as often as we should, but we like to believe we do.

When is the last time you processed someone else’s affairs with such a thorough review, with no intention other than to better understand his or her situation?

Our acceptance isn’t always tested, and so it never really comes to light. And there is nothing to be done with it.

We say we accept, we hear ourselves say it, and we move along. And that’s it. No effort. No authenticity.

And at the same time, we’re living in an era where acceptance is so prevalent.

We’re in a time when different people, like Caitlyn Jenner, are breaking free from the confines of outdated norms and labels.

They are coming forward as the people they were always meant to be and seeking that acceptance.

It’s an extraordinary time to be alive. And so, we owe it to ourselves, and to everyone brave enough to share themselves with the world, to do “acceptance” right.

To accept with purpose, effort, authenticity and empathy.

Jenner said,

“Trans people deserve something vital: They deserve your respect.”

Transgenders, like all other human beings, deserve your acceptance, tolerance and respect.

Learn everything you can about them, and you won’t be inclined to dismiss them in the situations with which you are unfamiliar.

Accept and learn to intentionally understand. It’s the human thing to do.

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Katya Polo

Contributor

Born and bred New Yorker, Katya Polo is a multi-dimensional woman. While her exterior exhibits an aspiring businesswoman and avid hockey fan, Kathy is a writer at heart. Learn more about her work and recently published book at katyapolo.com.
Born and bred New Yorker, Katya Polo is a multi-dimensional woman. While her exterior exhibits an aspiring businesswoman and avid hockey fan, Kathy is a writer at heart. Learn more about her work and recently published book at katyapolo.com.

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