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Caitlyn's courage inspires trans community

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"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."

At its inception, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award venerated a world-class athlete who came forward in 1992 as having contracted AIDS at a time when this country, perhaps all the way from the White House to your house, was much more indifferent to the fate of those afflicted. It recognized that the same ethic that defines an athlete -- the ability to rise to a challenge -- can transcend sports and also guide his or her responses to challenges people confront the world over.

Honoring Caitlyn Jenner with the 2015 Arthur Ashe Courage Award is an example of the power of sports to transcend and humanize one such challenge, because it recognizes the simultaneity that the athlete who achieved incandescent Olympic glory in 1976 is also a transsexual woman. And in recognizing her decades-long struggle to act on her sense of self, it acknowledges the challenge is not hers alone -- it belongs, now as then, to all Americans, trans and not.

Jenner's greatness and her importance won on the field of sports is beyond question: A gold medal as a decathlete did not simply permanently place Jenner in the annals of sports history, it put her in every grocery store and on every television set. But in asking who won this year's Arthur Ashe Courage Award, in this instance "who" becomes in itself a loaded question, because who Caitlyn Jenner is and who she was are inextricably linked. We know, or thought we knew, who Jenner was. But today, we know more, and we better understand the challenge she confronted as an athlete in striving to excel at the same time that she dealt with the daily knowledge of who she was. Other athletes who have dealt with the challenge of hiding their identity or sexuality have spoken of the negative impact of life in the closet. Jenner had that and was nevertheless one of the greatest of all time.

Giving the award to Jenner is important because it doesn't simply provide an inspired answer to the question of who, it also demands answers to additional questions of when and why.

But asking who, not just of Jenner, but of any trans person, can invite asking a harder question: When? Recognizing that, in Jenner's case as in most others, a trans person knows this about themselves from earliest childhood, when is anyone supposed to do something about being trans? The easy answer, the truest answer, is that there are as many answers to that question as there are trans people, because the "right" answer is whenever works best for the individual. But Jenner is a member of a generation in which that question was harder to come to terms with as a child or a teen or an adult. And integrating an answer with her instinct to compete, going all the way back to the 1960s, was understandably inconceivable.

Today, policies for trans inclusion in sports are a tangle of potential exclusion. The IOC standard for inclusion -- surgery -- is something asked of no other athlete and differs from the standard for eligibility in the NCAA, as well as many states. Jenner might never have been allowed to compete had she transitioned then, robbing this country and the Olympics of one of its most indelible, unforgettable moments in sports history.

So "when" for Caitlyn Jenner? Now. Thanks to the increasing number of high-profile trans people, from actress Laverne Cox to triathlete Chris Mosier, now might be a great moment in terms of trans visibility and increasing acceptance, but there is still a long way to go in the face of both understandable ignorance and deliberate discrimination. As a public figure, Jenner has a legacy of achievement going back decades, and her decision to come out does not simply create a lens through which her past can be redefined and better understood.

Which brings us to "why." We should not ignore the response to the announcement that Jenner would be honored, and the attempt to create controversy over the selection by focusing on Jenner's more recent career in reality television and association with the ubiquitous Kardashians. Why Jenner?

The pushback makes the point.

Jenner's decision to come out has nothing to do with reality TV or ratings. It is an act of self-realization no less revolutionary because it was made by one of the greatest athletes of her generation and in the history of the Olympics. It is an act often attended by fear in the face of the unknown, conditioned by the low expectations created in a country where trans people experience unimaginable amounts of discrimination: Twenty-five percent of trans people have reported losing a job over coming out, and 90 percent have reported harassment in the workplace. Almost 80 percent of trans youth have reported harassment in school, and 22 percent of trans people report being harassed by the police, who are supposed to be their guardians. Trans people are four times more likely to live in poverty, and trans people of color, in particular, fare worse than any other group in most areas examined. And in the face of that crushing series of imposed burdens challenging any trans person's ability to endure, survive and live, it should come as little surprise that 41 percent of all trans people report attempting suicide.

The pushback generally elects to overlook these grim facts, or at best try to say that what's true for most surely is not true for Jenner. But recognizing Jenner represents just one point among many along a path that we are only just now blazing as a society, and sends the message that trans people are worthy and admirable for our excellence and our accomplishments -- not simply because those of us who are trans see that in ourselves, but because that can be recognized in anyone, and a trans person can be admired no more or less than any other. Jenner herself is a representative of possibility for present and future generations of trans youth who might reasonably wonder what the future can bring for them. She can take a place among a generation of high-profile trans folks speaking out for trans inclusion in American society and helping achieve it. Achieving a better future for all is a third act any of us would ask for, and she can help us do it just by being herself, now as 40 years ago: someone committed to excellence and achievement.

The importance of an award such as this is not limited to the recipient or those giving it, it also serves a purpose as a message to the audience. For trans people, giving this award to Jenner is perhaps less about pride in her career as an athlete and more about her recognition by a society that is at long last coming to terms that trans people exist, and that we, too, are capable of great things given equal opportunity.

Recognizing Jenner begins a conversation that involves all of us -- both the 700,000 or so of us in this country who are trans and the 320 million of us who are not -- to start talking about not just changing the grim numbers associated with trans people, but seeing, embracing and accepting the people behind them -- including Caitlyn Jenner, Olympian, trans woman, parent and possibility model.