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Caitlyn Jenner accepts Arthur Ashe Courage Award at 2015 ESPYs

Honoree Caitlyn Jenner accepts the Arthur Ashe Courage

Honoree Caitlyn Jenner accepts the Arthur Ashe Courage Award onstage during The 2015 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater on July 15, 2015 in Los Angeles. Credit: Getty Images / Kevin Winter

Caitlyn Jenner introduced herself to a national television audience for the first time Wednesday night, accepting the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the annual ESPYs with a speech that mixed humor, education, defiance, gratitude and a call for greater tolerance for transgender people.

Jenner, who as Bruce Jenner won the gold medal in the Olympic decathlon in 1976, had struggled with gender identity throughout her life but only over the past two or three years had fully committed to transitioning to a female.

Earlier she had given an interview to Diane Sawyer of ABC before coming out fully as Caitlyn, which she first did in the form of a cover story in Vanity Fair magazine in June.

But this was her biggest stage yet -- the first time the ESPYs have been shown on ABC rather than ESPN and the first time the general public would get to hear her speak at length.

The choice of Jenner for the Ashe Award drew criticism from many quarters, decried by some as a publicity and ratings grab on the parts of both Jenner and ESPN -- a matter Jenner addressed in her speech.

The Jenner portion of the show, saved for the final hour of the three-hour program, began with an advertisement from Google that featured a gym that caters to transgender people and concluded with the word "Courage" on the screen.

Then U.S. women's national soccer team veteran Abby Wambach, who is openly gay, introduced a long video about Jenner's life that was narrated by the actor Jon Hamm and featured interviews with Jenner's mother, Esther, as well as a sister and daughter.

In the interview his mother said of learning that Jenner had struggled, "It just broke my heart, and I had no idea. . . . Of all people your mother should have a better insight than that. But he was awfully good at hiding it."

Said Jenner in the video, "I would feel like a liar all the time. It's too bad, because I wasted a lot of my life and nobody knew really who I am, and that's sad."

When the video was over, Wambach introduced Jenner, saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, the courageous, the stunning, Caitlyn Jenner."

Jenner then kissed her mother and rose to the stage wearing a white gown while the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Here is her speech, as transcribed by Newsday:

"Wow, I have to talk after that? Thank you so much. It is so wonderful to be here tonight. Now the last few months have been a whirlwind of so many different experiences and emotions. But to tell you the truth, it seems like every time I turn around in life I'm putting myself in these high-pressure situations: competing in the Games, raising a family.

"But I've never felt more pressure than I ever have felt in my life than over the last couple of months. Picking out this outfit. OK, girls, I get it. You've got to get the shoes, the hair, the makeup. The whole process, it was exhausting. And next: the fashion police. Ugh. Please be kind on me. I'm new at this. I just want to take a quick shout-out to our soccer team. Ladies: You clean up very well.

"The real truth is that before just a few months ago, I had never met anybody else who was trans, who was like me. I had never met a trans person -- never. Now as you just saw I dealt with my situation on my own, in private, and that turned this journey into an already incredible education. It's been eye-opening. Inspiring. But also frightening. All across the country, right now, all across the world, at this moment, there are young people coming to terms with being transgender.

"They're learning that they're different, and they're trying to figure out how to handle that, on top of every other problem that a teenager has. They're getting bullied. They're getting beaten up. They're getting murdered, and they're committing suicide. The numbers that you just heard before are staggering -- but they are the reality of what it's like to be trans today.

"Just last month, the body of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, a transgender young woman of color, was found in a field in Mississippi, stabbed to death. I also want to tell you about Sam Taub, a 15-year-old transgender young man from Bloomfield, Michigan. In early April, Sam took his own life.

"Now Sam's story haunts me in particular, because his death came a few days before ABC aired my interview with Diane Sawyer. Every time something like this happens, people wonder: Could it have been different if spotlighting this issue could've changed the way things happened? We'll never know. If there is one thing I do know about my life it is the power of the spotlight. Sometimes, it gets overwhelming. But with attention comes responsibility.

"As a group, as athletes, how you conduct your lives, what you say, what you do, is absorbed and observed by millions of people, especially young people. I know I'm clear in my responsibility going forward, to tell my story the right way, for me, to keep learning, to do whatever I can to reshape the landscape of how trans issues are viewed, how trans people are treated, and then, more broadly, to promote a very simple idea: Accepting people for who they are. Accepting people's differences.

"My plea to you tonight is to join me in making this one of your issues as well. How do we start? We start with education. I was fortunate enough to meet Arthur Ashe a few times, and I know how important education was to him. Learn as much as you can about another person to understand them better. I know the people in this room have respect for hard work, 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, and that's the case for so many others besides me. For that reason alone, trans people deserve something vital: They deserve your respect. And from that respect comes a more compassionate community, a more empathetic society, and a better world for all of us.

"There have been so many who have traveled this road before me. From sports, Renee Richards. To Chaz Bono, to Laverne Cox, and many others. Janet Mock, who's with us tonight, and I want to thank them all publicly, as well as the ESPYs and the late Arthur Ashe and his family for giving me this platform to start this next phase of my journey. I also want to acknowledge all the young, trans athletes who are out there, given the chance to play sports as who they really are.

"And now, as of this week it appears that this week trans people will soon be serving in the military. That's a great idea. We have come a long way. But we have a lot of work to do. I'd like to thank, personally, my buddy Diane Sawyer. You know, you can only tell your story the first time once and Diane, you did it so authentically and so gracefully, and me and the community is so thankful for that. And I thank you so much, Diane. I'm so proud to have you as a friend.

"Here comes the tough part: I'd like to thank my family. The biggest fear I've always had in coming out is I never wanted to hurt anyone else, most of all my family and my kids. I always wanted my kids to be proud of their dad and what he was able to accomplish in his life. You guys have given so much back to me; you've given me so much support. I am so, so grateful to have all of you in my life. Thank you. (Jenner dabbed a tear at that point.)

"And certainly last but not least, my mother. My mom, who just a little over a week ago had to have surgery and didn't think she was going to make it. But she is here with me tonight to share this night. Now, I always thought that I got my courage and my determination from my dad, who landed on Omaha Beach and fought all the way through World War II. But you know what I'm realizing now, Mom, I think I got all those qualities from you. Love you very much. I'm so glad you're here to share this with me.

"You know it is an honor to have the word 'courage' associated with my life. But on this night another word comes to mind, and that is 'fortunate.' I owe a lot to sports. It's shown me the world. It's given me an identity. If someone wanted to bully me, well, you know what, I was the MVP of the football team. That just wasn't going to be a problem.

"The same thing goes tonight. 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 being true to how they are, they shouldn't have to take it.

"So for the people out there wondering what this is all about -- whether it's about courage or controversy -- well, I'll tell you what it's all about. It's about what happens from here. It's not just about one person. It's about thousands of people. It's not just about me. It's about all of us, accepting one another. We're all different. That's not a bad thing. That's a good thing.

"And while it may not be easy to get past the things you always don't understand, I'm proof that it is absolutely possible if we only do it together. Thank you so much for this platform, thank you so much for this honor bestowed on myself and my family. Thank you."

Jenner left to another standing ovation.

New York Sports