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Jenner’s “Courage” – Three Ways Wrong

On July 15, Jenner accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS [1] and urged acceptance for others who are transgender, receiving a standing ovation from some of the sporting world’s biggest stars.  While acknowledging that “[t]his transition has been harder on me than anything I can imagine” and asserting “I never wanted to hurt anyone else, most of all my family and my kids…” an important question must be answered about the public spectacle that has captured the media’s attention these past few months: Does it take courage to do the wrong thing?

Three Victims In Need Of Care

Jenner’s fame and notoriety provided a platform long before ESPN made its curious choice to see this person as best reflecting “strength in the face of adversity, courage [2] in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for [his] beliefs no matter what the cost.”  The cost, I would suggest, is three-fold, and similarly, there are three levels at which solace need be offered.

Beginning at the broadest level, society suffers [3].  The ovation by sport and movie stars, while undoubtedly well-intended, reflects sadly on the state of societal understanding of the situation.  The rush to celebrate every new spectacle (cf. last year’s Ashe recipient [4]) fails to take seriously the confusion such situations are foisting on the broader culture, which is struggling with a myriad of threats to life (terrorism), liberty (religious), and the pursuit of happiness (found primarily in offering self-giving love to others).

Yet, Jenner used the ESPN platform to espouse his own thoughts [1] on happiness, which, while containing truisms (the need for all persons to be shown respect for their inherent dignity; the responsibility of those in the spotlight to be aware of “how you conduct your life, [as] what you say, what you do is absorbed by…young people” – yes, he really said this – more on this later), was also riddled with the type of confusing messages (“thousands of kids coming to terms with who they truly are” as ‘transgendered’) that may push already-distressed youth further into their own confusion, defeatism and anguish.  Jenner’s goal was to advocate for compassion and empathy, yet, wrapped in his own process, he is unable to see that the most compassionate and empathic thing he could have done would have been to explore his identity outside of the public spotlight—to keep this most private matter, private.

From a psychological perspective, Jenner makes two mistakes.  The first is believing that he can somehow heal his own experience by projecting it onto others and seeking their validation.  The second is thinking that he is freeing others facing the same struggles by encouraging them to surrender to their gender confusion quickly rather than pursing the longer, more difficult struggle for true healing.  While the proverbial toothpaste cannot be put back into the tube, the least that responsible adults in society can do is to stop the celebrating, and focus on the real healing that is needed.

The second victim is Jenner’s family.  Despite the profession that “I never wanted to hurt anyone else, most of all my family and my kids,” his choices about how to manage his experiences have impinged upon his children, some of whom may actually have preferred to have some private time (psychologically, this would likely take several years) to consider and adjust to what Jenner was contemplating, before having to deal with the scrutiny of the public eye.

The third victim, as you may anticipate, is Jenner himself, and all those who experience gender confusion.  Several [5] previous [6] articles [7] in these pages have attempted to address [6] the science and development of the phenomenon, and so it comes as no surprise that people are coming forward with painful yet compelling narratives of the failure [8] of misplaced efforts to accommodate their conflicted feelings.

Thus, the “courage” Jenner showed is not that of classic virtue theory which demands more than merely being fearless or willing to face perceived threats.  True courage, can only be found in choices and actions that result in flourishing and the greater good.  So, while Jenner’s actions were undoubtedly difficult, they were also detrimental to himself and to others, and so they were not, and could not, be truly courageous.

The courageous, and more difficult task, would have been to engage therapy earnestly, and likely at length, to put his children’s and wife’s needs ahead of his own, and to relinquish the spotlight, allowing some greater measure of truth and clarity to be evident to our children and society.