Caitlyn Jenner steps out to receive ESPY sports courage award amid controversy

Caitlyn Jenner making her first major public appearance to accept the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
Caitlyn Jenner making her first major public appearance to accept the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Olympic champion Caitlyn Jenner issued an impassioned plea for transgender acceptance on Wednesday in her first public appearance since coming out as a transgender woman, defying a blizzard of derision on social media.

Formerly Bruce Jenner, the United States decathlon champion of the 1976 Montreal Olympics seized the moment for transgender advocacy as she collected the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the nationally televised ESPY sports awards gala in Los Angeles.

"If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead - because the reality is, I can take it," said Jenner, 65, dominating the stage in an elegant form-fitting white gown and wavy shoulder-length hair.

"But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are - they shouldn't have to take it," she said to robust applause from a theater full of top US college and pro athletes, including the World Cup-winning US women's soccer squad.

It was Jenner's first major public appearance since coming out as a transgender woman in an televised interview in April where she discussed how she had been grappling her gender identity since childhood.

Named for the US tennis star who died of Aids in 1993, the Arthur Ashe award has in past years gone to athletes like Billy Jean King and Muhammad Ali and non-athletes including Nelson Mandela.

But throughout the three-hour prime-time ESPY broadcast, hundreds of posts appeared on Twitter demanding to know why the Olympian turned reality TV star on Keeping Up With The Kardashians was being honoured for courage, four decades after a gold-medal triumph.

Many thought Lauren Hill, who fulfilled her dream of playing college basketball in Ohio despite a brain tumour that took her life in April at the age of 19, was more deserving. She instead was recognised with a "best moment" award, presented to her parents, for a game in which she scored the first and last baskets.

Jenner, whose mother, sister and children attended the awards, said her life going forward would be dedicated to doing whatever she could "to reshape the landscape of how trans people are viewed and treated... (and) to promote a very simple idea - accepting people for who they are."

Nearly a half-hour of the broadcast on ABC television was dedicated to Jenner, including a 15-minute biographical video that the ESPN sports network, which sponsors the Excellence In Sports Performance Yearly accolades, immediately posted on social media.

It was preceded by a commercial for Google that portrayed a gym in Kansas City, Missouri and how it strives to give a sense of belonging to transgender youth.