In a rousing speech on Wednesday night, Caitlyn Jenner said she would use her star power to fight for greater acceptance of transgender people, especially on behalf of young teens who she said were too often the victims of bullying and violence.
In the speech, which marked her acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage award at the ESPYs in Los Angeles, Jenner remembered two trans teens who died this year: 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson and 15-year-old Sam Taub.
Jenner said the deaths of Williamson and Taub were painful reminders of the challenges that face young people struggling with their gender identity.
“They’re getting bullied, they’re getting beaten up, they’re getting murdered, they’re committing suicide,” she said.
Williamson was found murdered last month in Mississippi, where she was living at the time, according to the Sun Herald, a newspaper serving southern Mississippi. Police found Williamson’s remains in a wooded area in George County. Josh Vallum, 28, has been arrested and charged in connection with her murder and is being held on $1m bail.
Police are still investigating Williamson’s death, and whether the killing was a hate crime, the paper reported. Vallum has not been indicted, according to the George County clerk’s office.
Taub, a junior derby skater in West Bloomfield, Michigan, killed himself on 9 April. Derby Central, a roller derby news site, reported that before his death, Taub had “recently begun conversations with those closest to them about gender identity”. The site also noted that Taub had experienced “bullying from peers”.
Jenner said Taub’s story “haunts” her, because his death came just days before she said publicly she identified as a woman, in a much publicized interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer.
“Every time something like this happens, people wonder, ‘Could it have been different, if spotlighting this issue with more attention could have changed the way things happen?’” Jenner asked. “We’ll never know.”
Studies show that suicide affects the trans community at significantly higher rates than the general population. A recent report on suicide attempts among transgender and non-conforming adults, by the Williams Institute in collaboration with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, found that among respondents aged 18 to 65, 46% of trans men and 42% of trans women reported attempting suicide at least once in their lifetime.
Only 4.6% of the overall US population has reported a suicide attempt, according to the report.
In her speech, Jenner added: “If you want to call me names … go ahead, I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.
“If there is one thing I do know about my life, it is the power of the spotlight,” said Jenner, a former Olympic decathlete who became known to many as the father in the reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. “Sometimes it gets overwhelming, but with attention comes responsibility.”
Jenner vowed to use her platform to “do whatever I can to reshape the landscape of how transgender people are viewed and treated”. She also commended the work of trans activists including Renée Richards, Chaz Bono and Laverne Cox.
“I’m clear with my responsibility going forward,” she said, “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.”
On social media, users welcomed Jenner’s words.
Instagram user @Lethallylovesick, a self-styled “trans(per)formance artist, writer and designer”, praised Jenner for her speech.
“Knowing that someone like her, someone who was so ingrained in the public eye as a figure of machismo, has the courage and strength to do this, and use their platform for such an amazing cause, was just beyond touching to me. Her speech was beautiful and poignant, and I am excited to see where she leads the trans community in the future.
Also that #Versace gown was stunning.”