It was her first major public appearance, and it was a big one.
Caitlyn Jenner delivered an emotional and powerful speech, bringing the entire crowd to its feet, as she accepted ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards on Wednesday in Los Angeles.
Clad in a glamorous, floor-length white Versace gown, Caitlyn accepted the award presented by two-time Olympic gold medalist and 2015 World Cup-winning U.S. soccer star Abby Wambach, who said she was proud of representing the “land of the free, home of the brave … but part of being an American is understanding that we can always get better.”
And for Caitlyn, 65, it has gotten better.
“The last few months have been a whirlwind of so many different experiences and emotions,” said Caitlyn. “To tell you the truth it seems like every time I turn around in life I put myself in these high-pressure situations … but I’ve never felt more pressure than I ever have felt in my life than over the last couple of months.”
That journey, Caitlyn said, has been “eye-opening, inspiring, but also frightening.”
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The speech brought tears to the eyes of Caitlyn and many of her children, nine of whom showed up to support her achievements. Among them, Burt Jenner and Cassandra Marino from first wife Chrystie Crownover, Brandon and Brody Jenner from second wife Linda Thompson, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner from third wife Kris Jenner. Caitlyn’s stepdaughters Kourtney and Khloé Kardashian and Kim Kardashian West were also in attendance.
“Here comes the tough part,” said Caitlyn with tears in her eyes. “I’d like to thank my family. I never wanted to hurt anyone else, most of all, my family and my kids. I always wanted my children to be so proud of their dad for what he was able to accomplish in his life. You guys have given so much back to me, given so much support. I am so grateful to have all of you in my life. Thank you.”
The children then wiped tears from their own eyes, noticeably moved by Caitlyn’s tribute.
Stepson Rob Kardashian was not in attendance. The onetime Keeping Up with the Kardashians star has become reclusive ever since gaining more than 100 lbs. in the past year according to mother Kris, who also did not attend the ceremony but has previously spoken out in support of her ex.
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In her speech, Caitlyn made sure to acknowledge the “power of the spotlight” not only for its burden but also for its potential to reshape “the landscape for the trans community.”
“Sometimes it gets overwhelming, but with attention comes responsibility,” she said. “As a group, as athletes, how you conduct your lives, what you say, what you do is observed by millions of people, especially young people.”
“My plea to you tonight is to join me,” she said to the crowd, both those in the room and those watching around the world. “Trans people deserve something. They deserve your respect. And from that respect comes a more compassionate country, a more empathetic society and a better world for all of us.”
As for the struggle facing young trans people today, Caitlyn had an important message: “All across this country, at this very moment there are young people coming to terms with being trans. They are getting bullied. They are getting beat up. They are getting murdered, and they are committing suicide. … If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead. The truth is I can take it. But for the kids out there coming to terms with being true with who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”
“We have come a long way,” acknowledged Caitlyn. “But we have a lot of work to do.”
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Formerly known as Bruce, Caitlyn won the 1976 Olympic decathlon, setting a world record and becoming an international sports star.
Despite being an Olympic gold medalist, Caitlyn faced backlash when she was chosen to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, but many came to her defense, including the organization itself and ESPYs host Joel McHale, who told PEOPLE on July 8 that there is “no question” Caitlyn deserves the award.
ESPN executive producer Maura Mandt spoke to Sports Illustrated about the choice to honor Caitlyn, saying the choice brings “the opportunity to educate people about this issue and hopefully change and possibly save some lives.”
“I think Caitlyn’s decision to publicly come out as a transgender woman and live as Caitlyn Jenner displayed enormous courage and self-acceptance. Bruce Jenner could have easily gone off into the sunset as this American hero and never have dealt with this publicly. Doing so took enormous courage. He was one of the greatest athletes of our time,” said Mandt. “That is what the Arthur Ashe Courage Award is about, somebody from the athletic community who has done something that transcends sport.”
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Next up, Caitlyn is set to star in I Am Cait, an eight-part docuseries premiering July 26 on E!