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Caitlyn Jenner accepts ESPYs Arthur Ashe award: Transgender people 'deserve your respect'

The Olympic decathlon champion accepted the award during Wednesday night's ESPY Awards ceremony.
/ Source: TODAY

In her first major public appearance as Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympic decathlon champion accepted the ESPY Award for courage on Wednesday night with a declaration that "Trans people deserve something vital: They deserve your respect."

While accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, Jenner told the ESPYs audience that with respect "comes a more compassionate community, a more empathetic society, and a better world for all of us."

Caitlyn Jenner at 2015 ESPYS
Caitlyn Jenner was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Earlier in her acceptance speech, Jenner cited the deaths of Mercedes Williamson and Sam Taub, two members of the transgender community, and wondered if "spotlighting the issue with more attention" could have changed those outcomes.

"I know I'm clear with 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 for 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 [and] accepting people's differences," she added.

Caitlyn Jenner at the 2015 ESPYS
Honoree Caitlyn Jenner accepts the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from former professional soccer player Abby Wambach during the 2015 ESPYS on July 15, 2015 in Los Angeles.Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Jenner choked up while thanking her family members, many of whom attended the ceremony. "The biggest fear I had in coming out was that I never wanted to hurt anyone else, most of all, my family and my kids," she said. "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. You give me so much support. I am so, so grateful to have all of you in my life. Thank you."

Jenner also thanked her mom, Esther Jenner. "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 of those qualities from you," Jenner said. "I love you very much, and I'm so glad you're here to share this with me."

The honoree concluded that the award is about what happens going forward. "While it may not be easy to get past the things you always don't understand," she said, "I want to prove that it is absolutely possible if we only do it together."

Caitlyn Jenner
Caitlyn Jenner pictured on June 29, 2015 in New York City.Getty Images

World Cup soccer champion Abby Wambach introduced Jenner's ESPYs video segment, which profiled Jenner's life and transition. "I hope watching it does to you what it did to me: Surprise you, teach you, and help make our country a better place to live, and a better model for the world," Wambach said.

Rising to fame as Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, the honoree won the men's decathlon gold medal at the 1976 games in Montréal. More than four decades after the Olympic triumph, Jenner found a new and rabid fan base as a reality-TV star in 2007, when "Keeping up with the Kardashians" premiered on E!

Jenner first publicly identified as a woman during Diane Sawyer's April interview. On June 1, Buzz Bissinger's Vanity Fair cover story, "Call Me Caitlyn," revealed that sports network ESPN would honor her with the Ashe Award during Thursday night's broadcast on ABC.

The award is named after tennis champion and humanitarian Arthur Ashe, who, after contracting HIV, raised awareness about AIDS and money for related charities. Just months after Ashe passed away from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993, ESPN presented its first ESPY Award for courage in his name. According to ESPN's website, "Recipients reflect the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost."

Previous winners include Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Pat Tillman, Nelson Mandela, Michael Sam, and United Airlines Flight 93 passengers Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett and Jeremy Glick.

When it was announced Jenner would be receiving the award this year, ESPN received some backlash on social media. In a Sports Illustrated article published online Sunday, ESPYs co-executive producer Maura Mandt said it was the "right choice" to honor Jenner.

"I think Caitlyn’s decision to publicly come out as a transgender woman and live as Caitlyn Jenner displayed enormous courage and self-acceptance," Mandt told the magazine. "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. That is what the Arthur Ashe Courage Award is about, somebody from the athletic community who has done something that transcends sport."

The last seven weeks have been a whirlwind for Jenner. On the same day her Vanity Fair article was posted, she launched her Twitter account, and needed just over 4 hours to collect 1 million followers — breaking Barack Obama's record.

Two days later, TODAY revealed NBC's exclusive first look at Jenner's new reality series, "I Am Cait." In the clip, Jenner says, "Put it this way: I'm the new normal."

On June 17, ESPYs host Joel McHale took a break from teasing the Kardashians on "The Soup" to tell Kathie Lee & Hoda he was "very excited" to help the sports network honor Jenner. He added, "Caitlyn, when she was Bruce, was one of the greatest athletes of all time."

Later that month, transgender TV star Laverne Cox praised Jenner on TODAY, with the Emmy-nominated "Orange is the New Black" star adding, "For me, it's always about loving and supporting my trans siblings."

During a July 7 appearance on TODAY, Jenner's son Brody said he's been getting along better with Caitlyn better than he did with Bruce.

"Caitlyn is just a much freer person," he added. "It's incredible to see the difference between Caitlyn and Bruce."

Fans, too, are weighing in, and Jenner's encouraging that feedback. On July 6, Jenner posted an update to her website asking members of the transgender community if she was "doing it right," which she followed up by sharing a note from a fan that suggested the best thing Jenner could do for the transgender community is "to *be* Caitlyn."

The buzz surrounding Jenner will likely only continue to grow this month: Her new TV series, "I Am Cait," premieres July 26 on E!

Follow writer Chris Serico on Twitter.