— Jerry Wares (@JerryWares) June 17, 2021
THIS IS WHAT BRAVERY LOOKS LIKE, NOT A MAN WEARING A DRESS! pic.twitter.com/1SuwZ8ldXnIs This Sgt. Rubino of the New Haven Police Department Using Excessive Force During June 2020 Protests?Is This Sgt. Rubino of the New Have...
— Phx Ken (@PhxKen) May 27, 2016
"As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman, and I hear words like, bravery, heroism, and courage, just thought I’d remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like!" from ShitAmericansSay
In 2015, the image spread from a Facebook post shared hundreds of thousands of times. The account which shared the photograph wrote:
As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman, and I hear words like, bravery, heroism, and courage, just thought I’d remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like!
What a lot of the post’s original sharers missed was the poster’s since-deleted mea culpa not long after. In a June 2015 post (archived), the original poster apologized after learning about the image’s origin:
This is the photo I shared yesterday in the spirit of spotlighting “true bravery.”
This photo that accompanied my words, was chosen from a quick image search. Just wanted something to fit my words. I wanted to find out who the photographer was, so I could credit his work.
In an ironic twist, I have discovered that the photo is part of a documentary created by a man who was beaten nearly to death outside of a bar in 2000. After spending 9 days in a coma, suffering severe brain damage and being unable to walk or talk for a year, he chose to try and cope with his pain from the tragic event, by creating a world of stories and characters and photos set in WWII. The image I chose, was one of those created for an upcoming documentary. Why was he nearly beaten to death by 5 strangers?
Because he was a cross-dresser.
I could have chosen one of hundreds of other photos. But I didn’t, I chose this one. Do I think it was an accident? I don’t.
What happened to this man was wrong, cruel, and unforgivable.
Hate helps nothing.
Love wounds no one.
and God heals all.
(and irony makes us think)
The photographer mentioned is a man named Mark Hogancamp, and a 2015 New York Times profile published prior to the controversy (“Mark Hogancamp, the Artist as [Imagined] War Hero”) explained:
In real life, Mr. Hogancamp lives alone in an overstuffed trailer near Kingston, N.Y., where he busies himself with carpentry and photography, building and documenting a meticulous fantasy world of his own invention.
A vicious assault 15 years [before 2015], by five men outside a Kingston bar, left Mr. Hogancamp with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, which he combats in an unparalleled and cinematic way. He is the creator of Marwencol, a small universe that sits next to his trailer, filled with World War II narratives in one-sixth scale miniature and populated by Barbies and other dolls. The alternate Mark Hogancamp, an action figure in a bomber jacket, exists here. Fight scenes, dramatic rescues and love triangles are painstakingly arranged to play out before Mr. Hogancamp’s camera. The resulting images are startlingly lifelike, poignant and, for him, therapeutic.
Once shy and scarred, especially about revealing what got him beaten up — his fondness for wearing women’s shoes and stockings — he is now more comfortable cross-dressing. He turned up at the gallery with a camera and a pair of pointy black slingbacks, rhinestones sparkling over the toes. (His own toes were painted purplish-red.)
Marwencol.com summarized Hogancamp’s photography:
On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was attacked by five men and left for dead outside of a bar in Kingston, NY. After nine days in a coma, he awoke to find he had no memory of his previous adult life. He had to relearn how to eat, walk and write.
When his state-sponsored rehabilitative therapies ran out, Mark took his recovery into his own hands. In his backyard, he created a new world entirely within his control – a 1:6 scale World War II town he named Marwencol. Using doll alter egos of his friends and family, his attackers and himself, Mark enacted epic battles and recreated memories, which he captured in strikingly realistic photographs. Those photos eventually caught the eye of the art world, which lead to a series of gallery exhibitions, the award-winning documentary “Marwencol,” the acclaimed book “Welcome to Marwencol,” and a new identity for a man once ridiculed for playing with dolls.
Although the original author of the 2015 Facebook post featuring the “This is what bravery looks like, not a man wearing a dress” post researched the image and apologized for their original position, it still spread on social media without context — often to discredit people who are not gender-conforming. As noted in the “mea culpa” post in June 2015, Hogancamp created the image with dolls as part of his effort to work through being severely beaten and left for dead — and the cause of the attack was his own “fondness for wearing women’s shoes and stockings.”