For the first time ever, the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award was bestowed upon two out and proud gay and lesbian pioneers, Wednesday, August 12, in a White House ceremony that brought me to tears.
Keeping his promise to be inclusive, President Barack Obama presented the nation’s highest civilian award to lesbian tennis legend and women’s rights activist, Billie Jean King, and the first openly gay politician ever elected to public office in a major city, Harvey Milk.
In total, the President gave 16 Medals to “agents of change,” people of mixed gender, race, nationality, and sexual-orientation, the list of which can be found at the bottom of this post, along with videos of the ground-breaking event.
“This is a chance for me and for the United States of America to say thank you to some of the finest citizens of this country and of all countries,” Obama told the audience assembled for the ceremony at the White House.
“At a moment when cynicism and doubt too often prevail, when our obligations to one another are too often forgotten, when the road ahead can seem too long or hard to tread, these extraordinary men and women, these agents of change, remind us that excellence is not beyond our abilities, that hope lies around the corner and that justice can still be won in the forgotten corners of this world. They remind us that we each have it within our powers to fulfill dreams, to advance the dreams of others and to remake the world for our children.”
Billie Jean King gets a hug and a smile from President Obama after he gives her the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, 8-12-09 photo
“These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds,” Obama continued. “ Their tremendous accomplishments span fields from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.
"What unites them is a belief . . . that our lives are what we make of them, that no barriers of race, gender or physical infirmity can restrain the human spirit, and that the truest test of a person's life is what we do for one another," Obama said.
Latina Broadway legend Chita Rivera shares a laugh with President Obama, 8-12-09 photo
"The recipients of the Medal of Freedom did not set out to win this or any other award. They did not set out in pursuit of glory or fame or riches," the President continued. "Rather they set out, guided by passion, committed to hard work, aided by persistence, often with few advantages but the gifts, grace and good name God gave them."
In his opening statement, the President talked about each recipient. On Milk, he said, “His name was Harvey Milk, and he was here to recruit us—all of us—to join a movement and change a nation. In the brief time in which he spoke—and ran and led—his voice stirred the aspirations of millions of people. His message of hope—hope unashamed, hope unafraid—could not ever be silenced.”
President Obama gives Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the world's leading anti-apartheid activist, his medal at the White House ceremony 8-12-09 photo
Honoring King, Obama noted that sports legend Billie Jean King is a role model for all women, including his own daughters and noted that she helped “change how women athletes and women everywhere view themselves and to give everyone—regardless of gender or sexual orientation . . . a chance to compete both on the court and in life.”
Presenting the posthumous award to Milk, which was accepted by his nephew Stuart Milk, the President remarked: "Harvey Bernard Milk dedicated his life to shattering boundaries and challenging assumptions. As one of the first openly gay elected officials in this country, he changed the landscape of opportunity for the nation's gay community." The White House also noted, when they first announced the honor, "Milk encouraged lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens to live their lives openly and believed coming out was the only way they could change society and achieve social equality."
President Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sandra Day O'Conner, the first woman Supreme Court Justice, 8-12-09 photo
As he hooked the Freedom Award around her neck, the President told King, one of the earliest gay sports figures to come out publicly (in 1981), "With Billie Jean King pushing us, the road ahead will be smoother for women, the future will be brighter for LGBT Americans, and our nation's commitment to equality will be stronger for all." The White House noted earlier that King, who was a ground-breaking professional tennis player in the 1960s and 1970s, has helped “champion gender equality issues not only in sports, but in all areas of public life.”
President Obama places the Medal of Freedom Award around the neck of Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Academy Award, 8-12-09 photo
More than 20,000 people have been awarded the Medal of Freedom since former president Harry Truman created it in 1945, but this is the first time openly gay people have been so honored. GLBT history has been made! Kudos to the best president ever—Barack Hussein Obama!
President Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to Joe Medicine Crow-High Bird, the last living Plains Indian war chief and author of seminal works in Native American history, 8-12-09 photo
MEDAL WINNERS (Source: The White House):
•Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a worldwide organization that raises funds for research and public awareness of breast cancer.
•Pedro José Greer Jr., a physician who founded medical clinics serving thousands of homeless people and members of the Little Havana community in Miami.
•Stephen Hawking, the physicist who overcame a severe physical disability to conduct pioneering research and write books including "A Brief History of Time."
•Jack Kemp, a U.S. Congressman, housing secretary under President George H.W. Bush, Republican nominee for vice president and professional football quarterback. He died in May.
•Sen. Edward Kennedy, known as the "Lion of the Senate" for his 46-year career as a lawmaker who has championed health care, public schools and civil rights.
•Billie Jean King, a professional tennis player, gender equality advocate and openly lesbian athlete who beat Bobby Riggs in the exhibition "Battle of the Sexes" match in 1973.
•Rev. Joseph Lowery, a U.S. and world civil rights leader for six decades who helped organize the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott after Rosa Parks was denied a seat.
•Joe Medicine Crow, the last living Plains Indian war chief, author and the last living person to receive testimony from a participant in the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.
• Harvey Milk, The first openly gay person elected into office in a major U.S. city, Milk is revered as a pioneer of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender civil rights movement. He was honored posthumously.
•Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, nominated by President Ronald Reagan after a career as an Arizona state senator and judge. She retired in 2006.
•Sidney Poitier, an actor who was the first African American to be nominated for and win an Academy Award for best actor, for his performance in "Lilies of the Field" in 1963.
•Chita Rivera, an actress, singer and dancer who starred as Anita in the Broadway premiere of "West Side Story," has won two Tony Awards and inspired women artists.
•Mary Robinson, Ireland's first female president, who later served as U.N. high commissioner for human rights and leads a human rights organization in New York.
•Janet Davison Rowley, a geneticist and professor at the University of Chicago who identified the cause of leukemia and whose research improved survival rates from cancers.
•Desmond Tutu, an Anglican archbishop emeritus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leading anti-apartheid activist in South Africa who is widely regarded as that nation's conscience.
•Muhammad Yunus, an economist and banker in Bangladesh who is a world leader in anti-poverty efforts for his pioneering of "micro-loans" to provide credit to poor people.
Check out this video of President Obama and Billie Jean King (pictured above), as she kisses her 2009 Presidential Medal Of Freedom Award, along with a CBS report on Billie Jean's life. Watch the entire ceremony in the bottom video:
Watch this video of President Obama talking about Harvey Milk's legacy before awarding the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom Award to Harvey’s nephew, Stuart Milk (pictured above). See the actual presentation in the video after this one:
Enjoy the complete 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony video with opening remarks by President Obama (pictured above):
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