President Obama today announced the 16 recipients of the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Among those honored will be LGBT rights pioneer, Harvey Milk, as well as openly lesbian tennis champion and gender equality activist, Billie Jean King.
Milk and King are the first openly LGBT people to be honored by the distinguished prize.
The Medal of Freedom is awarded to individuals who make an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private endeavors.
In a statement released Thursday, President Obama expounded on the prodigious accomplishments achieved by the honorees:
Each [of the recipients] has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way. Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive. It is my great honor to award them the Medal of Freedom.
Others presidential honorees include Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), South African activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Reverend Joseph Lowery, all of whom have championed LGBT equality across the globe. Tutu was honored by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) in April 2008 for his remarkable strides to end homophobia.
Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, an organization devoted to “identifying, training and electing LGBT leaders to all levels of office in every corner of America,” noted the significance of the president’s selection of Harvey Milk:
We are thrilled President Obama is honoring Harvey Milk with the Medal of Freedom. He’s an American hero and trailblazer whose election more than 30 years ago triggered a political awakening that inspires us still today. This recognition sends an important message about how critical political leadership will be in making all Americans equal in the eyes of the law.
The eleven other laureates are Nancy Goodman Brinker, Pedro José Greer, Jr., Stephen Hawking, Jack Kemp, Joe Medicine Crow, Sandra Day O’Connor, Sidney Poitier, Chita Rivera, Mary Robinson, Janet Davison Rowley, and Muhammad Yunus.
GLAAD will continue to watch for more coverage on the Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees. Updates can be found on GLAADblog.org