Snap Fact #160

President Obama Showed Early Support For Gay And Lesbian Americans By Awarding The Presidential Medal Of Freedom To Harvey Milk And Billie Jean King!

President Harry S. Truman, established the Presidential Medal of Freedom Awards in 1945. These honors were given to civilians who had "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors" for their efforts during World War II. Over the years the effect of the Award was watered down by indiscriminate distribution. 
By 1963, under an executive order issued by President Kennedy, the Medal's prestige was increased and its purpose was broadened. Under the new criteria, the Medal of Freedom would be "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". Since that time the Medal of Freedom has become the most respected American civilian decoration. Because the recipients are personally chosen by the President this feature allows us to peek into the heart and mind of each President. The President's choices are clearly a reflection of their values and their character.

On August 12, 2009, President Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to 16 hand picked recipients. The specific theme of the 2009 awards was that the selected recipients were all considered to be agents of change who, "among their many accomplishments in fields ranging from sports and art to science and medicine to politics and public policy, these men and women have changed the world for the better. They have blazed trails and broken down barriers. They have discovered new theories, launched new initiatives, and opened minds to new possibilities".

President Obama said, "These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds. 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". The President continued, "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."

The varied list of recipients for 2009 were; Nancy Goodman Brinker, Pedro José Greer, Jr., Stephen Hawking, Jack Kemp, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Billie Jean King, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Joe Medicine Crow – High Bird, Harvey Milk, Sandra Day O’Connor, Sidney Poitier, Chita Rivera, Mary Robinson, Janet Davison Rowley, Desmond Tutu, Muhammad Yunus.

Two of the awardees were Harvey Milk and Billie Jean King who were honored for their contribution to the rights of gays and lesbians. Harvey Milk started an early movement to support the rights of gays and lesbians in San Francisco, California. Known as a champion of civil rights, he was assassinated in his San Francisco office. Billie Jean King was one the first openly lesbian sports star. She encouraged people to accept homosexuality in society.

Billie Jean King was an acclaimed professional tennis player in the 1960s and 1970s, and has helped champion gender equality issues not only in sports, but in all areas of public life. King beat Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match, then the most viewed tennis match in history. King became one of the first openly lesbian major sports figures in America when she came out in 1981. Following her professional tennis career, King became the first woman commissioner in professional sports when she co-founded and led the World Team Tennis (WTT) League. The U.S. Tennis Association named the National Tennis Center, where the US Open is played, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006. 

Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official from a major city in the United States when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Milk encouraged lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) citizens to live their lives openly and believed coming out was the only way they could change society and achieve social equality. Milk, alongside San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, was shot and killed in 1978 by Dan White, a former city supervisor. Milk is revered nationally and globally as a pioneer of the LGBT civil rights movement for his exceptional leadership and dedication to equal rights.