President Obama Awards Medal of Freedom to Gay Icons

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Bayard Rustin
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Bayard Rustin & Sally Ride are the recipients of the Awards

By: Lisa Keen*/Keen News Service

The White House announced yesterday (August 8) that President Obama has awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to civil rights activist Bayard Rustin and first American woman into space Sally Ride. Both were gay.

Rustin and Ride were among 16 award recipients, including former President Bill Clinton, television host Oprah Winfrey, Chicago Cubs icon Ernie Banks, and former federal appeals court judge Patricia Wald.

A White House press statement noted that the Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, “presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

It cited Rustin as “unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all.”

“An advisor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad,” noted the White House release. “As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.” [pullquote]“As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”[/pullquote]

The statement cited Ride as “a role model to generations of young women,” saying she “advocated passionately for science education, stood up for racial and gender equality in the classroom, and taught students from every background that there are no limits to what they can accomplish.”

The award to Ride was also announced in May, in a separate press release, which indicated that her “partner” and other family members were notified of the president’s award decision. Ride, who became the first American woman in space in 1983, died in July 2012 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61. In a press release announcing her death, her organization issued the first public acknowledgement that Ride was gay, noting that Tam O’Shaughnessy had been “her partner of 27 years.” [pullquote]The statement cited Ride as “a role model to generations of young women,” saying she “advocated passionately for science education, stood up for racial and gender equality in the classroom, and taught students from every background that there are no limits to what they can accomplish.”[/pullquote]

The Human Rights Campaign issued a press release, noting that its president, Chad Griffin, had submitted a letter to President Obama, urging him to award the Medal of Freedom to Rustin, who died in 1987. He was survived by his partner of ten years, Walter Naegle.

Banks, recognized for his Hall of Fame level contributions to baseball, has been a prominent supporter of equal rights for gays. He rode a Cubs float in the Chicago pride parade in 2010 and signed a letter to the Illinois legislature to support a marriage equality bill this year.

Wald served as a judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for D.C. in 1992 when Navy midshipman Joe Steffan lost his case against the Naval Academy that expelled him because he simply told a friend and a chaplain that he was gay. In an interview several years later, Wald identified her dissent from that decision one of her proudest achievements.

The awards will be presented at a White House ceremony sometime later this year.

© 2013 Keen News Service. All rights reserved.