The White House has announced that President Obama will soon award the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to legendary gay-rights activist Harvey Milk and lesbian tennis star Billie Jean King.
“I knew Harvey Milk personally, way back,” says Frank Kameny, the Washingtonian who also pioneered the modern gay-rights movement. “There are many possible gay candidates for receiving the medal, living and dead. Certainly, Harvey Milk is one of them, and given his recent fame, his choice clearly makes the point unmistakably.”
Milk earned his place in history as the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. The posthumous award is due, says the White House, because Milk “encouraged LGBT citizens to live their lives openly and believed coming out was the only way they could change society and achieve social equality.”
Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk, will accept the award at an Aug. 12 ceremony on behalf of the late politician who was assassinated in 1978, less than a year after taking office as a San Francisco city supervisor.
“Battle of the Sexes” champion Billie Jean King has earned the honor for fighting for the rights of female athletes, in addition to coming out as a lesbian in 1981.
“King is an ideal recipient of the Medal of Freedom,” says Charles Gorman, president of the Capital Tennis Association, a local GLBT tennis organization. “She was a trailblazer for so many people. You would not have equal prize money at most of the grand slams without Billie Jean King. You would not have a Women’s Tennis Association that’s as large and powerful without King. It’s because of her that a lot of younger female tennis players have an opportunity to play.”
Milk will join the ranks of such activists as Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks, while King will join such sports legends as Muhammed Ali and Arthur Ashe.
Awarding the medal to 16 individuals who he feels have been “agent[s] of change,” Obama will also honor Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime advocate of gay rights.
While Obama will award medals of freedom to a few who championed gay rights, the late Jack Kemp, former New York Republican congressman and U.S. secretary of housing and urban development in the first Bush White House, is also among this year’s recipients. Kemp had been condemned for anti-gay positions, such as supporting a ban on openly gay teachers in public schools.
“I’m pleased to see that openly gay people are being included as recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” says Kameny, “since that implies official recognition of our right to our freedom to be gay in every sense and that gay is, indeed, good. … Hopefully we will see many additions to the list of openly gay recipients of the medal in future years.”
While King and Milk are not the first GLBT people to earn this prestigious recognition, there have been scant few prior, such as composer Aaron Copland.