Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
President Barrack Obama has announced that the 16 recipients of the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom include LGBT rights pioneer Harvey Milk, openly lesbian professional tennis player Billie Jean King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is America’s highest civilian honour and 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 endeavours.
Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official in the United States when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He 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.
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 also 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.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is widely regarded as “South Africa’s moral conscience,” he served as the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) from 1978 – 1985, where he led a formidable crusade in support of justice and racial reconciliation in South Africa. He received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work through SACC in 1984. Tutu has also been honoured by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in April 2008 for his efforts to end homophobia.
President Obama stated that: “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 honour to award them the Medal of Freedom.”