Billie Jean King (Pic: David Shankbone)

Barack Obama honoured gay rights activist Harvey Milk and South African anti-apartheid activist and gay equality supporter Desmond Tutu with a United States Presidential Medal of Freedom yesterday.

They were amongst sixteen people who were given the highest civilian award in the US, which recognises people who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the US, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavours.

“This is a chance for me and for the United States of America to say thank you to some of the finest citizens of this country and of all countries,” Obama told the audience assembled for the ceremony at the White House.

“I am standing out only because millions of my compatriots are carrying me on their shoulders,” Tutu said in a statement after receiving the award from US President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday. “We are honoured that in these trying times the president saw fit to salute the contribution South Africans have made to deepen the world’s understanding of peace, justice and reconciliation.”

There was, however, some criticism that Harvey Milk would not have accepted the award were he still alive due to Obama’s perceived lack of movement on equal rights for the LGBT community in the US. “At this point in American’s history, I’m not sure Milk would even accept. I truly am not,” commented former radio host Charles Karel Bouley.

The other recipients of the award included Sidney Poitier, Stephen Hawking and Billie Jean King, one of the most successful tennis players in history who came out as lesbian in 1981.

“We honour not simply her 12 Grand Slam titles, 101 doubles titles, and 67 singles titles — pretty good, Billie Jean — we honour what she calls ‘all the off-the-court stuff.’ What she did to broaden the reach of the game, to change how women athletes and women everywhere view themselves, and to give everyone — regardless of gender or sexual orientation — including my two daughters, a chance to compete both on the court and in life,” said Obama.

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