Milk, the first openly gay elected official in a major U.S. city, was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 on a pledge to back gay and lesbian rights.
“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,” the White House said in today’s announcement.
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.
“President Obama understands that Harvey Milk’s legacy reaches far beyond San Francisco, and that his story is an inspiration to everyone who believes in equality and fairness,” Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California (EQCA), said in a statement.
Also honored was tennis great Billie Jean King, who came out publicly in 1981, becoming the first openly lesbian major sports figure in America.
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,” the White House said.
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.
The President praised the 16 recipients for breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens.
“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.”
Watch the complete 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony below. (Billie Jean King at 5:20 and 22:15. Harvey Milk at 8:10 and 26:05.)
Other honorees at today’s White House ceremony included Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass), retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and actor Sidney Poitier. The list of all 16 receipients can be found here.