Kate Kendell

The "Gay Agenda" includes Medals of Freedom

Filed By Kate Kendell | July 31, 2009 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Billie Jean King, gay agenda, Harvey Milk, Medal of Freedom, presidential medal of freedom

Yesterday, the White House announced the recipients of the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor. The list of 16 exemplary individuals includes Harvey Milk, awarded the medal posthumously, and tennis legend and gender equity champion Billie Jean King. This marks the first time the Medal of Freedom has been awarded to openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individuals. This is a remarkable honor and recognition of two of our community's greatest heroes. I certainly am grateful to President Obama for acknowledging Harvey and Billie Jean among the 16 powerful, diverse, and outstanding men and women whose company they join.

Hopefully, today marks the beginning of the end of such honors being regarded as unprecedented. In the coming years when openly LGBT individuals are honored with the Medal of Freedom, we hope the announcement is unremarkable--except, of course, for the remarkable nature of the honor itself. And in that hope lies the real "Gay Agenda." It is my great wish that the place of LGBT folks in the civil and cultural life of this nation will become routine and commonplace. While an honor like the Medal of Freedom will be worth celebration and reflection, it will not be historic or rare. We are everywhere, but our presence has been too often stifled, ignored, or shamed into silence.

The "Gay Agenda" includes Medals of Freedom, but more than that, it means that we are simply an acknowledged and accepted part of the rich and varied fabric of our country. It means that when John marries his boyfriend Lawrence, his co-workers at the software company all go in on the perfect wedding gift. When Marjorie and Josie and their daughters come back from a summer vacation, they share their pictures with the neighbors over a block-party BBQ. It means that when a new school year starts, of the millions of kids heading back to classes, a good number will be coming from homes with two moms or two dads or a transgender parent--and that is just fine. In short, it means a day when LGBT people just are. Yes, we contribute some very special and fabulous elements to the culture, but day in and day out, no one raises an eyebrow, or hyperventilates, or tells jokes about us, or worries about their kids playing with our kids, or ever attacks, harms, disparages, or fears us.

I know that day is still some ways off. So in the meantime, I am grateful to the Obama Administration for acknowledging the amazing contributions of Harvey Milk and Billie Jean King with this unprecedented honor and for accelerating the moment when it won't be such a big deal. But today it is. Congratulations.


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About the question of "firsts" - The Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded, by Bill Clinton, to openly lesbian poet Adrienne Rich. Perhaps though this isn't counted when determing who was/is "first," because she declined to accept it.

It's really important for all Americans (including LGBTQ) to see gays and lesbians honored by the President like this. It sounds crazy, but it is also important that LGBTQ community was invited to the White House Easter Egg Roll this year. This June we saw the President, his Secretary of State, and other cabinet departments have Pride Proclamations. Our community has seen huge progress in the rights for foreign service officers. I klnow that all these measures fall short of our specific items on the legal agenda, but heh, the guy has only been President for 6 months, and the financial system of the country was going down the drain, and two wars were going on when he started. Let's cut him a little slack (but not too much!) and keep pushing for our agenda of full legal equality. This administration is the best that we have ever had, let's keep up the heat, but let's also give credit where credit is due.

Personally, I would have preferred that instead of giving a Medal of Freedom to a dead guy (albeit an important man), that the President instead, perhaps, didn't allow an 18 year Air Force veteran to be thrown out for his sexuality.

I agree that visibility is important, and honoring the dead is important, but how about giving the living some love too?

It is inherently safer to honour a dead radical than a living one. The living one might possibly criticise the very government honouring her/him.

The dead radical's life and speech can be edited to fit an administration's agenda....

A. J. Lopp | August 1, 2009 5:32 PM

So true, Maura! ... Remember how LBJ shook Martin Luther King Jr's hand after signing the Voting Rights Act? Then a few years later, MLK criticized the Vietnam War, and suddenly LBJ referred to him as "that nigger preacher".

Rick Sours | August 1, 2009 3:40 PM

It is remarkable to have two LGBT individuals
among the recipients of the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor.
Yet while two individuals are being honored, the
LGBT community is still Second Class citizens in
the United States of America. Talk about discrimination in the year 2009.