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Obama Honors Harvey Milk, 15 Others, with Highest Civilian Honor



President Obama honored 16 people today with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Among them are gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk and tennis player Billie Jean King.

Milk The medal recognizes people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

Additional recipients this year are Senator Ted Kennedy, physicist Stephen Hawking, breast cancer activist Nancy Goodman Brinker, physician Pedro Jose Greer, Jr., former Congressman Jack Kemp, Rev. Joseph Lowery, last living Plains indian war chief Joe Medicine Crow, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, actor Sidney Poitier, actress Chita Rivera, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, geneticist Janet Davidson Rowley, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and anti-poverty leader Muhammad Yunus.

Milk's nephew Stuart accepted the medal. Sadly, Ted Kennedy was too ill to attend the ceremony. His eldest child, Kara Kennedy, accepted the medal.

Clips of Stuart Milk and Billie Jean King, AFTER THE JUMP...

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  1. Years from now, when all the political dust has settled, school children will learn that Harvey Milk was awarded the nation's highest civilian honor. Not by whom, not when, not why.

    This one will go in the textbooks, folks. It's a day to be proud, and maybe even wipe a tear out of your eye.

    Posted by: lankymike | Aug 12, 2009 8:31:11 PM

  2. "No man is an island"
    We live in a world built for all,
    Not a chosen few.
    When we all finally come to reallize this,
    True freedom shall be known.

    Happenings like this shows that we are on The right road.
    One that will connect all islands.

    Thomas Lloyd Kerr.

    Posted by: Thomas Lloyd Kerr | Aug 12, 2009 8:33:26 PM

  3. What a day! Two (openly) LGBT recipients of 16. The feting a new Latina Supreme Court Justice who is close personal friends with a gay couple friend of mine. I would say this is good day for our community, our country, and social progress and justice.

    As for the Obama-critics, yes, some days the glass is 3/4 enjoy this moment as we continue the fight for equality and make progress. Harvey would. Gratitude is powerful.

    Posted by: Joe in SF | Aug 12, 2009 8:36:04 PM

  4. Last week I received an email from my Senator, Barbara Boxer informing me that Harvey Milk would receive a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. "What?! Does Barbara Boxer think I don't already know this? Does she think I don't read towleroad?!" So I fired off the following missive to her at her website ( I encourage all of you to plagiarize my letter or write your own:

    Dear Senator Boxer,

    I received your email informing me that Harvey Milk would be the posthumous recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom this week. While I am genuinely pleased that President Obama's decision to honor Harvey Milk will bring attention to the contributions Supervisor Milk made to the lives of millions of Americans, I view this development with complete cynicism.

    Do the elected officials in Washington think the gay community is too stupid to realize the cruel irony of posthumously honoring Harvey Milk, a politician who championed equality for the GLBT community, with a Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed on him by Barack Obama, a politician who has stated on numerous occasions his opposition to marriage equality for gay couples? Do the elected officials in Washington think for one moment that if Harvey Milk were alive today he would accept a Presidential Medal of Freedom from a U.S. President who refuses to sign an executive order suspending Don't Ask, Don't Tell? I don't think he would accept it, Senator Boxer. I believe Harvey Milk had too much integrity to stoop to accepting an award from a politician whose Department of Justice submitted an amicus brief supporting Defense of Marriage by comparing gay relationships to pedophilia and incest.

    So, while I am truly happy to hear that Harvey Milk will be receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom, that happiness is tempered by the knowledge that, since the assassination of Harvey Milk almost 31 years ago, those in power in Washington have done little to advance the cause of equality under the law for GLBT people.

    Senator Boxer, I know you opposed Proposition 8. I know you voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment. I know you voted against Defense of Marriage Act. And I appreciate all those votes. But those positions did not advance the cause of justice for GLBT Americans. They simply prevented any further harm to the GLBT community. So from this point forward I refuse to support, with my dollars or my votes, *any* politician who is not actively working to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell and actively working to repeal laws barring state and federal recognition of marriage rights for GLBT Americans. I sincerely hope you will step up to the plate to proactively bring justice to GLBT Americans. I would like to continue to support you, but I can only do that if you fully support me.


    Posted by: peterparker | Aug 12, 2009 8:37:28 PM

  5. Really good point Lanky! I hadn't thought of that.

    Posted by: Derek Washington | Aug 12, 2009 8:40:31 PM

  6. Joe in SF : What is the big deal about Sotomayer? I'm not against her (at all!) but her position has nothing to do with the gay issue. Everybody has gay friends, even McCain, Condi Rice, Rudy doesn't mean she's going to vote in our favor. And being a Latina is a big deal? We've already had two African-Americans. And she's certainly not the first woman. Stop trying to force these "social progress" fantasies on us. And the Presidential Medal of Freedom means nothing. Give us marriage equality, then I'll be impressed.

    Posted by: JT | Aug 12, 2009 9:06:30 PM

  7. Additional irony:

    The President Medal of Freedom was established by....wait for it.....Harry Truman.

    Yes, the same President who...when the bigotry against blacks was 100 times what it is today against gays....told Congress, the Pentagon, the majority of Americans who were against it...including his own mother..."I'm going to integrate the military whether you like it or not!"

    Posted by: Michael @ | Aug 12, 2009 9:34:10 PM

  8. And why is Billie Jean King getting this award? I know she's a tennis great, but to get the same award as Stephen Hawking and that breast cancer activist? Is she some sort of token dyke? ("We'll pick Harvey Milk for the males and- who else?- Billie Jean King for the females..") I feel kind of insulted. But if there's some great social significance to Billie Jean King that I'm just not seeing or am unaware of, I'll be glad to be corrected here.

    Posted by: JT | Aug 12, 2009 10:03:01 PM

  9. it seems like most mainstream white male gay blogs like this and queerty are so full of hate against Obama because he is not pushing an agenda as fast as some people would want. full marriage equality is going to come state by state by state not thru the federal government. I wish he would have just told the military to stop discharging people but it would not work not now with healthcare being in flux. the major civil rights legislation did not occur until a president was assassinated. if you do not realize how long and how hard the fight is for what you want and you want Obama to fight your battles for you you will be disappointed by him or any politician

    Posted by: robert | Aug 13, 2009 12:02:22 AM

  10. You go Derek and God...YES BITCHES I SAID GOD bless you for your efforts instead some bitter bitches complaining feeling that your entitled to anything. Get on the move like Derek and do something about it.

    It's so amazing how Obama is a GOD DAMM HOMOPHOBE and Clinton and all the LooneyBin Cabinistas and company are not! Sometimes I think folks need to very careful about what you call folks then again some of you you do it for other idiotic and personal reasons you know the BIG ELEPHANT that's in the room.

    Just because the earth isn't moving beneath your feet when YOU want it doesn't mean he HATES you.

    However, There will be elections coming and you can always go with the REPUBLICANS who so loves you and has voted down on every measure to assist this community NO MATTER WHAT RACE YOU ARE! in their eyes we're all a bunch FAGS.
    They'd love to have your vote and spit in your face!

    You queens will not be satisfied until there is no progress and when those right wingnuts get back in office..........

    Well you'll know the deal henceforth and forever!

    Posted by: Mookie Moo Moo | Aug 13, 2009 1:06:25 AM

  11. JT:

    With all due respect, no one is going to "give us" marriage equality. Sorry, but we need to do most of this work for ourselves. This means talking to those who don't think they know us, raising money, fighting discrimination, organizing, forming coalitions, etc. As I have done as an activist, since my college days. I am not waiting for some "mythical" perfect President or other sugar daddy to do it for us. JT, that is the biggest "social progress" fantasy of all.

    As for Sonia, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice is a big deal to 45 million people, like me, who, in the past, were not represented at the highest levels of business and government. Sotomayor is very different person in terms of politics and philosophy from the self-righteous GOP politicians that you mentioned. She understands firsthand what it means to be discriminated against for something you don't choose: like your race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

    I am not sure what it is going to take to impress you. In any event, I am celebrating the recognition of two LGBT people, in making America a better and more just country, by the President of the United States. It is a great day... despite your naysaying.

    Posted by: Joe in SF | Aug 13, 2009 1:17:03 AM

  12. Joe in SF : With all due respect (honestly) I doubt Sotomayor knows firsthand what discrimination is like any more than any other citizen of the U.S. It's happened to everybody (even Caucasian Protestant men). She was nominated to the U.S. District Court (NY) by George W. Bush, for goodness sake. What in her biography suggests any discrimination? (She even went to one of the best Catholic High Schools in NYC). I'm certainly not putting her down, at all, but....

    Posted by: JT | Aug 13, 2009 1:51:23 AM

  13. But what??????

    Posted by: Mookie Moo Moo | Aug 13, 2009 2:46:32 AM

  14. @ Robert

    "it seems like most mainstream white male gay blogs like this and queerty are so full of hate against Obama"???

    How dare you bring race into this discussion AS IF there were no people of color criticizing Obama. That is as absurd as "only people who wanted Hillary" are criticizing him. Shall I give you a list of names to prove you wrong? I would start with Pam Spaulding of PamsHouseBlend who is not only not white and not male but lobbied passionately for Obama to get the nomination over Hillary.

    Further, the slow process of legislation is entirely beside the point of Obama defending DOMA and DADT in court, of continuing to discharge gays and to his abandoning his promises to take an active role in advancing LGBT rights legislation. Or, in his words, "place the weight of my administration behind...."

    And it has NOTHING to do with the fact that...until DADT is repealed...he already has the legal authority CONGRESS gave the President in 1983 to suspend ANY LAW in order to suspend ANY DISCHARGES of ANYone whose continuing service HE believes serves national security.

    Yep, I'm talking about "the stroke of a pen" option. And it's not just some crazy gay idea but one supported by legal scholars and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid...hardly a radical.

    In addition, 77 members of Congress have called upon him to use the options GIVEN BY CONGRESS in the DADT statute itself wherein the Secretary of Defense and local commanders can decide who is to be discharged or NOT.

    There's no excuse for his doing nothing about DADT, in fact the opposite, and only one explanation: he's letting the Pentagon tale wag the dog.

    Posted by: Michael @ | Aug 13, 2009 2:55:12 AM

  15. I'm not looking to get married or join the military, but I am concerned about global warming and I have no health care. Despite the need of some around here to dictate what "gay issues" are, it turns out that gays need a healthy planet, health care, and a strong economy, just like everyone else.

    Yes, I expect Obama to follow through with his promises to our community, but, no, I'm not ready to condemn him as a homophobe or coward if he feels that it is wiser to use his politcal capital on other issues first.

    Posted by: Kugel | Aug 13, 2009 3:20:06 AM

  16. JT:

    You are living in a dream world. While Caucasian Protestant men have had significant life challenges (life is rough, after all), most have not suffered institutionalized discrimination for the past 300 years like Blacks, Asians, gays, and Hispanics have. For the most part, White Protestant men have held the levers of power.

    Sotomayor was hardly born into privilege: her dad had a third-grade education and was working class. She grew up in a Bronx housing project. She did not start off life on third base and slid into home, as George W. Bush and others did. Through her own merit and family's sacrifice, she had opportunities to get an education, just like Barack and Michelle. My parents and I have had a similar journeys.

    I can relate to the life of Sonia Sotomayor. My Hispanic father had to leave New Mexico, for the Midwest, in the early the 1960's because he had a Hispanic surname and could not easily be hired as a high school teacher, despite his master degree. I have had people not date or hire me because my ethnic background. I am not crying about this...these are just the facts.

    But please don't lecture me on discrimination and what's it like to be the receiving end of institutionalized racism/discrimination. 45 million Hispanics are proud of Sonya and her accomplishments today. As are millions of other Americans.

    I am also proud Billie Jean King (who fought against sexism) and Harvey Milk. They deserve the country's highest civilian award...these awards and acknowledgments make a difference in our society. Now, through our sacrifice and hard work, we, too, will win the battle for full equality for LGBT people. Your choice whether you are going to be armchair critic or a real leader for LGBT rights.

    Posted by: Joe in SF | Aug 13, 2009 3:27:24 AM

  17. I for one am very moved and touched that Harvey Milk has been honored and recognized as a pioneer and visionary for equal rights in this country. It does not matter if this is some sort of "gesture" toward the gay community. What matters most is that because of Harvey, because of his sacrifice, we now have a movement that has grown not just in the Castro or in San Fransisco, but all over the world.

    We owe it to Harvey and those who stood by him and shared his vision and beliefs to stop this pointless bickering amongst ourselves! Harvey himself said it is not about one man or power or any of that, but what matters the most is the movement and the US's.

    Have we forgotten that we are the US's? We have seen such advances in the last forty years on equal rights it is staggering. We have forgotten our past. We have forgotten about who we are. How much we had and still have to lose for being out and who we are.

    Instead of rallying and uniting for equal rights not just for gays but for all peoples, we have splintered and split into cliches and groups and classes amongst ourselves.

    We need to view this as a great honor to Mr. Milk. Because just think that 4 decades ago we wouldn't even dream of such a thing happening.

    I remember taking my first trip to San Fransisco earlier this year. I toured the Castro and the shops, and saw Milk in Castro theater on Harvey's birthday actually. And of course after crying at the end realizing how much some of us have sacrificed for the better good of all, I stepped onto Castro street and it kind of struck me that I was looking into history.

    We are making history today. We are living breathing proof of the movement that Harvey saw. We need to set aside our differences and our ego's and our opinions and see the bigger picture here.

    Hope. Hope is the key. Have we forgotten what Harvey charged us with? We have to give those out there hope. We have to give the gay Iraqi's and the young people and other minorities hope for a better tomorrow.

    That is our task appointed to us as part of this movement. I may only be 21, but I take Harvey's message to heart and am proud to say I am part of this movement as should everyone else. Honor Milk's legacy and be the better person in our struggle for equality for the benefit of all.

    Posted by: Jason | Aug 13, 2009 5:56:27 AM

  18. Derek W.,

    I am always impressed by you! Thanks for doing that very important work for The March. I hope to be there in October!

    Posted by: Rocco | Aug 13, 2009 6:35:00 AM

  19. JASON,

    you're a good man.

    Posted by: nic | Aug 13, 2009 11:00:10 AM

  20. I suppose he had to do something. After all Obama's spent the last year and a half insulting us, torpedoing our chances for same sex marriage and cynically cementing his ties to the christer right.

    For some odd reason Obama forgot to honor Emma Goldman, Cochise, Malcolm X, Big Bill Heywood, Mother Jones and the soldiers who refuse to aid genocide in Obama’s wars to steal oil in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Or maybe that’s not so odd at all.

    Obama, the perfect Clinton clone, imitates Clinton in this as well. In 2000 Bill Clinton, who like Obama is a bigoted pigheaded, religious cult opponent of same sex marriage, proclaimed that: "Too often, however, gays and lesbians face prejudice and discrimination; too many have had to hide or deny their sexual orientation in order to keep their jobs or to live safely in their communities. In recent years, we have made some progress righting these wrongs. I am proud of the part that my Administration has played to achieve these goals."

    I suppose only a Democrat like Clinton could look at DADT and DOMA as 'progress'. Look at it this way, if the Clintons and Obama weren't constantly trying out lame excuses to fool those willing to be fooled we wouldn't call them Democrats.

    Democrats are Republicans in drag.

    With Democrats like these who needs Republicans.

    Posted by: Bill Perdue | Aug 13, 2009 11:44:22 AM

  21. Joe in SF : Sonia Sotomayor has proven that if you're smart (and a hard worker, which I love about her) that there are no restrictions in the U.S. And she had a great childhood. When her neighborhood got too bad her family moved to a better one, like anyone of any sense would. And she got to visit Puerto Rico once a year as a child! That's better than I ever got. (Even today, I've only been there twice). She hardly had a rough life growing up, and certainly no knowledge of discrimination-- unless she had some vicious gay professor in school who made fun of her for being Catholic. (And even if she did suffer discrimination, that doesn't mean she'd be gay-friendly. Look how homophobic African-Americans are). If you want to be proud of her and insist on being able to "relate" to her, that's okay, because she's certainly an admirable woman, but just because you're Latino too is kind of.....I don't know, simplistic? Besides, not every Latino/Hispanic/etc. adores her. It's a varied "ethnicity". Cubans, Mexicans, Argentinians, Puerto Ricans, etc, are VERY different groups (many conservative Republicans) and that's even before we get into the differences every individual has.

    Posted by: JT | Aug 13, 2009 12:23:18 PM

  22. Bill,

    they repeated the PBS special (American Masters) on the guy who headed the WPA agency which used the work of photographers to sell FDR's New Deal to the public. The photographers were accused of being socialists and communists because they showed the "ugly" side of American life at the time--poverty (well, some called FDR's agenda socialism...sound familiar). Anyway, I thought about you.

    President Obama doesn't hate gay people. He's not willing to risk loosing political capital by tackling DADT and Marriage Equality right now. Those issues are simply not high on his adminnistration's urgency list. Some Gay Americans are furious at him, others of us are not.

    Did I use the word "capital"? Ooops, that aint your kind of word, is it, Bill?

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | Aug 13, 2009 2:05:38 PM

  23. JT,

    I am old enough to know that growing up as Puerto Rican in NYC during the '60s and '70s was not a piece of cake. There were a lot of stereotypes about them. And going to Princeton was not easy when you are different, not white, upper class or privileged, etc.

    Listen, i was proud of Alberto Gonzales for the becoming the first hispanic AG, despite his political colors. same for Condi. Even though both of them proved to be incompetent and just plain wrong in their policies.

    We are Latinos are very different politically...but those that grew up in America before the 1990s know first-hand what is like to be looked down upon because of your last name and color of skin. As a gay man, you might have vague notion of this...but is not exactly the same.

    Posted by: Joe in SF | Aug 13, 2009 2:15:13 PM

  24. Sorry,

    the subject of the American Masters episode was Roy Stryker (accused of being a socialist...maybe he was). All of his photographers worked as part of the PWA (although there was a WPA also).

    Anyway, the irony is, BILL, that you have such contempt for the President when the ultra-right conservatitves accuse him and his policies of being socialistic.

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | Aug 13, 2009 2:40:10 PM

  25. "(And even if she did suffer discrimination, that doesn't mean she'd be gay-friendly. Look how homophobic African-Americans are)." JT

    Jt, come on, lay off us Black folk will ya? I'm sorry that you have obviously not had good experiences with us ,but, damn dude. WE DID NOT CAUSE PROP 8 TO WIN. It's REALLY THAT SIMPLE. I think you're an intelligent guy whom I often agree with and often don't, however, whether you realize it or not, you sound a little racist and a touch douchey when you make blanket statements like this.

    I'm not guilt free either. I recently made a comment that smeared ALL Serbians. It was pointed out to me by "Tread" how lame that was. "Tread" was right, we can't just paint an entire people with a coat of smear. I apologized, I'm not asking you to do the same, I'm jes sayin'.

    Posted by: Derek Washington | Aug 13, 2009 2:40:32 PM

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