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Obama to honor Harvey Milk, Billie Jean King with Medal of Freedom
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Obama to honor Harvey Milk, Billie Jean King with Medal of Freedom

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

President Obama announced July 30 that he will honor Harvey Milk with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, recognizing significant contributions to the nation and the world.

Milk shares the list of recipients of the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom with acclaimed Lesbian Billie Jean King, a professional tennis player who helped champion gender equality issues, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), a 46-year veteran of the Senate and civil rights champion, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a leading anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, and Rev. Joseph Lowery, a leader in the U.S. civil rights movement since the early 1950s.

"These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds," said President Barack Obama. "Their tremendous accomplishments span the field from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overreaching 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."

The President said 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 honor to award them the Medal of Freedom," said Obama.

"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," said Geoff Kors, Equality California (EQCA) executive director. "Harvey Milk risked everything to change the course of history and to secure many of the civil rights and protections we enjoy today. In light of Harvey Milk receiving this incredible honor, we urge Gov. Schwarzenegger to sign the Harvey Milk bill into law as a tribute to Milk's courageous work to end discrimination against the LGBT community."

Last year, EQCA sponsored the first bill in the country to officially honor Milk, the nation's first openly Gay man elected to major political office. Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced the Harvey Milk Day bill again this year. If passed, the legislation would require the governor to annually proclaim May 22 as Harvey Milk Day, designating it as a "day of special significance" to recognize Milk's work to secure equal protections. Schwarzenegger has said Milk's contributions should continue to be recognized "at the local level by those who were most impacted by his contributions."

In light of President Obama's July 30 announcement, members of the LGBT community are hoping Gov. Schwarzenegger will support the Harvey Milk Day bill.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT civil rights organizations, applauded the announcement by Obama.

"Harvey Milk took the first leap into the foray of politics and represented what we didn't imagine possible: an openly Gay elected official," said HRC President Joe Solmonese.

Solmonese echoed Obama's praise of Billie Jean King, saying, "She not only shattered tennis records, she opened up new possibilities for women and became a role model for both LGBT players and fans."

President Obama will present the awards at a ceremony Wednesday, August 12.

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