by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and astronaut Sally Ride were among the 16 Americans honored with the Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony led by President Obama on November 20.
Rustin - an openly Gay man and a communist in an era when being either one earned you a prison term - was the chief organizer behind the 1963 March on Washington. In his later life, he became an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights.
According to the White House press release, Rustin was honored for his work as 'an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An advisor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly Gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.'
Recalling that Rustin was pushed into the background by pervasive homophobia during his years working with civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr., Obama noted the country's progress toward equality.
'So, for decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King's side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly Gay,' he said during the award ceremony.
'No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin's memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.'
Walter Naegle, Rustin's longtime partner, accepted the award on his behalf. Rustin died in 1987 at age 75.
FIRST LESBIAN ASTRONAUT
The other LGBT honoree, Sally Ride, who died last year at 61, was recognized as 'the first American female astronaut to travel to space. As a role model to generations of young women, she advocated passionately for science education, stood up for racial and gender equality in the classroom, and taught students from every background that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. Dr. Ride also served in several administrations as an advisor on space exploration.'
Ride's medal was accepted by her partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy.
The Medal of Freedom, created by President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago, is the highest honor that can be bestowed on U.S. civilians. In the five decades since, more than 500 people have been recognized for contributions to the culture and society of the country. Past LGBT recipients include playwright Tennessee Williams and politician Harvey Milk.
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