President Barack Obama on Wednesday
awarded the Medal of Freedom to 16 people, including the late
astronaut Sally Ride and the late civil rights activist Bayard
Rustin, both of whom were gay.
Ride, the first American woman in
space, passed away last July at the age of 61 after losing a
prolonged 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She also held the
distinction of being the youngest American in space and the first
lesbian, though she never spoke about her private life in public.
Accepting the award on behalf of Ride
was Tam O'Shaughnessy, who was introduced as Ride's life partner.
O'Shaughnessy told the Human Rights
Campaign (HRC) that they kept their relationship quiet over fears of
losing funding for the Sally Ride Science Foundation, which they
founded in 2001. The couple, however, did enter a domestic
partnership in California.
“It's scary to be open because you
don't realize the impact that it might have on so many aspects of
your life,” Tam
said. “You worry about grants, about whether you'll be able to
continue writing children's textbooks; we were scared that if
sponsors knew the founders of Sally Ride Science were two lesbians,
if that would affect our organization.”
Rustin will also receive his medal
A leading activist of the early civil
rights movement, Rustin helped initiate a 1947 Freedom Ride
challenging racial segregation on interstate buses and was the main
organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He
was also gay.
Accepting the award on behalf of Rustin
was Walter Naegel, his partner of ten years.
“Bayard was at heart a militant and
revolutionary in the fight for civil rights,” Rachelle Horowitz, a
former Rustin assistant, told
CNN. “It was just one of these facts of life: Bayard is gay,
he doesn't hide it. I said to somebody once that he never knew there
was a closet to go into.”
Other honorees included women's rights
activist Gloria Steinem, former President Bill Clinton, talk show
host and actress Oprah Winfrey, former Chicago Cubs shortstop Ernie
Banks, former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, the late
Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), country music star Loretta Lynn, former
Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN), cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman,
chemist and environmental scientist Mario Molina; jazz musician
Arturo Sandoval, baseball coach Dean Smith, civil rights leader Cordy
Tindell “CT” Vivian and appellate judge Patricia Wald.