President Obama's efforts at advancing gay rights in America are one of the hallmarks of his legacy, one of the achievements he has said he's proudest of. Earlier this year as a guest on The Ellen Show, he acknowledged his part in changing policies that discriminate against gay Americans. But when it came to "changing hearts and minds," he told Ellen DeGeneres as she teared up, "I don't think anyone has been more influential than you on that."
And he meant what he said. On Tuesday, Obama awarded DeGeneres the Presidential Medal of Freedom, taking time to note her role in changing the way Americans felt about LGBT people. Accepting the medal, DeGeneres grew teary-eyed, and exchanged an embrace with the president.
It's hard to think of anyone more personable and charming than DeGeneres herself, but not that long ago, the talk show host and comedian put her career on the line when she came out in a time of rampant systemic and social discrimination against the LGBT community. In his speech at the ceremony, Obama took time to note DeGeneres' role in changing how Americans felt about LGBT people. He said:
It's easy to forget now, when we've come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law, just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago. Just how important it was not just for the LGBT community, but for all us to see somebody so full of kindness and light. Somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor or our colleague or our sister challenge our own assumptions. Remind us that we have more in common than we realize, push our country in the direction of justice. What an incredible burden it was to bear, to risk your career like that.
There were 20 other recipients of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. While it is a tribute that only a select few can claim to have received, for DeGeneres, who had forgotten her identification and wasn't initially allowed into the White House for the ceremony, it also maybe served as an ID for her to get on the plane home.