In a deeply emotional ceremony at the White House yesterday, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to talk show host and comedian, Ellen DeGeneres.
The award is the highest civilian honour in the United States. It was established in 1963 by President John F Kennedy to recognise those who offer an “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavours”. Former recipients include the likes of Georgia O’Keefe, Maya Angelou and Diana Ross.
DeGeneres won the award alongside Tom Hanks, Robert DeNiro and Michael Jordan.
In presenting the award, Obama spoke of how it’s easy to forget the incredible risk she took coming out in 1997, when attitudes towards homosexuality around the world were dramatically different. He said that her bravery “helped push our country in the direction of justice”. He continued by saying that her decision was “an incredible burden to bear - to risk [her] career like that - people don't do that very often.”
During his presentation, Obama had to pause mid-way as he was “king of choked up”, before crediting her with the ability to make people “laugh about something, rather than at someone”.
It’s a win for 2016, an example of credit being given where credit is due. Marriage has been equal under the law in the United States since June 2015, an Act that did a great deal for freedom of expression and love in the country. Undoubtedly it’s a win for the LGBT community, but wider than that, it’s great to see someone in the public eye challenge our own assumptions, remind us that we have more in common than we realised, and be rewarded for that. It’s even more powerful a reminder given divisive rhetoric coming from political leaders across the United States and the United Kingdom.
The event itself was almost comedic. DeGeneres forgot her ID and was almost not allowed to get into the White House. She held back tears as the following speech was read out:
“In a career spanning three decades, Ellen DeGeneres has lifted our spirits and brought joy to our lives as a stand-up comic, actor, and television star. In every role she reminds us to be kind to one another and to treat people as each of us wants to be treated. At a pivotal moment, her courage and candour helped change the hearts and minds of millions of Americans, accelerating our nation’s constant drive toward equality and acceptance for all. Again and again, Ellen DeGeneres has shown us that a single individual can make the world a more fun, more open, more loving place so long as we just keep swimming.”
The president finished by giving DeGeneres a hug and ending with a rhetorical flourish, reminding us to be better, one joke at a time: “Ellen counters what too often divides us with the countless things that bind us together, inspires us to be better, one joke, one dance at a time,” - Obama.
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