Out US soccer star Rapinoe awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

  • by Christopher Kane, Washington Blade
  • Friday July 8, 2022
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President Joe Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to lesbian soccer star Megan Rapinoe during a July 7 ceremony. Photo: Screenshot/YouTube White House Channel
President Joe Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to lesbian soccer star Megan Rapinoe during a July 7 ceremony. Photo: Screenshot/YouTube White House Channel

During a ceremony July 7 in the East Room of the White House, President Joe Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 recipients, including lesbian soccer star and activist Megan Rapinoe.

The president opened his remarks with a joke that he hopes Rapinoe and award recipient Simone Biles, who is the most decorated gymnast in American history, will find room for the nation's highest civilian honor among the many other medals and trophies they have accumulated throughout their athletic careers.

Biden then praised the women's leadership off the field and out of the arena in their work championing issues of pay equity and justice for victims of sexual violence, respectively, before turning to the lives and accomplishments of the other 15 awardees.

Among them were actor Denzel Washington, former Arizona congressmember and gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords (D), and civil rights pioneers Diane Nash and Raúl Yzaguirre. Washington had to miss the ceremony because he tested positive for COVID.

Also being recognized were Sister Simone Campbell, a member of the Sisters of Social Service and former executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organization; Julieta García, the former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville; and attorney Fred Gray, one of the first black members of the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction and who represented Rosa Parks, according to the White House's list of recipients.

Awardee Father Alexander Karloutsos is the former vicar general of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, while recipient Khizr Khan is a Gold Star father and founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Center. Sandra Lindsay is a New York critical care nurse who was the first American to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials.

Other honorees were Republican former U.S. senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a supporter of marriage equality, and Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, one of the most decorated women in the history of the U.S. military, the White House list stated.

Posthumous awards were accepted on behalf of the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, labor leader Richard Trumka, and senator and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

"I never stopped admiring John," Biden said of his former political rival McCain, "and I never said a negative thing about him in my life." The remark — which might have been a rebuke to comments made in 2015 by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in which he called McCain a "loser" and denigrated his record as a war hero — was one of several extemporaneous asides made by Biden about the awardees during the ceremony, many of whom he knew personally.

To applause and cheers from the crowd, Biden then medaled each recipient one by one as a military aide summarized their lives, careers, and accomplishments.

About Rapinoe, the military aide said: "A World Cup Champion and Olympic gold medalist who has been named the world's best women's soccer player, she leads with a fierce will off the field, too ... a champion in protecting the rights of her fellow LGBTQI Americans, and a leader on the U.S. women's national team — perhaps the most dominant of any team in any sport in their successful fight for equal pay."

Leading up to and including her tenure as co-captain of the team from 2018 to 2020, Rapinoe has championed initiatives to fight for compensation equal to that which is earned by her male counterparts. On this front, she was involved in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation.

In May, the USSF, the United States Women's National Team Players Association, and the United States National Soccer Team Players Association struck collective bargaining agreements through 2028 for identical pay for all competitions.

Rapinoe led the U.S. national team to gold medals at the 2012 London Olympic Games as well as in the 2015 and 2019 FIFA Women's World Cups. Public recognition of her work as an activist began in 2016, when she knelt in solidarity with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protests on the field against racial injustice and police brutality earned international media attention. In 2017, after being told the team planned to release him, Kaepernick opted out of his contract and became a free agent. He has not played professional football since.

"Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties," Rapinoe said at the time. "It's important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don't need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that's really powerful."

Rapinoe has also distinguished herself as an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, including through her charitable work with GLSEN.

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