On Tuesday President Obama gave out his last Presidential Medals of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The star-studded list of 21 recipients included Michael Jordan, Bill and Melinda Gates, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, and Diana Ross — all of whom Obama said had touched him in a “powerful, personal way” and helped shape his presidency.
Many of the recipients have been critical of President-elect Donald Trump or have praised Democrats.
But when Ellen DeGeneres came up to accept her award, it was a particularly potent reminder of how different the next administration is likely to be, and the warm inclusivity that Obama exhibited while in office.
DeGeneres teared up as a White House aide introduced her and praised her courage in blazing a trail for LGBTQ equality: “At a pivotal moment, her courage and candor helped change the hearts and minds of million of Americans, accelerating our nation’s constant drive toward equality and acceptance for all,” the aide said.
“Ellen DeGeneres has showed us that a single individual can make the world a more fun, more open, more loving place, so long as we just keep swimming,” he added, referring to DeGeneres’s role as Dory in Finding Nemo.
Then Obama gave DeGeneres the medal and an affectionate hug.
“It’s useful, when you think about this incredible collection of people, to realize this is what makes us the greatest nation on Earth,” Obama said at the ceremony. “Not because of our differences, but because in our differences we find something in common to share. And what a glorious gift that is.”
Ellen DeGeneres first publicly came out as a lesbian in 1997, almost two decades ago, and incurred conservative backlash for a few years. She staged a comeback in 2003, with her groundbreaking standup special Here and Now, her beloved role in Finding Nemo, and the premiere of her hit daytime talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Now that marriage equality is the law of the land and LGBTQ people are more visible than ever, it can be easy to forget what a profoundly different time 1997 was for gay and lesbian Americans.
But given the justifiable fear many LGBTQ people feel about a Trump-Pence administration, it’s important to remember that the battle for equality is far from over.