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Same-sex partners of Sally Ride, Bayard Rustin posthumously accept Medal of Freedom

WASHINGTON DC - NOVEMBER 20:  In this handout provided by NASA U.S. President Barack Obam(R) presents Presidential Medal Freedom

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20: In this handout provided by NASA, U.S. President Barack Obama (R) presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Tam O'Shaughnessy, Sally Ride's life partner on behalf of Dr. Ride in the East Room at the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. Sally Ride, who was awarded the Medal of Freedom posthumously, was the first American female astronaut to travel to space. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)

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Updated: December 23, 2013 2:29PM

WASHINGTON—On the same day Illinois legalized same-sex marriage, over at the White House, the nation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community passed another milestone: The life partners of Sally Ride and Bayard Rustin — both deceased — were treated as the family they are when President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the astronaut and civil rights leader the Medal of Freedom.

And in noting the considerable achievements of Ride and Rustin, each was cited by an announcer at the Wednesday ceremony as inspirations for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — deliberate, meaningful word choices.

You may not recall the Ride story. She did not acknowledge her 27-year relationship with partner Tam O’Shaughnessy until it was mentioned in her obituary after she died in 2012 in San Diego.

Rustin, who died in 1987, was openly gay, living with his partner, Walter Naegle, in New York.

On a stage at the East Room ceremony, there were 12 living honorees. The four deceased medal recipients were represented by their spouses or partners. Obama handed the boxed medals for Ride and Rustin to O’Shaughnessy and Naegle.

For Ride and Rustin, marriage was not an option.

Said the announcer about Ride: “At the end of her life, she became an inspiration for those battling pancreatic cancer, and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The tale of a quiet hero, Sally Ride’s story demonstrates that the sky is no limit for those who dream of reaching for the stars.”

Rustin was “openly gay at a time when many had to hide who they loved. His unwavering belief that we are all equal members of a single human family took him from his first Freedom Ride to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights movement,” the announcer said.

I talked with O’Shaughnessy after the event about how much has changed when it comes to gay rights since Ride’s death. Nowadays, NASA has embraced diversity; the agency has LGBT advisory committees.

“Her one worry was about NASA and the astronaut corps,” O’Shaughnessy told me. If Ride were open and honest about their relationship, “she was just worried how it would effect NASA, how would that effect the other astronauts.”

O’Shaughnessy said she was told ahead of time there would be the LGBT reference. But “when I actually on stage heard the words, it jarred me.”

In a good way.

Most likely, Wednesday marked the first time LGBT partners openly accepted awards at the White House.

Said Naegle, “It’s historic.”


Twitter: @lynnsweet

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