(WB) During a ceremony Thursday afternoon 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 Simone Biles, who is the most decorated gymnast in American history, will find room for the nation’s highest civilian award 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, before turning to the lives and accomplishments of the other 15 awardees. 

Among them were actor Denzel Washington, former Congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords, and civil rights pioneers Diane Nash and Raúl Yzaguirre. Posthumous awards were accepted on behalf of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, the late labor activist Richard Trumka, and the late Senator and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain. 

“I never stopped admiring John,” Biden said of his former political rival Senator 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 on Thursday, 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 again 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 US 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 (USSF). 

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

Rapinoe led the US 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 football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protests on the field against racial injustice and police brutality earned international media attention. 

“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.