Two American gay icons will be honoured by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony on Wednesday.

Assassinated politician Harvey Milk and tennis legend Billie Jean King are among 16 recipients of the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

America’s highest civilian honour, the Medal of Freedom is awarded to individuals who make “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavours.”

Among the recipients of this year’s awards are Professor Stephen Hawking and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has repeatedly called for his fellow Anglicans to support LGBT people.

Politicians who have shown their support for gays also make the list – veteran US Senator Edward Kennedy and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson have both been strong advocates for LGBT rights.

Former US Suprme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is honoured as is Jack Kemp, the Republican candidate for Vice President in 1996.

Mr Kemp, a much-loved figure on both sides of the political divide, died earlier this year.

President Obama said:

“These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds.

“Their tremendous accomplishments span fields from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change.

“Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.

“Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive.

“It is my great honour to award them the Medal of Freedom.”

The citation for Harvey Milk reads:

Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official from a major city in the United States when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.

Milk encouraged lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) citizens to live their lives openly and believed coming out was the only way they could change society and achieve social equality.

Milk, alongside San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, was shot and killed in 1978 by Dan White, a former city supervisor.

Milk is revered nationally and globally as a pioneer of the LGBT civil rights movement for his exceptional leadership and dedication to equal rights.

The citation for Billie Jean King reads:

Billie Jean King was an acclaimed professional tennis player in the 1960s and 1970s, and has helped champion gender equality issues not only in sports, but in all areas of public life.

King beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, then the most viewed tennis match in history.

King became one of the first openly lesbian major sports figures in America when she came out in 1981. Following her professional tennis career, King became the first woman commissioner in professional sports when she co-founded and led the World Team Tennis (WTT) League.

The U.S. Tennis Association named the National Tennis Center, where the US Open is played, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006.

Click here for more information about the 2009 recipients.