In a White House ceremony, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the same-sex partners of NASA astronaut Sally Ride and human rights activist Bayard Rustin.
The honor, the highest for US civilians, was started 50 years ago by President John Kennedy.
'This medal has been bestowed on more than 500 deserving people,' Obama said at the 20 November ceremony.
'Tonight, I’m looking forward to joining some of these honorees, as well as members of the Kennedy family, as we pay tribute to these 50 years of excellence. And this morning, we’re honored to add 16 new names to this distinguished list,' he added.
Tam O’Shaughnessy accepted for Ride, her life partner. The astronaut made history in 1983 when she flew into orbit aboard the space shuttle Challenger; a year later she took a second trip aboard the same ship.
'As the first American woman in space, Sally didn’t just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, she blasted through it,' Obama said in his speech.
'And when she came back to Earth, she devoted her life to helping girls excel in fields like math, science and engineering,' the president continued.
Ride was 61 when she died last 2012 July.
Walter Naegle stood in for his partner Rustin, who died in 1987. Born in 1912, Rustin was an early proponent of nonviolent direct action. In 1955, when a young preacher called Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, Rustin joined him and was essential in turning King into a national leader.
Although King's I Have a Dream speech are the words remembered from the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, the event came about only because of Rustin's planning.
'...For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay,' the president said.
'No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.'