"Again and again, Ellen DeGeneres has shown us that a single individual can make the world a more fun, more open, more loving place."
With those words from a White House aide, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to DeGeneres, stand-up comedian, television star, and trailblazer for LGBTQ rights.
Both Obama and DeGeneres shed tears as the aide read words of praise for DeGeneres' long career, enormous heart, and drive to make the world a better place for all people.
POTUS Awards Ellen DeGeneres With Medal of Freedom
Pres. Barack Obama presents award-winning comedian Ellen DeGeneres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. "Just keep swimming." http://abcn.ws/2fmjqL6Posted by ABC News on Tuesday, November 22, 2016
It's hard to remember what things were like in 1997, but DeGeneres' decision to come out — in real life and in character on her TV show — was a big deal and not one that was universally welcomed or praised.
After ABC aired the then-controversial episode where DeGeneres' character acknowledges her identity for the first time, the network was inundated with complaints — and viewers were split on the value of the decision. The show was cancelled the following year.
Anti-LGBTQ rights groups were protesting DeGeneres' appearance in advertising campaigns as recently as 2012.
Her transition from pop culture sideshow to universally beloved actor and television star is a testament to years of tireless work by her and others against forces that refuse to grant millions of Americans their basic humanity.
DeGeneres' career and history of fighting for equality is a reminder of all the values at stake in the coming years.
After an election campaign filled with bigoted rhetoric and divisive promises from the incoming president-elect, we need DeGeneres' brand of tolerance, joy, acceptance, love, and humanity now more than ever.
"Ellen counters what too often divides us, with the countless things that bind us together, inspires us to be better, one joke, one dance at a time," Obama said, as he issued the award.
More than anything, DeGeneres' story is an American story, one that won't stop being told no matter how strong the tide tries to pull us back.
Progress isn't always immediate. There's backlash, heartbreak, and reversal along the way. But if we "just keep swimming," eventually, we find our way.