Celebrities including Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro and Michael Jordan were also among the 21 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bringing the total that Barack Obama has awarded to 114, more than any of his predecessors.
"It's easy to forget now, when we've come so far... just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago," he said during the award ceremony at the White House.
Nearly half of the latest honorees were artists, actors or musicians, including singers Bruce Springsteen and Diana Ross, actor Robert Redford and “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels.
From the sporting world, former basketball superstars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan - who President Obama jokingly referred to as "the guy from Space Jam"- were awarded the medal, alongside sports broadcaster Vin Scully.
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