Metro Weekly

Judy Shepard Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom

The mother of Matthew Shepard is part of a group of 19 honorees, including a lesbian astrophysicist and several LGBTQ political allies.

Judy Shepard – Photo: The Matthew Shepard Foundation

Judy Shepard, the mother of gay rights icon Matthew Shepard and co-founder of the foundation named in his honor, has been named one of 19 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The honorees were recognized by President Joe Biden during a special ceremony at the White House this afternoon. 

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the United States’ highest civilian honor.  It is presented to individuals who have made “exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public, or private endeavors,” according to a White House press release. 

Shepard, along with her husband, Dennis, has been a tireless advocate for the LGBTQ community and for victims of bias-motivated crimes following the murder of her son in an anti-gay hate crime in 1998.

Her relentless advocacy for federal hate crimes laws resulted in 2009’s Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The law provides protections for various enumerated groups, including victims of crime targeted for their sexual orientation, gender identity, or other characteristics, and allows prosecutors to pursue additional jail time or other penalties against those convicted of hate crime charges.

As the current board president of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Judy Shepard has advocated for local, state, and federal policies that promote equality and combat hatred based on people’s personal characteristics. Since 2001, she has also served on the HRC Foundation Board of Directors.

“Judy Shepard has been a champion for equality and President Biden’s choice to honor her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom is a testament to what she’s done to be a force of good in the world,” HRC President Kelley Robinson said in a statement. “A mother who turned unspeakable grief over the loss of her son into a decades-long fight against anti-LGBTQ+ hatred and violence, Judy continues to make a lasting impact in the lives of the LGBTQ+ community.”

“This unexpected honor has been very humbling for me, Dennis, and our family,” Shepard said in a statement. “What makes us proud is knowing our President and our nation share our lifelong commitment to making this world a safer, more loving, more respectful, and more peaceful place for everyone.

“I am grateful to everyone whose love and support for our work through the years has sustained me,” she continued. ” If I had the power to change one thing, I can only dream of the example that Matt’s life and purpose would have shown, had he lived. This honor reminds the world that his life, and every life, is precious.”

Researcher and astrophysicist Jane Rigby, the senior project scientist at the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope in the world, is also being honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Rigby, an out lesbian, was named the LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year in 2022 by Out to Innovate, which recognizes LGBTQ professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. She was a founding member of the American Astronomical Society LGBT Equality Working Group, and co-organized Inclusive Astronomy, a global initiative to celebrate inclusivity and equity in astronomy.

Other recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year include LGBTQ allies like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; former Secretary of State and Senator John Kerry; former Vice President and environmental advocate Al Gore; U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.); labor leader and president of the United Farm Workers Teresa Romero; journalist and former talk show host Phil Donahue; former U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who is being honored posthumously; and actress Michelle Yeoh.

“President Biden often says there is nothing beyond our capacity when we act together,” the White House said in a press release. “These 19 Americans built teams, coalitions, movements, organizations, and businesses that shaped America for the better. … They consistently demonstrated over their careers the power of community, hard work, and service.”

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