Judy Shepard receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

Judy Shepard Presidential Medal of Freedom

Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime that shocked the nation in 1998, receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Joe Biden on Friday. Photo: White House screenshot via C-SPAN

Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime that shocked the nation in 1998, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Friday.

Shepard, 71, co-founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, named after her son, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who died in 1998 after he was beaten and tied to a fence.

Shepard is board chair and president of the foundation.

Shepard received the nation’s highest civilian honor during a White House ceremony she attended with husband Dennis.

“This unexpected honor has been very humbling for me, Dennis, and our family,” Shepard said in a statement before the event. 

“I am grateful to everyone whose love and support for our work through the years has sustained me.”  

“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,” she said. “This honor reminds the world that his life, and every life, is precious.”

Shepard was among a diverse group of 19 individuals who were honored by the Democratic president for making what the White House said are “exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.”

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President John F. Kennedy established the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.

The 10 men and nine women hail from the worlds of politics, sports, entertainment, civil rights and LGBTQ+ advocacy, science, and religion. Three medals were awarded posthumously.

“These nineteen Americans built teams, coalitions, movements, organizations, and businesses that shaped America for the better,” the White House said in a statement. “They are the pinnacle of leadership in their fields. They consistently demonstrated over their careers the power of community, hard work, and science.”

In presenting the medal to Shepard, Biden said, “Judy Shepard took a mother’s most profound pain and turned her son’s memory into a movement. Matthew Shepard’s brutal death 25 years ago shocked the conscience of our nation and galvanized millions of Americans to stand against anti-LGBTQI+ hate.

“Together, with her husband, Dennis, their courageous advocacy has since driven tremendous progress in our laws and culture, giving young people and their families strength and hope for the future,” the president said. “The Shepard family’s compassion reflects the best of America, where everyone is equally deserving of dignity and respect.”

In the aftermath of their son’s murder in Laramie, Wyoming, the Shepard’s joined with the family of James Byrd Jr., who was murdered by white supremacists just months before Matthew’s death, to push for the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The legislation expanded federal hate crimes law to consider a person’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The Shepard’s advocacy was instrumental in passing the historic bill, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. Earlier this year, a jury in South Carolina issued the first conviction for a gender identity motivated violent crime under this landmark legislation in the murder trial of Dime Doe, a Black transgender woman.

The other medal recipients:

  • Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit Catholic priest who founded and runs Homeboy Industries, the Los Angeles-based gang-intervention and rehabilitation program.
  • Phil Donahue, a journalist and former daytime TV talk-show host.
  • Clarence B. Jones, honored for his activism during the Civil Rights Movement. He’s a lawyer who provided legal counsel to Martin Luther King Jr. and helped write the opening paragraphs of the “I Have a Dream” speech that King delivered at the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington.
  • Katie Ledecky, the most decorated female swimmer in history.
  • Opal Lee, an activist who is best known for pushing to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Biden did it in 2021.
  • Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina in space and the second female director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
  • Jane Rigby, an astronomer who is chief scientist of the world’s most powerful telescope. She identifies as a lesbian and grew up in Delaware.
  • Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers and the first Latina to lead a national union in the U.S. The union has endorsed Biden’s re-election bid and backed him in 2020.
  • Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States. A member of the Sac and Fox Nation, Thorpe was considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports. He won two gold medals in the 1912 Summer Olympics (one in classic pentathlon and the other in decathlon). He also played football (collegiate and professional), professional baseball, and professional basketball. He died in 1953 at the age of 65.
  • Michelle Yeoh, who made history last year as the first Asian woman to win an Academy Award for best actress for her performance in “Everything, Everywhere All at Once.”

Seven politicians are among the recipients:

  • Michael Bloomberg, former New York mayor and philanthropist
  • Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., 
  • Elizabeth Dole, former senator
  • Al Gore, climate activist and former vice president
  • John Kerry, Biden’s former climate envoy
  • Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., former senator who died in 2013
  • Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., former House Speaker

President Barack Obama presented Biden, his vice president, with the medal a week before their administration ended in 2017.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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