Judy Shepard, Pelosi lead list of Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Friday May 3, 2024
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Judy Shepard, left, the mother of slain college student Matthew Shepard, and San Francisco Congressmember Nancy Pelosi will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom May 3. Photos: Shepard, courtesy the Matthew Shepard Foundation<br>
Judy Shepard, left, the mother of slain college student Matthew Shepard, and San Francisco Congressmember Nancy Pelosi will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom May 3. Photos: Shepard, courtesy the Matthew Shepard Foundation

The mother of a slain gay college student and the first female speaker of the U.S. House will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, President Joe Biden announced Friday, May 3, the day of the ceremony.

Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, will receive the honor, as will longtime San Francisco Congressmember and speaker emerita Nancy Pelosi (D). They are two of the 19 citizens who will receive the medal, according to a news release from the White House.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom 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, the release noted.

Matthew Shepard was 21 when he was brutally attacked on the night of October 6, 1998, tied to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming, and left to die. Found by rescuers and taken to a local hospital, he would succumb six days later on October 12 to the severe head injuries he had received.

The murder of the University of Wyoming student 26 years ago attracted intense media coverage and is one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history. It galvanized activists across the country and led to the passage in 2009 of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

It's co-named in honor of a Black man who was tied to the back of a truck and dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas in 1998. The federal bill expanded a 1969 federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

In the aftermath of Matthew Shepard's death, his mom, Judy, became an ally to the LGBTQ community. She and her husband, Dennis, founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the mission of which is to amplify the story of Matthew Shepard to inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people, according to its website.

Most recently, LGBTQ organizations, led by the International Imperial Court System, launched a campaign to see Matthew Shepard honored on a U.S. forever postage stamp. As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, the U.S. Postal Service has deemed the stamp honoring Matthew Shepard to be "too negative." It was widely criticized for its decision.

Breaking barriers

Pelosi, who has represented San Francisco in Congress since 1987, has long championed the LGBTQ community. Her first speech on the House floor was about the AIDS crisis and came at a time when the federal government was not as forthcoming with resources to fight the disease.

Speaking at the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Pride Breakfast last June, Pelosi offered a list of accomplishments during her two stints as House speaker (2007-2011 and 2019-2023). Those included passing the Affordable Care Act, the aforementioned Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, repeal of the military's anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and passing the Respect for Marriage Act.

She also said that Biden was the first "at his level" to come out in support of same-sex marriage when he served as President Barack Obama's vice president in 2012. In December 2022, Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House.

Other honorees

In addition to Judy Shepard and Pelosi, the other Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients are:

Michael R. Bloomberg, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and three-term mayor of New York City. He revolutionized the financial information industry and transformed New York City's education, environment, public health, and the arts.

Father Gregory J. Boyle, a Jesuit Catholic priest who is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, the world's largest gang-intervention and rehabilitation program. He has helped thousands of Angelenos turn their lives around.

Representative Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina), who is the former assistant Democratic leader and majority whip in the House of Representatives. Through three decades in the House, Clyburn has transformed the lives of millions of Americans and created a freer country.

Former senator Elizabeth Dole (R-North Carolina), who has served the country as a trailblazing secretary of transportation, secretary of labor, and president of the American Red Cross. Her foundation supports military caregivers and their families.

Phil Donahue, a journalist and television pioneer who helped start the daytime issue-oriented television talk show format. Donahue was the first daytime talk show to feature audience participation and one of the most influential television programs of its time.

Medgar Evers (died 1963), who fought for his country in World War II and returned home to lead the fight against segregation in Mississippi. After he was murdered at his home at age 37, his wife Myrlie continued the fight to seek justice and equality in his name.

Al Gore (D) is a former vice president, senator (Tennessee), and member of the House of Representatives. After winning the popular vote, he accepted the outcome of a disputed 2000 presidential election for the sake of unity. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for his bold action on climate change.

Clarence B. Jones is a renowned civil rights activist and lawyer who helped draft Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Jones was instrumental in preserving King's legacy and remains an outspoken force against hate.

John F. Kerry (D) is a former secretary of state, U.S. senator (Massachusetts), and the first special presidential envoy for climate under Biden. His bravery in combat during the Vietnam War earned him the Silver Star and Bronze Star, and history will remember his public service career that has spanned seven decades. He was the 2004 Democratic nominee for president.

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D) (died 2013) was a five-term U.S. senator and New Jersey's longest-serving senator. He is remembered for his critical work on environmental protection and consumer safety across a number of fields.

Kathleen "Katie" Genevieve Ledecky is the most decorated female swimmer in history. An athletic prodigy, she has won seven Olympic gold medals and 21 world championship gold medals so far.

Opal Lee is an educator and activist known for her efforts to make Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday. More than 150 years after that day in Texas, she joined Biden to officially make Juneteenth a national holiday in 2021.

Ellen Ochoa, Ph.D., is the first Hispanic woman in space and the second female director of NASA's Johnson Space Center. Ochoa has flown in space four times, logged nearly 1,000 hours in orbit, and continues to inspire young generations of scientists.

Jane Rigby, Ph.D., an astronomer who grew up in Delaware, is the chief scientist of the world's most powerful telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope.

Teresa Romero is the president of the United Farm Workers and the first Latina to become president of a national union in the United States. She has secured key victories to improve the lives of the workers

James "Jim" Francis Thorpe (died 1953) was the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal. The country's original multi-sport superstar, he went on to play professional football, baseball, and basketball while breaking down barriers on and off the field.

Michelle Yeoh is an actress known for her groundbreaking work in a number of blockbusters over four decades. Recently, she became the first Asian to win the Academy Award for best actress for her performance in the 2022 best picture "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

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