Judy Shepard more than deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom for what she’s done to protect LGBTQ+ lives

Author: John Casey

Nearly 25 years after her son’s death, the pain in Judy Shepard’s voice is still palpable. “We started our work right after Matt passed, and we had no idea, 25 years later, people would even know who we were or would even care,” Judy told me during a recent conversation.

Judy, not only do we know who you are, but we care about you perhaps more than you’ll ever know. We will never forget you and Matt. You are as much a part of the LGBTQ+ community as any one of us. And you are arguably our biggest ally.

President Biden — rightfully so — presented Judy with the Presidential Medal of Freedom Friday. it “is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, 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 White House website explains.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation continues to be one of the most significant private endeavors, not just for us but for all those who have LGBTQ+ children, family members, and friends. Judy and her husband, Dennis, started the foundation after Matt, their beloved 21-year-old son, died from being beaten in October of 1998 in rural Wyoming. Matt’s torture and death constituted a seminal moment in our community and a worldwide rallying cry to end hate toward queers, which had been ever-present — and still is, which is why we still need Judy.

So much of who Judy Shepard is exemplifies the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has been our community’s security blanket, working tirelessly to protect all of us when she could no longer protect her son. We’ve all become Judy’s children.

When you talk to Judy, you understand her selflessness. She insists that the story never be about her. It’s about Matt and all those she seeks to protect. “Erasing Hate” is the foundation’s motto, and its mission is to “amplify the story of Matt to inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people.”

“We made a commitment — all of us in the family did — that this was what we were going to do until people didn’t listen to us anymore,” Judy told me. “So we’re just gonna keep at it until people don’t want to talk to us,”

Judy and the foundation played a pivotal role in the enactment of the nation’s LGBTQ-inclusive federal hate-crimes law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.

Since May 2017, the foundation has conducted hate-crimes training sessions for 1,060 law enforcement officers and 76 prosecutors. Moreover, it has fostered conversations on hate and inclusivity across global communities and curated a comprehensive array of resources to bolster the legacy of The Laramie Project and other artistic endeavors inspired by Matt’s narrative.

After all those achievements, all those successes, and all those enlightenments, no one deserves to step away from their work more than Judy; however, as we all know, a new strain of cruelty seeped into our lives when Donald Trump was sworn in as president in January of 2017. Weary and still struggling with sadness over Matt’s death — she always will — Judy refuses to quit.

“There came a point in time when I was really encouraged,” she pondered. “I spoke at a lot of colleges and high schools for over 15 years. I thought that the students’ worlds weren’t so mad anymore. We assumed that there was so much progress in the community. All we had known was progress.”

And now Judy is horrified — she takes this very personally — that state legislatures and national and local leaders, including U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, are telling LGBTQ+ kids that they are wrong. “Quite frankly, I’m devastated, and I am totally befuddled by all of it and really, really angry and scared for the future,” she said.

“We were hurting our youth. Our youth are our future. And our present, frankly, and we’re hurting them. We’re scaring them and their friends and their families. It’s happening in every red state. Especially in the rural areas when there’s already no diversity. People are afraid of things they don’t understand.”

Judy, through all her tireless efforts, tries passionately to get people to understand. She’s sacrificed so much in her life. She has put Matt’s story forward countless times, as a mother who lost her treasure. Judy has forced herself, over and over again, to talk about her son. None of us can imagine how painful it is to repeatedly dredge up that inexplicable nightmare of his death.

Speaking for many of us, I remember clearly when Judy’s son died. The horror of it was jolting, and the protesters who showed up at his funeral were repugnant. You couldn’t watch the news in October of 1998 without hearing about Matt. The pictures of a grieving Judy were heart-shattering. Her disconsolate solitude and agonizing mourning were embedded in our minds.

Before Matt died, Judy lived a quiet life. She was very shy. And it’s easy to forget the fact that when Matt died, Judy was a grieving mother — going through perhaps the closest thing to hell on Earth. How do you move forward, persevere, and return to normalcy after losing a child? The odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you.

But Judy found a way to evolve. Life would never be the same for Judy, and she realized that it would never be the same for all us queers who lost a part of ourselves when her son died.

Judy has given up her personal peace and has tried, with a steely conviction, to spread peace among all the hate. Judy takes it upon herself to take on all of our anger, all of our sadness, all of our fear, and tries to give us hope after losing the hope in her life.

I was able to tell Judy that she’s been a hero of mine, and true to her humble character, she demurred. Now, by receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Judy becomes a hero to us all and a hero to history.

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Original Article on The Advocate
Author: John Casey

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