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Judy Shepard, Nancy Pelosi, and queer scientist Jane Rigby among Medal of Freedom honorees

Author: Trudy Ring

Nineteen people will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, Friday at the White House, including a lesbian astrophysicist and numerous LGBTQ+ allies.The out astrophysicist is Jane Rigby, chief scientist at the world’s most powerful telescope. The allies include Judy Shepard, who became an activist for LGBTQ+ rights after the murder of her gay son, Matthew; U.S. Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Jim Clyburn; former Secretary of State John Kerry; former Vice President Al Gore; and talk show host Phil Donahue. Several others can claim ally status as well.

The medal 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,” says a White House press release.

The honorees:

Jane Rigby is the senior project scientist at the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope in the world. She was named the LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year in 2022 by Out to Innovate, which recognizes outstanding LGBTQ+ professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math. She has also done extensive research involving data from the Keck and Magellan Observatories and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Judy Shepard is cofounder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which works for social justice, diversity awareness and education, and LGBTQ+ equality. The organization was founded in 1999, the year after Matthew’s murder by antigay assailants in Laramie, Wyo. He was a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming. Judy Shepard was the foundation’s first executive director, holding that position from 1999 to 2009, and she continues as board president. She and her husband, Dennis, and their surviving son, Logan, have been tireless activists; among other things, they pushed for the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009.

Nancy Pelosi is the first and so far only woman to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and while she is no longer in House leadership, she is still a member. A Democrat representing a San Francisco district, she was first elected to the House in a special election in 1987, and she has been a passionate advocate for LGBTQ+ rights for her entire career, championing the cause even when many Democrats were lukewarm supporters at best.

Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, has been a member of the U.S. House since 1993. He has been the House’s assistant Democratic leader and majority whip and has worked for the passage of much progressive legislation, including legislation that expanded LGBTQ+ rights.

John Kerry has been a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, secretary of State, and Democratic presidential nominee (in 2004). In 2015, he became the State Department’s first special envoy for LGBTQ+ rights, working for equality around the world. Later, he was President Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate, leading efforts to address the climate crisis globally.

Al Gore’s résumé includes being a U.S. senator from Tennessee, Bill Clinton’s vice president, and the Democratic presidential nominee in 2000. He accepted the outcome of that year’s disputed election for the sake of national unity. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, jointly with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for his bold action on climate change. He is also a longtime supporter of LGBTQ+ rights.

Phil Donahue pioneered the issue-oriented daytime television talk show, and he was one of the first to put a positive spotlight on LGBTQ+ people. He first featured an out gay man on his show in 1968. “As the years went by after that show, I got involved in gay politics,” he once told fellow daytime star Oprah Winfrey. “And through my activism, I began to realize what it must be like to be born, to live, and to die in the closet. I can’t even imagine it.”

Michael Bloomberg is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and three-term mayor of New York City. A Republican turned independent turned Democrat, he briefly sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Father Greg Boyle is a Los Angeles-based Jesuit Catholic priest and the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest gang-intervention and rehabilitation program.

Elizabeth Dole has been a U.S. senator from North Carolina, secretary of Transportation, secretary of Labor, and president of the American Red Cross. She now heads the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which provides support for military families.

Medgar Evers, being honored posthumously, was a civil rights leader in the Deep South. He was murdered at his home in Mississippi in 1963, at age 37. His widow, Myrlie Evers, carried on his fight for justice and equality.

Clarence B. Jones is a civil rights activist and lawyer who helped draft Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Jones has been instrumental in preserving King’s legacy and remains an outspoken force against hate.

Frank Lautenberg, a posthumous honoree, was a five-term U.S. senator, making him the longest-serving senator from New Jersey. A Democrat, he championed environmental protection and consumer safety, and he was also a strong supporter of LGBTQ+ rights. He died in 2013.

Katie Ledecky is the most decorated female swimmer in history. She has won seven Olympic gold medals and 21 world championship gold medals so far. She is currently in the trials for this year’s Olympics.

Opal Lee is an educator and activist known for her efforts to make Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday. It commemorates the end of slavery on June 19, 1865, when news of its abolition finally reached Texas, the last state practicing it. Lee joined President Biden to officially make Juneteenth a national holiday in 2021.

Ellen Ochoa is the first Hispanic woman in space and the second female director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Johnson Space Center. She has flown in space four times and logged nearly 1,000 hours in orbit.

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 workers. She is also an LGBTQ+ ally, having praised the Bostock Supreme Court ruling, Supreme Court ruling, which established nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ workers.

Jim Thorpe, being honored posthumously, 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. He died in 1953.

Michelle Yeoh was the first Asian person to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, with her Oscar for 2022’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, a film about multiverses that also explored Yeoh’s character’s relationship with her queer daughter, played by Stephanie Hsu. Yeoh, who has worked in films for 40 years, continues to shatter stereotypes and enrich American culture.

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Original Article on The Advocate
Author: Trudy Ring

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