Judy Shepard told us she was making a last-minute trip to Washington ... but she didn't tell us why.

Judy, the mother of gay rights icon Matthew Shepard, received the nation’s highest civilian honor from President Biden at the White House, joining 18 others in receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Her august company this year includes former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Vice President Al Gore, broadcast Phil Donahue, civil rights icons Medgar Evers and Opal Lee, Olympians Jim Thorpe and Katie Ledecky, actress Michelle Yeoh and others.

Previous winners include a Who’s Who of American cultural history, including jazz great Duke Ellington, songman Irving Berlin, playwright Tennessee Williams, actress Carol Burnett, author Toni Morrison, evangelist Billy Graham and countless others.

Together with her husband, Dennis, the Shepards launched the Matthew Shepard Foundation after their 21-year-old son was murdered in a vicious anti-gay hate crime in 1998. Twenty years later, Matthew’s ashes were interred here at the Cathedral, and the Shepards return every year on Dec. 1 for a public ceremony to celebrate their son’s legacy on his birthday.

Their dogged determination led to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, in 2009. The foundation remains committed to erasing hate and to embracing the LGBTQ+ community.

“Judy is the definition of love in action,” said Dean Randy Hollerith. “The White House is recognizing what we’ve known all along: Judy loves deeply, acts bravely and embraces widely. We are a stronger, more compassionate country because of her commitment to never give up.”

Anyone who has met Judy is struck by her mama-bear hugs and her ability to soldier on despite immense grief. She is steely, determined and brimming with compassion.

From all of us here at the Cathedral, congratulations Judy!




Kevin Eckstrom

Chief Public Affairs Officer

  • Public Life
  • LGBTQ+