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Judy Shepard, Wyomingite and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

A boy stands near a road.
Matthew Shepard Foundation
Matthew Shepard stands near a road in 1989.

A Wyoming woman is among 19 recent recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The award is given 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,” according to the White House.

In 1998, Judy Shepard’s son, Matthew, was tortured outside Laramie and later died as part of an anti-gay hate crime.

After his death, she helped found a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the discrimination of LGBTQ+ people and worked to usher in federal hate crime legislation.

Now, fifteen years after Shepard’s bill became law, Pres. Joe Biden has awarded her the highest civilian honor in the U.S.

But Shepard said there’s still a lot left to be done to combat hate crimes, especially in Wyoming.

“Wyoming still doesn't have a hate crime law,” said Shepard. “The state of Wyoming, right after Matt was killed, had the opportunity to become a leader in this field, and ran away.”

The University of Wyoming sponsors the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, a yearly forum started by Shepard on social inequality.

The symposium faces an uncertain future after the state Legislature voted to slash funding for the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion earlier this year.

“It hasn't changed,” Shepard said. “Hardly anybody lives here, right? So if you're different at all, you are immediately noticed. The level of hate nationwide, even worldwide, against the community is frightening and infuriating.”

Shepard said she’s leaving Friday to embark on a three-week trip with the U.S. State Department to visit Singapore, New Zealand and Australia, and share Matt’s story.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, supporting state government coverage in the state. Wyoming Public Media and Jackson Hole Community Radio are partnering to cover state issues both on air and online.

Chris Clements is a state government reporter and digital media specialist for Wyoming Public Media based in Laramie. He came to WPM from KSJD Radio in Cortez, Colorado, where he reported on Indigenous affairs, drought, and local politics in the Four Corners region. Before that, he graduated with a degree in English (Creative Writing) from Arizona State University. Chris's news stories have been featured on KUNC, NPR newscasts, and National Native News, among others.