Judy Shepard, mother of hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard, Tuesday challenged gays and lesbians to become more visible and stronger advocates for their own rights.
"The only way you're going to get your rights is to tell people who you are," Shepard told an audience of mostly young people in Canisius College's Montante Cultural Center.
In the aftermath of the 1998 murder of her 21-year-old son in Laramie, Wyo., Shepard and her husband, Dennis, established a foundation in their son's name to promote gay and lesbian equality and efforts to prevent anti-gay hate crimes.
The former social studies teacher spokes softly but passionately as she shared stories about her son's life, his death and her observations on civil rights, using pathos, humor and homespun witticisms to drive home her points.
Describing Matthew as "a loving, vibrant and kind young man," Shepard added: "You need to see him as we do to understand our loss."
In October 1998, Matthew was savagely beaten by two men -- ostensibly because of his homosexuality -- tied to a fence and left alone on the prairie to die. He died six days later, but not before his parents were able to travel from Saudi Arabia to see their unconscious son's battered body lying in a Fort Collins, Colo., hospital.
His face was so swollen and covered in stitches, Judy Shepard said his one open blue eye was all she could recognize initially.
"But the twinkle of life wasn't there anymore," she said.
Shepard said she struggles to comprehend the depth of the hatred that would cause Matthew's attackers to behave as they did, but fear, hate and ignorance has to be unlearned and a culture of acceptance and embracing diversity must replace it.
Gays and lesbians are virtually invisible to the masses of Americans, she said, which means ordinary gays and lesbians need to be open about who they are, by talking to the co-workers about their life partners, their weekend trips and mundane domesticity.
"You have every right to bore your co-workers they way they bore you," Shepard said. "We need to educate the public out of its ignorance."
Shepard has also testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and appeared in televised public service spots aimed at stopping anti-gay violence and promoting a greater understanding of gay issues.