ImageBy Andrea Stone, USA TODAY

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Judy Shepard steps to the ballroom lectern, dangles her reading glasses and waves a folding fan. Necessities, she explains, for "a woman of a certain age." The state employees chuckle.

Soon they — and their guest speaker — will weep.

The story of how Shepard’s son Matthew was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead near Laramie on a clear October night in 1998 is well-known. The murder of the college student sparked protests, vigils and calls for legal protections for victims of anti-gay violence. Shepard says she became "a mom on a mission."

Some 500 speeches later, Shepard has rarely cried in public, but on this day, she does.

"Oh, I’m so sorry," she says as she clears her throat. "There’s a hole in my life," she sobs. "Deep breath, everybody." The 150 people in the room inhale as one.

One of the most approachable faces of the gay rights movement may finally see her mission fulfilled this year as Congress moves closer to passing the hate-crimes bill she has lobbied for a decade to pass. The Matthew Shepard Act would extend federal protections to people victimized because of sexual orientation. To give lawmakers an added push, Shepard begins a tour this month to promote her book, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed.

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