Their gay son was tortured and left to die. Now his parents fight for justice.

On October 6, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard accepted a ride from two men in Wyoming who led the young gay-rights advocate to believe they were also gay. Instead, they robbed him, brutally beat him and left him tied to a wooden fence in near-freezing temperatures. After six days in a coma, Matthew died.

Following that tragic loss, his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, began to campaign for gay rights and against the kind of hatred and bigotry that killed their son.

Their organization, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, funds education and outreach to encourage discussion of sexual orientation and gender issues. One discussion vehicle is the play The Laramie Project, which tells Matthew’s story.

The Shepards also worked with lawmakers and political activists for more than 10 years for legislation that expanded U.S. federal hate-crimes law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Matthew’s parents joined President Obama at the 2009 signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which is also named for an African-American man who was dragged to death by white supremacists in 1998.

At the signing, Obama said hate crimes aim to put fear into the heart of an entire community, not just one victim. The law imposes tougher penalties on criminals who target their victims because of the victim’s identity or personal characteristics.

“We must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits — not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear,” the president said. “The rights afforded every citizen under our Constitution mean nothing if we do not protect those rights — both from unjust laws and violent acts.”