There was a kind of macabre bravery on display at Saturday's Human Rights Campaign dinner, where Judy and Dennis Shepard--the parents of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student beaten to death last year--and James and Stella Byrd--parents of James Byrd, the black man dragged to pieces in Texas--took the stage. Their tears were genuine, the symbolism unmistakable, the message fierce and heartbreaking: violence bad, tolerance good.

"I know how it feels to be a victim of a hate crime because I'm going through it," said Stella Byrd. "I don't want another mother to go through what I've gone through."

"Hate crimes" is a phrase tossed around freely these days, a term meant to encompass the horror and evil of unspeakable cruelty. It's a neat little rhetorical device, made all the more powerful when accompanied by the face of human suffering. But watching the families onstage, one could not help but wonder: When has the searing grief of parents or the outrage of reasonable people ever been enough to stop hatred?

"The big question is: How do we prevent the hate crime in the first place?" asked Attorney General Janet Reno, who addressed more than 2,000 people at the Washington Hilton. The question was sincere, but even Reno could offer no more than good intentions: open dialogue, education, conflict resolution and a promise to prosecute all these crimes fully and fairly.

But the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay and lesbian political organization, is determined that an evening like this can and will make a difference. HRC organizers understand the power of symbols, which is why the Shepards, the Byrds, Reno, Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Heche and Martina Navratilova were all on hand. Each had words of solidarity and comfort, and everyone received too many standing ovations to count.

"It energizes the people who come," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "It doesn't have any impact on the outside world. This is a morale booster. It's like the USO for the troops: It strengthens their resolve. All these people take a lot of grief for being gay, and tonight is a night for getting credit for taking that grief."

"It's always important to keep reminding people," said actor Nathan Lane, who served as emcee for the dinner. "It's like one thing after another. . . . Suddenly you find yourself not being surprised anymore. It's just another monthly horror story. So it's always important to go back to basics."

Basics, in the case of HRC, boils down to money, role models and media-savvy messages.

Money is not a problem: More than $500,000 was raised at the event, the third annual national dinner. "Another way to think of it: one national dinner for each of Bob Barr's marriages," cracked HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch.

The role models were smart, articulate and chosen for their ability to attract attention. "There are a lot of people who do a lot more work, but they don't have the visibility," said Navratilova. The tennis legend's advice began and ended with one simple phrase: "Be out."

Navratilova said the public announcement of her homosexuality at the peak of her career caused a huge loss of endorsements and privacy. "If I had to do it all over again, there's only one thing I would change," she said. "I would have come out a lot earlier."

The other role model of the night was the mother of actress DeGeneres. Betty DeGeneres is the first non-gay HRC spokesperson and a beloved mother figure to homosexuals all over the country. "I hope to educate a little, to dispel myths, to get people to calm down and love and appreciate all their children: gay, non-gay, whatever," she said.

The entire DeGeneres family--Ellen, her older brother, Vance, and her partner, Heche--led the lovefest. "I don't know why we're not forming an exploratory committee for you to run for president," DeGeneres told her mom. "You never expect your mother to become an activist for gay rights. She blows me away. I'm so proud."

But the heart and soul of this dinner was the message symbolized by the Shepard and Byrd families. Although their son was targeted for his race, the Byrds have opposed any hate-crimes legislation in Texas that would exclude crimes against homosexuals.

This underscores the two main points of the evening, Birch told guests and viewers on C-SPAN. The first is the need to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which has made it through the Senate and is awaiting a vote in the House. The other message: Pay attention to the 2000 election. Birch was careful to praise both Democratic candidates, but warned that George W. Bush's early record on gay rights was "disturbing." In case Bush happened to be watching, the audience underscored her point with yet another standing ovation.

Reno was introduced by Robert Raben, the openly gay lawyer who was confirmed Thursday as assistant attorney general. Reno was greeted with huge cheers, and was sober and firm in her speech against hate crimes.

"These kind of crimes . . . threaten America's most cherished ideals," she said. "We cannot let our grief overwhelm our resolve." She called for everyone to speak out against bigots: "Haters are cowards and, when confronted, they usually back down."

She called for the hate crimes act to be passed, then attempted to address the question of prevention. Education was on the top of her list ("Hate is learned; it can be unlearned"). She called for classes and training in conflict resolution: "If we can send people to the moon, we ought to be able to do this."

The anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death is tomorrow. Judy Shepard vowed to stand by all gay Americans, and then broke down when a public service announcement with pictures of her son flashed on the huge video screens.

Dennis Shepard's voice broke with emotion when he told the hushed audience how much he loved his son. "Please remember one thing: Matthew was not my gay son," he said. "Matthew was my son who happened to be gay."

Shepard thanked everyone for the incredible outpouring of support. "In the last year my eyes have been opened," he said. He believed gay people had equal protection under the law. "I have never been so wrong in my life." He was in Washington, he said, because "I do not want to see another Matt die."

If only words were enough to make that happen.