Hollywood stars, members of Congress and thousands of others gathered on the U.S. Capitol steps last night to condemn the beating death of a gay University of Wyoming student and to urge immediate passage of a hate-crimes bill. "We need to send the strongest possible signal . . . that these crimes will not be tolerated in the United States," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told the crowd at the candlelight vigil. "Hate crimes are crimes against our country. There is still time for Congress to respond."

Kennedy was joined onstage by dozens of others, including openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and actresses Ellen DeGeneres and Kristen Johnston, in condemning the killing of Matthew Shepard, 21. Shepard was lured from a bar last week, beaten with a pistol butt, robbed and left tied to a fence near Laramie, Wyo. He died Monday; two men and their girlfriends face charges in the case.

The speechmakers included some Republicans, many whom got tepid receptions from the crowd that shouted anti-right wing remarks. Former Wyoming senator Alan K. Simpson, a Republican, was the subject of some heckling, even as he denounced the killing as an "ugly, ugly butchering."

"The people of my state and the University of Wyoming want you to know this is not who we are," Simpson said.

DeGeneres was greeted warmly. Through teary eyes, she told the crowd: "I am so pissed off. I can't stop crying."

DeGeneres said that incidents such as the attack on Shepard were what motivated her in part to reveal about 1 1/2 years ago on her television show, "Ellen," that she is gay. "This is exactly why I did what I did," said DeGeneres, whose show has since been canceled. She urged parents to teach their children tolerance.

Last night's vigil drew local residents as well as people from across the country, both gay and straight. Some spoke of Shepard as a martyr and of his death as a pivotal point in the struggle to pass state and federal legislation to protect gays from discrimination, and they urged Congress to pass a hate-crimes bill introduced this year.

The bill would broaden existing law to cover offenses motivated by a person's gender, disability or sexual orientation, and would make it easier for federal authorities to step in and prosecute such crimes.

Congress has not acted on the bill, other than to hold hearings, and Frank told the crowd that passage of the bill "does not look good right now."

Walter Boulden, one of Shepard's closest friends in Wyoming, described Shepard as a sensitive man who wanted to be famous. He said Shepard would smile, knowing he was doing so much good.

Still, he said, "the price was too high."

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said the hate-crime legislation needed to be passed "now!" He then led the crowd in a 15-second chant of "Now! Now! Now!"

Cathy Renna, director of community relations for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said she was pleased with the turnout.

"I think this is the time to focus a national spotlight on this issue," she said. "We're at the steps of the place, hopefully, where they'll pass federal hate-crime legislation."

But not all gay activists endorsed last night's celebrity gathering and the push for hate-crime legislation.

Bill Dobbs, a spokesman for the gay group QueerWatch, said gays shouldn't be elevated to special status through inclusion in hate-crimes legislation. He said he feared that might prompt resentment.

"People will point fingers and say, You're not better than us,' " Dobbs said yesterday from New York. "If I'm killed, my life is as valuable as anyone else's." He called the proposed law "a glib answer to a very big problem. It's so glib to scream, Fix this with a law.' " Most in the crowd last night were adults, but some people brought children. Joey Holloway, 8, explained what he knew about the gathering:

"It's about a kid, actually a teenager, who was beat up by other teenagers because he was gay," he said. "I think the people who killed the guy are stupid." CAPTION: Boulden, left, struggles with his emotions. Boulden and Trout, right, were friends of the slain University of Wyoming student. ec CAPTION: Walter Boulden, left, Alex Trout and actress Kristen Johnston attend a vigil for Matthew Shepard at the U.S. Capitol. ec