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By Lisa Keen
The man whom many in the LGBT community consider their greatest friend in the U.S. Senate has died.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who fought for equal rights for gays on many fronts and was an early defender of people with HIV, died Aug. 25. He had been suffering from brain cancer.
“Our community has had no greater champion in Congress,” said David Smith, who worked as the senator’s director of communications from late 2003 to early 2005.
Smith, vice president for programs at the Human Rights Campaign, had credited Kennedy with taking on some of the community’s worst adversaries, including the late Sen. Jesse Helms, during its toughest battles.
“From early days of AIDS crisis, he was there for us,” recalled Smith. “He was battling for us, taking on a then very powerful Jesse Helms, who wanted to see us in concentration camps. God only knows what would have happened if Sen. Kennedy hadn’t been there.”
Elizabeth Birch, who was HRC president during many of those battles, recalled a “very intense” meeting with Kennedy and staff in which LGBT leaders “talked about the importance of having transgenders included” in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
“He said, ‘We never intended to leave anyone behind and we won’t leave anyone behind’,” said Birch.
“The other hallmark of who he was,” she added, “was he supported gay marriage ahead of any of his peers – and, frankly, ahead of people a generation or two behind him in Congress. He was a man who, whenever he hit the limits of something, he would just keep trying.”
Kennedy was one of only 14 senators who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. He did not argue for same-sex marriage, but rather against the attack on same-sex marriage.
“We all know what is going on here,” said Kennedy on the Senate floor during the DOMA debate. “I regard this bill as a mean-spirited form of Republican legislative gay-bashing, cynically calculated to try to inflame the public eight weeks before the Nov. 5 election.”
“This bill is designed to divide Americans, to drive a wedge between one group of citizens and the rest of the country, solely for partisan advantage,” he went on to say. “It is a cynical election year gimmick, and it deserves to be rejected by all who deplore the intolerance and incivility that have come to dominate our national debate.”
As author of ENDA, he led the debate in 1996 when the Senate came within one vote of passing the bill.
“We know that discrimination against gay men and lesbian women exists in this country today, no. 1,” said Kennedy. “No. 2, we know that there are no laws to protect them. No. 3, we know that the whole issue of gay men and lesbian women is an immutable condition. It is a condition of life.
“What we are trying to say is when Americans want to work and can work and do a job, they ought to be able to be judged on the job that they are going to do and not on one of these other factors,” said Kennedy. “We can free ourselves from discrimination against those gay men and lesbian women in the employment place.”
Chai Feldblum worked closely with Kennedy on ENDA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, to prohibit discrimination against people with HIV and the Ryan White CARE Act, to provide needed care to people with HIV.
Feldblum recalled that during the work on ADA, he held a meeting at his house with several of the key people working on the legislation and said he was “very focused on protection for people with HIV.”
“The bottom line,” said Feldblum, “was that he was our ‘go-to person’ with anything to do with gay rights. He was that person both because of who he was and the position he held.”
Current HRC President Joe Solmonese released a statement calling Kennedy the “greatest champion and strongest voice for justice, fairness and compassion.”
“The loss to our community is immeasurable,” he said. “There was no greater hero for advocates of LGBT equality than Sen. Ted Kennedy.”
A number of gay leaders said it would be difficult to fill the void in leadership on LGBT-related issues that has been left by Kennedy’s loss.
“We have our work cut out for us in terms of working with other (members of Congress), nurturing relationships with other champions,” said HRC’s Smith. Even as recently as the current fight to pass the Matthew Shepard hate crimes measure as part of the defense authorization bill, said Smith, Kennedy’s efforts have been critical.
“When it passes,” he says, “it will be because of Sen. Edward Kennedy that for the first time, sexual orientation and gender identity will be part of a U.S. Civil Rights Code.”