While Ted Kennedy’s passing is being mourned by the nation, there’s real anxiety in the gay and lesbian community about who — and whether — anyone of his stature will come along to replace him.
Real heroes are hard to find.
From the earliest days of the AIDS crisis Kennedy’s advocacy on behalf of the GLTB community was simply immeasurable. At a time when nearly every elected official ran from the issue as fast as they could, terrified of the political ramifications, Kennedy stood up, often a lone voice in the senate, and he quickly became an unrivalled allay in the fight against AIDS.
Let it never be forgotten that in the 1980’s Kennedy battled the then very powerful Jesse Helms, who wanted to see gay men housed in concentration camps. Courageously, and at no profit to himself, he fought every amendment that Helms dreamed up to block AIDS funding or to menace and stigmatize gay people.
Remember too that throughout that low, dishonest decade President Ronald Reagan refused to even utter the word AIDS until 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed and 20,849 had died. It’s impossible to think of another stigmatized social group in America who would have had to die in those kinds of numbers before a sitting President even acknowledged their plight.
There was so much Reagan could have done. He could have stemmed the homophobic rhetoric that flowed easily from so many in his administration. Countless lives could have been saved had his administration had responded quickly and compassionately with public health and educational programs instead of judgmental silence or outright contempt.
In contrast to Reagan, there was so much that Kennedy did do. First, he made HIV/AIDS medicines available to everyone by creating the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP). When Kennedy took over the leadership of the Senate Committee on Health in 1987, he made AIDS the committee’s top priority at a time when there was still so much stigma surrounding the disease, taking a political risk that few politicians of the period were willing to follow.
And when Kennedy pushed for the Ryan White CARE Act in 1990, named after the Indiana teenager who was expelled from his school when his tutors leaned he had contracted AIDS through a tainted hemophilia treatment, he did so not only because he believed in what he was doing, but because he had come to personally know Ryan White. That act is still the largest federally funded program for people living with HIV/AIDS. It sought funding to improve availability of care for low-income, uninsured and under-insured victims of AIDS and their families.
Had he done nothing else, Kennedy’s advocacy on this issue alone deserves a lasting monument.
But Kennedy’s advocacy didn’t stop there, far from it. He was one of only 14 senators who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996. And when the Matthew Shepard nondiscrimination bill eventually passes, it will be because of Kennedy that for the first time sexual orientation and gender will be part of a U.S. Civil Rights Code.
The truth is Kennedy’s advocacy involved every civil rights movement in America: he fought for working people, for people of color, for children, women, LGBT people, immigrants, people with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS and so many others who looked to his leadership for a more just society.
For his advocacy on gay issues Kennedy was given a rare 100% approval rating by the Human Rights Commission (HRC). Yesterday HRC president Joe Solmonese said: “The nation has lost its greatest champion and strongest voice for justice, fairness, and compassion. The loss to our community is immeasurable. There was no greater hero for advocates of LGBT equality than Senator Ted Kennedy. From the early days of the AIDS epidemic, to our current struggle for marriage equality, he has been our protector, our leader, our friend. He has been the core of the unfinished quest for civil rights in this country, and there is now a very painful void.”
Kennedy fought for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, he was a co-sponsor of every piece of hate crimes legislation covering sexual orientation or gender identity considered by the Senate; he fought for immigration rights for foreign born partners of gay American citizens; he supported the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military gay ban; he supported full marriage equality; he was the lead sponsor of each Employment Non-Discrimination Act introduced in the Senate and he opposed every attempt to codify anti-gay bigotry in education and law that he ever encountered.
Asked in 2007 why he supported including sexual orientation on the employment non-discrimination act, he replied: “America stands for justice for all. Congress must make clear that when we say “all” we mean all. America will never be America until we do.”
Without fanfare or hope of reward, Kennedy was ever and always the fierce — and fearless — advocate on gay rights that President Barack Obama claims to be. Here’s hoping that his legacy will inspire the same fearlessness in the Democratic Party today.