Saturday, 29 August 2009

Sovo: Gay community mourns Sen. Kennedy

‘He’ll be remembered as our strongest advocate’

Aug 28, 2009 | By: CHRIS JOHNSON and | COMMENTS

Gay people the country this week mourned Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who during his long tenure in the U.S. Senate was known for being a steadfast supporter of LGBT rights.

Kennedy, who was 77 and had represented Massachusetts in the Senate since 1962, died Tuesday night at his home on Cape Cod. Last year, he announced that he had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in an interview Wednesday that Kennedy's legacy of working on behalf of the LGBT community is unmatched by any other senator.

“I think he'll be remembered as our strongest advocate in the United States Senate,” Solmonese said. “No one even comes close.”

Solmonese noted that Kennedy championed LGBT issues even before doing so was politically expedient.

Kennedy offered a strong voice of support, Solmonese said, in the 1980s when the HIV/AIDS epidemic quickly spread and took the lives of many gay and bisexual men.

“When no one would come to our side, and no one would defend or protect us, it was Sen. Kennedy who, before anyone else, would take to the floor of the United States Senate and push back against the hateful rhetoric of people like [former Sen.] Jesse Helms,” Solmonese said.

Kennedy's work in advocating for LGBT rights spanned the course of his Senate career. Solmonese said the senator has been “immeasurably courageous in advancing any issue of importance to the gay community.”

In 1996, Kennedy was among 14 senators to vote on the Senate floor against the Defense of Marriage Act.

When the Federal Marriage Amendment came to the Senate floor in 2004, Kennedy spoke passionately against making a ban on same-sex marriage part of the U.S. Constitution in a thunderous voice that echoed throughout the Senate chamber.

“Make no mistake, a vote for the federal marriage constitutional amendment is a vote against civil unions, domestic partnerships and other efforts by states to treat gays and lesbians fairly under the law,” Kennedy said.

He continued: “It is a vote for imposing discrimination, plain and simple, on all 50 states.”

Additionally, Kennedy had championed the passage of federal hate crimes legislation for more than a decade.

Earlier this year, he introduced the Senate version of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. As he battled his illness, Kennedy was unable in July to cast a vote in favor of an amendment to a major defense bill that made a hate crimes provision based on his bill part of the legislation.

As Kennedy continued to battle cancer, he handed off one major piece of pro-LGBT legislation to another lawmaker. Kennedy gave sponsorship of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who introduced the legislation earlier this month. Kennedy remained an original co-sponsor of the bill.

Solmonese said Kennedy's support for the LGBT community came from his “patriotism” to his country.

“It's not like he has a child or a sibling who is gay,” Solmonese said. “It is really about an understanding that he sees the direction of this country tied to the direction of the LGBT community, and if we succeed, then the country succeeds.”

Who will champion ‘Don't Ask’ repeal?

One question that remains after Kennedy's death is who will take up the reins of a Senate bill to repeal “Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” which prevents openly gay people from serving in the military.

Kennedy had earlier this year expressed interest in sponsoring a bill in the Senate and said he was waiting for a Republican co-sponsor to sign on before he introduced the legislation.

Earlier this week, before Kennedy's death, David Smith, HRC's vice president of programs, said behind-the-scenes talks were taking place on whether Kennedy or someone else would sponsor the legislation.

“It's … our understanding that there are discussions behind the scenes on where [the proposed] 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal is going to go in the Senate,” Smith said. “And I would imagine that there would be resolution to that very soon.”

Smith declined to further detail the talks or offer a clearer timeline on when the matter might be resolved.

Allison Herwitt, HRC's legislative director, said a Senate bill would be important for when “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” hearings begin in the Senate Armed Services Committee this fall.

“It's an organizing tool and it's a way for us to talk to our members and supporters across the country and ask them to go to the senators and ask them to co-sponsor,” she said.

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