BY Kerry Eleveld
August 28 2009 1:35 PM ET
Memorializing a man regularly referred to as a “giant” is a nearly impossible task. But nothing says more to me about the character of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy than the way he stood with the LGBT community at the outset of the AIDS epidemic.
When Kennedy took over the chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in 1987, our nation’s political elite had all but ignored AIDS for the bulk of the decade. In the intervening years between July 1981, when The New York Times ran its first article on the disease, and June 1987, when Ronald Reagan gave his first speech on the subject, more than 20,000 people had already died of AIDS in the United States.
Kennedy made AIDS a top priority in the Health committee, helped to secure $1.2 million in funding for AIDS research in 1988, and introduced and ultimately passed what became known as the Ryan White CARE Act, the largest federal program to provide critical medical treatment for people living with AIDS.
But Kennedy’s contributions were as notable for what he blocked as for what he passed.
“What people don't understand unless they were there during the darkest days in the '80s,” recalls LGBT activist David Mixner, “is that he stopped amendment after amendment proposed by [North Carolina senator] Jesse Helms -- some of the most draconian, hateful amendments imaginable.”
From measures that would have criminalized health care workers who knew they were HIV-positive and failed to tell their patients before surgery to allowing doctors to test patients for HIV without consent to criminalizing blood donations from HIV-positive people, Ted Kennedy was there to slay them all.
“One thing I have to say, we talk about how Clinton let us down on DOMA and ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and now we're eight months into Obama and we haven’t gotten jack from him -- Ted Kennedy never let us down. Ever!” says Mixner.