On August 25, 2009, United States Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) died at his home in Hyannis Port, MA, after a year-long battle with cancer. With his passing, the progressive community lost its most powerful and zealous champion and the Senate its liberal leader. Throughout his 47 years in the Senate, Kennedy fought passionately for many causes, including education, health care, and civil rights. He was committed to speaking for “people without a voice,” and dedicated himself to ensuring that the country he loved and served provided equal opportunity and protection for all its citizens.
Kennedy, the youngest of nine children, assumed the mantle of his family’s political aspirations in 1962 when he easily won the Senate seat his brother, John, had vacated upon winning the 1960 presidential election. Following the tragic assassinations of his two brothers, he committed himself to ensuring that their work would not be interrupted. President John F. Kennedy’s passion was civil rights, and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was “the tribune of the disenfranchised.” Guided by their memory, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy sought to improve the condition of all American people. In a family devoted to public service, he both continued the work his brothers left behind and inspired the next generation to serve.
Merging his interest in education with his primary focus, health care, Kennedy was a co-sponsor of the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, which was designed to provide young people the information they need to lead healthy and safe lives, make responsible decisions, and prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The REAL Act would provide the first dedicated federal funding for comprehensive sexuality education programs that are evidence-based, medically accurate, and age-appropriate, providing information about contraception as well as abstinence. Kennedy clearly understood that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have failed America’s teenagers and that a research-based approach is vital.
During Kennedy’s passionate pursuit of health care reform, which he called “the cause of my life,” he continuously advocated funding for HIV/AIDS research and treatment. He is remembered as one of the first legislators to address the epidemic, originally attempting to secure government assistance for those living with HIV/AIDS in 1986, a time when the disease was misunderstood and feared by many. In 1990, displaying his lauded ability to gain Republican support, he joined with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to introduce the landmark Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, which allocated funds to provide care and treatment for those living with HIV/AIDS when they were unable to pay or their insurance coverage was inadequate. Kennedy continued his dedication to the issue throughout his career and worked to ensure the reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act in 2000.
Kennedy strongly believed that all Americans deserve equal rights, and staunchly supported measures benefiting the LGBTQ community. In 1994, he first introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. More recent versions of ENDA have included protection for gender identity, and though ENDA has not yet passed, Kennedy continued to support it until his death. Believing that “hate crimes are an appalling form of domestic terrorism,” he first introduced legislation mandating enhanced punishment for those convicted of hate crimes in 1997 and continually supported measures to include sexual orientation and gender identity. He was a strong proponent of marriage equality and was one of only 14 senators to vote against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which established the federal government’s definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. He also voted against proposals to amend the Constitution to include this definition in 2004 and 2006 and supported the 2004 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that made his home state the first to legalize same-sex marriage.
“SIECUS mourns the passing of Sen. Kennedy,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS. “We celebrate his numerous accomplishments and dedication to the American people, and hope that his legacy will inspire those who work to achieve the America he envisioned.”
 AIDS Healthcare Foundation, “AIDS Healthcare Foundation Mourns Kennedy as ‘Champion of People without a Voice,’” Press Release published 26 August 2009, accessed 10 September 2009, <http://www.aidshealth.org/news/press-releases/aids-healthcare-foundation-2.html>.
 Bzdek, Vince, “Four Brothers, One Enduring Spirit,” Washington Post, 30 August 2009, accessed 10 September 2009, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/29/AR2009082902396.html>.
 Senator Edward M. Kennedy, “Kennedy on Hate Crimes Legislation,” Press Release published 14 December 2007, accessed 9 September 2009, <http://kennedy.senate.gov/newsroom/press_release.cfm?id=4eb9141f-14bf-4f77-a02c-fdffdbf072e5>.