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Kennedy/Obama: Does the Dream Live On?

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In his dramatic "The Dream Lives On" speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Senator Edward Kennedy promised his party and his nation that "Barack Obama will close the book on race, gender, group against group, and straight against gay," a line that brought forth both cheers and tears of hope from the delegates.

It was no surprise that Senator Kennedy highlighted the issue of "straight against gay," because he was, in the words of Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, the "strongest voice in the United States Senate for the LGBT community."

In celebrating the "transformative impact" of Ted Kennedy's commitment to guaranteeing equality without regard to an individual's sexual orientation, Jarrett Barrios, the incoming president of GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, observed that Kennedy's unflagging support over the years had "helped change hearts and minds about LGBT equality," both in the Senate and throughout the nation.

Kennedy was an early advocate for AIDS research and treatment, securing federal funding so patients could have easier access to experimental drugs and both in-home and outpatient medical care. In 1996, he was one of only 14 senators who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions that have been authorized by the states. Kennedy condemned the legislation as a "mean-spirited" effort "to divide Americans." It "deserves to be rejected," he declared, "by all those who deplore ... intolerance."

Ted Kennedy was also a leading supporter of same-sex marriage in his home state of Massachusetts, which was the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004. In recognition of the Massachusetts Supreme Court's decision holding the denial of same-sex marriage unconstitutional, Senator Kennedy proudly proclaimed that "the nation's eyes were on Massachusetts today, and they saw a triumph for civil rights and fundamental fairness."

Senator Kennedy also championed the effort in Congress to add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes and employment discrimination laws. In 2002, he was one of the leading sponsors of the Matthew Shepard Act on hate crimes, and in 1996 he authored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would have barred discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation.

In co-sponsoring ENDA again this year, Kennedy said: "Ensuring equality for all Americans is the least we can do in living up to the standards of inclusion that this nation is built upon. There is no place for discrimination against any of our citizens for whatever reason." It is our duty, he declared, "to champion equal rights for every American."

David Wilson, a gay African-American who was one of the plaintiffs in the Massachusetts same-sex marriage litigation, described Kennedy as a "beacon of hope" in his unswerving support of gay rights and as the "bridge from the civil rights movement of the 1960s" to the gay rights movement" of today.

Kennedy saw clearly the moral, social, legal and historical connections between the struggles to accord "equal protection of the laws" to African-Americans, women and gays. In his view, these struggles are all part of a single whole, arising out of the fundamental responsibility of Americans to put aside prejudice and ignorance and to act upon what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

In his lyrical eulogy to Senator Kennedy, President Obama celebrated Kennedy's "life's work" -- "to give a voice to those who were not heard; to add a rung to the ladder of opportunity; to make real the dream of our founding." In passing, the president made reference to Kennedy's strong commitment to the cause of gay rights, noting that Kennedy was "alive to the plight and suffering of others -- the sick child who could not see a doctor; the young soldier sent to battle without armor; the citizen denied her rights because of what she looks like or who she loves."

There is much talk now about carrying out the legacy of Ted Kennedy. President Obama is well positioned to fulfill Kennedy's dream of equal rights regardless of sexual orientation. Certainly, the president shares Kennedy's vision. Only a few years ago, as a candidate for United States senator from Illinois, Mr. Obama announced that, as "an African-American man" and "a child of an interracial marriage," I have "taken on the issue of civil rights for the LGBT community as if they were my own struggle because I believe strongly that the infringement of rights for any one group eventually endangers the rights enjoyed under law by the entire population."

Mr. Obama proclaimed that he had worked for more than a decade "to expand civil liberties for the LGBT community including hate-crimes legislation, adoption rights and the extension of basic civil rights to protect LGBT persons from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, employment and credit," and promised that he would continue to "be an unapologetic voice for civil rights."

Now is the time for President Obama to fulfill that promise. In memory of Senator Kennedy, and in the name of simple justice, he should call upon Congress to enact the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Matthew Shepard National Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and to repeal the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy (under which gay members of the military continue to be discharged) and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which he himself once rightly described as "abhorrent."

Mr. Obama has many reasons not to take this on. He is trying to right the economy, to enact health care reform, to keep the nation safe against terrorists, and to strengthen our position internationally. But when profound moral issues are at stake, our greatest presidents do not waver. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of our nation's bloodiest conflict and despite widespread and often bitter opposition. In 1948, Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the military only three months before a hotly-contested presidential election that was then too close to call. Sometimes "change we can believe in" requires the courage to take risks.

A passage in the president's eulogy for Senator Kennedy seems especially poignant in this regard: "We cannot know for certain how long we have here. We cannot foresee the trials or misfortunes that will test us along the way. . . We can use each day to . . . treat others with the kindness and respect that we wish for ourselves. . . . And we can strive at all costs to make a better world, so that someday, if we are blessed with the chance to look back on our time here, we can know that we spent it well; that we made a difference; that our fleeting presence had a lasting impact on the lives of other human beings." Ted Kennedy could not have said it better.