09/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Getting the Times to Catch Up with Ted Kennedy

It's been said that Senator Kennedy accomplished more on behalf of the people that we civil rights advocates work for than any politician since President Lincoln. When historians have considered his 47 years of service, Senator Kennedy will likely assume a place in our national consciousness alongside the founders. I knew him as a founder of our more perfect union, and an early architect of the great unfinished business of modern civil rights.

We have a tradition in this country of understanding our great icons as creatures of their times. Thomas Jefferson, who gave us "all men were created equal," was a slaveholder. Although Lincoln himself never owned another human being, slaves staffed his White House. Even the most remarkable among us bear the stains of our own society's prejudices.

But not Senator Kennedy. We don’t have to forgive him for being a product of his times because he has always been the first person calling for our times to change. Whatever the history books will say about my friend's life, there can be no doubt that his vision of my equality—and of the civil rights and welfare of every human being on this planet—set a standard that transcended his times and even ours. My life’s work, and the work of every other civil rights leader and advocate for justice, is to get the times to catch up to Ted Kennedy.

In a speech before the Human Rights Campaign in 2008, Senator Kennedy was greeted with enthusiastic applause. “Do you hear that, Jesse Helms?” he joked. Many of us nodded in appreciation, but there were interns and junior staff in the room who hadn’t been born when Jesse Helms and Senator Kennedy started going toe to toe in the U.S. Senate.

He was speaking out against Helms’s discriminatory measures in the 80s and 90s, when it was safer to attack us. He fought off measures to discriminate against HIV positive people. He railed against measures designed to stop the “promotion” of homosexuality.

At the same time, he was a consistent and powerful leader on what he often eloquently called the “unfinished business” of this great nation: civil rights for every LGBT person and our families. He was not just a supporter of hate crimes legislation but a leader on it. Not only an opponent of the discriminatory Federal Marriage Amendment but it’s most prominent and vocal critic. He railed against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and led the charge for the Employment Non Discrimination Act. Senator Kennedy supported full marriage equality and was proud of his state’s highest court for recognizing that it is a fundamental right enshrined in the Commonwealth’s constitution. He understood that “We the People” means all of the people, and very specifically LGBT people. He helped to spare our Constitution from the possibility of a Justice Bork. If he hadn’t, it might still be legal to arrest and jail a gay person for private, consensual sex.

Thanks to Senator Kennedy, we have come a long way since those first battles together, and are poised to move civil rights legislation forward. There are many worthy people who are willing to vote their conscience on LGBT rights. What makes Senator Kennedy our greatest hero was not only that he always did the right thing. It’s that he always did it first. To complete our unfinished business, we all must fill the vacuum that he is leaving—leadership, bravery, and always stepping in first.

Oftentimes our champions have a personal connection—a gay child, a brother lost to AIDS. I’m not aware of a connection like that in Kennedy’s case. Senator Kennedy’s capacity to be close to people might explain why he has stood by the LGBT community from the beginning of our civil rights movement. It might tell us why this youngest child of a Catholic family of 9 children, born in 1932, spoke for us before it was expedient to do so. When it was safe for Jesse Helms to call us perverts on the Senate floor.

Senator Kennedy’s personal connection, I believe, was his boundless humanity, and his recognition of ours.

Already he is becoming history, this man who connected with each of us as a human being. Now the job of making history is in our hands.