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Senator Ted Kennedy's Leadership on LGBT Issues: A Model for Progressive Catholics

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Even though I knew he was in the final stages of life, when Senator Ted Kennedy died, it stopped me in my tracks. What now? Who now? Who will be the kind of leader who would stand up for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) concerns like Kennedy did? We lost a loyal friend and a powerful advocate.

Kennedy was in office the entire 40 years of DignityUSA's existence. As the current executive of this largest organization of LGBT Catholics in the country, I see how hard we have worked to change our church and society. Senator Kennedy was a strong Catholic voice for equality and justice for LGBT people and he was a friend of all who suffer. He worked for justice around issues of race, gender, living wages, immigration reform, physical and mental disabilities, and many other issues.

As a lifelong Catholic, myself, I know his profound commitment to social justice was a cornerstone of his deep Catholic faith. It made him a leader in striving for equality for LGBT people, and for those affected by HIV/AIDS. From employment to hate crimes to health care access to marriage equality, Senator Kennedy was a tremendous ally to the LGBT community. He fought for Ryan White funding for support services for people living with HIV/AIDS and against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). A former member of the army, he sought the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

In short, he treated LGBT people and our families like any other Americans: as individuals and families deserving of dignity, respect, access to basic human necessities, and fairness under the law. He used his legislative seniority and political acumen effectively on our behalf. He will be sorely missed.

Senator Kennedy was a man of the people and did what he thought was right. He knew that his stances on LGBT issues were not in line with those espoused by Catholic Church hierarchy, but his positions were always in line with the views of the majority of Catholics throughout this country.

The majority of Catholics support fairness and respect for all people. Catholics like Kennedy are rooted in a fundamental Catholic principle; that all humans are equally beloved children of God, no matter what their personal circumstance or characteristics. The Senator applied the principles of Catholic social justice to our struggles for equality, as he did for many other marginalized communities.

We will be looking for someone to fill Senator Kennedy's shoes--and no one will. But perhaps his leadership can give hope to the many Catholics who feel their values on LGBT issues do not agree with what they hear from their bishops. Ted Kennedy confirmed that progressive Catholics can live out their deep convictions and genuine faith even when these convictions differ from those of the church hierarchy.

Kennedy's model gives progressive Catholics hope because, despite his departures from Church teachings, no Catholic Church leader ever publicly chastised Senator Kennedy for his beliefs, or threatened to withhold Communion from him, due to his pro-LGBT or pro-choice views. Rather, they praised his dedication to family, and his work on behalf of the poor and the powerless. Ted Kennedy's knew that his work for the people was consistent with his personal faith. Senator Kennedy is among many Catholic advocates who know that integrity is a powerful antidote to authoritarianism.

No one person will fill his shoes--but many people will. Catholics are stepping into his shoes, the poor, those without health insurance, and LGBT people are all stepping into his shoes as we work together and follow his model of integrity--not perfection or a life without sin--but a life lived mostly for others.

We will strive for lives of integrity, devotion and conscience that he modeled and we will all strive for the day that the hierarchy of the church no longer uses the tactics of intimidation to silence dissent and questioning. We will help create a Church more focused on our common humanity than on our differing opinions.