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A Tribute to Senator Kennedy, Champion of People Living with HIV/AIDS

Posted Aug 26 2009 10:14pm

Rebecca Haag_headshot I will always remember Ted Kennedy as he stood in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1968 delivering the eulogy for his brother Robert.  In describing his brother, he quoted George Bernard Shaw, “Some men see things as they are and ask why.  I dream things that never were and say why not”.  His voice cracked but he stood tall and shouldered that legacy until his death.  The broad shoulders that had made him a star Harvard football player would bear not only the responsibility for his entire family, but the burdens of all those in America who were denied the rights guaranteed to them by our forefathers in the Declaration of Independence.

Senator Ted Kennedy dreamed of an America where all those who lived here had access to quality affordable health care.  He asked why Blacks and Latinos were not full partners and in the leadership of government, business, and professional services.  He asked why the richest country in the world allowed children to go to bed hungry at night and return to substandard schools the next day.  He asked why we did not honor and care for our elderly.  And for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people he demanded equal rights and fair treatment.  Senator Kennedy didn’t just dream and ask why not, he sponsored and passed hundreds of pieces of legislation that truly made life better for the underprivileged, hungry, poor and generally forgotten members of our society.

His work on HIV/AIDS was the culmination of many of these efforts.  As the Senator said in 2008, “If America was really going to be America, the real unfinished business of the nation is freeing itself from the forms of discrimination and bigotry that have grown up in this nation.”  This was at the core of all of his many battles over legislation to address the needs of those living with HIV/AIDS.

His battle began in the late ‘80s as he worked to draft and pass a bill that would provide care, treatment and support services to those living with HIV/AIDS.   He not only co-sponsored the original bill, his staff wrote it, and Kennedy personally reached out to a young man in Indiana who had been ostracized by his school, neighbors and health care professionals because he was HIV+.  The Senator knew that Ryan White’s story was so heart breaking and yet illustrative of so many others that other legislators would be compelled to join the battle.

In 1990 he and a bipartisan group of Senators passed the Ryan White Care Act (RWCA) which for almost 20 years has served as the backbone of services to those living with HIV/AIDS in our country.  Thousands of lives have been saved and new infections avoided due to the critical programs funded by the RWCA.

In these debates, he faced a powerful enemy of the GLBT Community; Senator Jesse Helms hijacked every debate with anti-gay propaganda.  Time and time again the Senator rose to defend our community and the rights of those living with this terrible disease.  During the Reauthorization battle of 1995 when Helms was adding anti-gay amendment after amendment to the legislation and despite Kennedy’s stalwart defense, he knew he needed a broader coalition.  Kennedy reframed the debate with his colleagues to emphasize that reauthorization of RWCA was a public health issue not a gay rights issue.  He recruited several Republican supporters including Senator Orrin Hatch who took to the floor of the Senate to defend reauthorization against Senator Helm’s amendments and to convince his colleagues to support the reauthorization.  The tactic worked beautifully and the amendment to cut off funding to local gay community health care centers was defeated.  This was classic Kennedy.

The battles raged on and he remained our closest ally through additional reauthorizations, modernizations, and defeat of damaging amendments.  During the 2006 reauthorization battle, Kennedy said, “. . . the remedies we adopt will continue to come from the bright lights of science, not the dark fears of bigotry.”   The entire HIV community is forever in his debt, but the GLBT community particularly.  Despite our progress, HIV remains a gay disease.  More than ½ of all new infections nationally are among gay men.  In many urban areas, it is estimated that one in every two black gay man is infected with HIV.

He was not just our protector, he was our friend.  He understood our terrible losses to the AIDS epidemic; he knew what it was like to lose family and friends in the prime of their lives.  He cried with us and laughed with us; he never left our side, no matter what the odds.

So what will we do for him?  There is no obvious champion who can do for our community what Ted Kennedy did, so we must take on the responsibility and do the work as he taught us.

We must build broader alliances with other communities devastated by HIV/AIDS.   We must work together to end the AIDS epidemic and demand care and treatment for every individual living with HIV/AIDS no matter what their financial status or geographic location.  The Obama Administration is providing the perfect opportunity to change the dialogue and build a better future together through his National HIV/AIDS Strategy initiative ( www.nationalaidsstrategy.com ).  Kennedy was an early supporter and all of us must participate and demand accountability and outcomes from this process.

The Ryan White Care Act will be repealed on September 30 unless we mobilize to ensure that Congress acts quickly to reauthorize.  Please go to www.aidsaction.org and send a letter to your Congressman today demanding immediate action.  We cannot let the cornerstone of Ted Kennedy’s work for our community end with his death.

Finally, there is no greater tribute to be made to the Senator, than for each and every one of us to work as hard as possible to pass national health care reform.  This was his life’s work and nothing could be more important in our battle against HIV/AIDS than to ensure access to health care for everyone infected, affected and at risk for HIV.  It must happen and it must happen now.

Senator Kennedy is not here to lead the way this time.   So it is our time to “dream things that never were and ask why not”.

Note: This tribute will be published in the next edition ofBay Windows, New England’s largest GLBT newspaper

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