BOSTON - For decades, Edward Kennedy was considered the most powerful voice in the U.S. Senate for gay rights as a strong supporter of HIV/AIDS funding, hate crimes legislation and same-sex marriage.
His death struck a blow to gay rights advocates, who say they've lost a key ally.
"Having somebody in the Senate who was never afraid to stand up and say, 'This is the right thing to do' lifted all of our spirits and made all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people know that there was hope," said Chuck Wolfe, president of the Gay&Lesbian Victory Fund, a political action committee.
Kennedy was an early advocate for AIDS research and treatment, securing federal funding so patients could have easier access to experimental drugs, expanded home care and outpatient mental health care.
In 1996, he was one of only 14 senators who voted against the Defence of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing gay unions. He also was a leading supporter of gay marriage in his home state of Massachusetts, which was the first to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004.
He also was a strong supporter of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes and employment discrimination laws.
"Senator Kennedy has, more than anyone else, been our strongest voice in the United States Senate for the LGBT community," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "On every piece of legislation - every piece - Senator Kennedy has been the lead."
Solmonese said that whenever he worked with Kennedy on legislation, the senator would constantly keep him apprised of the latest developments.
"He'd call to tell you the date a bill was going to move, or he'd call to thank you for something you did," Solmonese said. "You never felt like he was doing you any kind of a big favour by being the singular champion on an issue that for a lot of people was by no means politically expedient. It was simply who he was."
Lee Swislow, executive director of Gay&Lesbian Advocates&Defenders, the Boston legal group that spearheaded a lawsuit that led to the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts, said Kennedy cared about any issue that affected the rights of gay people, even if it was not on his U.S. Senate agenda.
Swislow said that when she met Kennedy several years ago, GLAD was working to repeal a 1913 state law that barred most out-of-state gay couples from marrying in Massachusetts.
"I introduced myself and he immediately said, 'We need to get rid of the 1913 law. We need to repeal it. It's just not right,' " Swislow said. The state Legislature repealed the law last year.
David Wilson, one of 14 plaintiffs in the gay-marriage lawsuit, said he viewed Kennedy as a "beacon of hope" on gay rights issues. Decades earlier, Wilson saw Kennedy in a similar light on civil rights issues.
"For me, he was the bridge from the civil rights movement in the '60s to the gay rights movement in the '80s," Wilson said. "Now, here I am a gay man and an African-American gay man, and I'm looking to that same person for that ray of hope."
After gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts, Wilson and his husband, Rob Compton, would see Kennedy at fundraisers and other public events.
"He would always say, 'I want to thank you for your courage, I want to thank you for your perseverance' " Wilson said. "We would tell him, 'No, that's what we want to thank you for."'