This is a good bit of history told from a personal perspective that shows the character and commitment of Sen. Kennedy. Thanks, Tanya. — Pam.
Remembering Ted Kennedy for his Compassion and Courage
By Tanya Domi
In the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy, I will always remember him for his deep compassion and strong support for members of the gay community.
I had the opportunity to work with Kennedy’s office on the introduction of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as the legislative director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1994.
Kennedy agreed to introduce the ENDA in fall 1993 shortly after the adoption of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in fall 1993. All of us working on the military ban took the defeat badly. But we picked ourselves up and got to work quickly. In less of a month after DADT was adopted, along with the then-Human Rights Campaign Fund and my colleagues Dan Zingale, Nancy Buermeyer and Cathy Woolard we began building a coalition of groups to support ENDA with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, led by Ralph Neas, its executive director at the time. LCCR supported ENDA, historically supporting for the first time gay rights legislation by the most imminent group of civil rights organizations in America.
The first hearings were scheduled in the Senate with Senator Kennedy chairing, arranged by Michael Iskowitz, his diminutive aide on gay and disability rights. Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, who had strongly opposed lifting the military gay ban, also served on the labor committee, but we did not expect him to attend the hearings.
Before the hearings began, we had gathered in a conference room behind the hearing room to finalize preparation of our witnesses, Cheryl Summerville, who had been fired by a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Tennessee for being a lesbian and Ernest Hopkins, a postal worker from Cincinnati, Ohio, who had been beaten unconscious in his work place by co-workers for being gay. Suddenly, a significant number of black men, who had been standing in line to enter the hearing room, wearing orange buttons which said “they are not equal” were led through the conference room by a Coats’ aide. With no Capital police present, they began yelling epithets at Cheryl and Ernest and our group, pushed and shoved Ernest, jostling Cheryl as a number of us jumped in to stop the hitting and moved them out of room. A very upsetting event and a despicable tactic employed by Coats’ staff, which was simply a violation of Senate protocol in everyway imagined.
The hearings began shortly after this disturbing event. Senator Kennedy entered the hearing room and began his opening remarks. He called on Cheryl Summerville to make her opening remarks, who was crying, so upset by what had just transpired behind the hearing room.
In a soft voice, Kennedy applauded her courage and told her that she was very brave to come to the Congress to testify about her experience at Cracker Barrel. He said that she should take her time and take a deep breath. Somehow, Cheryl pulled herself together and delivered her testimony.
I was sitting next to Tim McFeely, the executive director of HRCF, softly crying, along with Tim who had red eyes. We were all very upset. But Cheryl testified and so did Ernest, telling their compelling stories of unquestionable employment discrimination. We got through the day with Kennedy putting into the record lesbian and gay stories and their experiences of on-the-job discrimination for the first time in history. That is the Senator Ted Kennedy I will always remember. May he rest in peace.
Tanya Domi worked for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force 1992-1994, serving as the director of the military freedom project and legislative director. She teaches human rights at Columbia University as an adjunct professor of international and public affairs and lives in the City of New York.