June 4, 2013 at 6:25 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Lautenberg remembered as ‘champion for equality’
Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) died of complications from viral pneumonia on Monday. (Photo public domain)

The news of Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s death on Monday triggered an outpouring from those who celebrated his work on behalf of the LGBT community — particularly his efforts against anti-gay bullying.

Lautenberg, who served in the Senate starting in 1982 with a hiatus between 2001 and 2003, died at age 89 as a result of complications from viral pneumonia at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell. He was the last remaining veteran of World War II to serve in the Senate.

In a statement, Vice President Joseph Biden praised Lautenberg and called him one of his closest friends in the Senate.

“The son of working class immigrants, Frank served honorably in World War II, went to college on the G.I. bill and came back to build one of the most successful companies in America,” Biden said. “He’s the reason why people can’t smoke on airplanes, why domestic abusers can’t possess guns. He worked tirelessly against drunk driving, and co-wrote the new G.I. Bill because he knew first-hand what it could do.”

In terms of LGBT issues, Lautenberg was best known for being lead sponsor of the Tyler Clementi Act, which requires colleges and universities receiving federal student aid funding to enact LGBT-inclusive anti-harassment policies for students and employees. It also explicitly prohibits behavior often referred to as cyberbullying.

The legislation is named after Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who killed himself in 2010 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after a fellow student secretly recorded him kissing another man.

In a statement to the Blade, the Clementi family said they were “very sad” to learn of Lautenberg’s passing and had a meeting with the senator recently to thank him for his work.

“We will never forget his compassion and advocacy after the passing of our son, Tyler,” the Clementi family said. “Last February, we had the chance to meet with the Senator and thank him in person for his personal outreach to our family and his sponsorship of the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act. It was a very special meeting with a very special person. He was an inspiring man who embodied the great characteristics of New Jersey and its people.”

Over the course of his Senate career, Lautenberg had long supported the LGBT community. In 1996, he voted for a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The New Jersey senator also voted against the anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004 and 2006. In the 110th Congress, Lautenberg voted for hate crimes protection legislation and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

Although Lautenberg voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, he was among the 40 Senate Democrats this year to sign a friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court arguing the anti-gay law is unconstitutional.

In 2012, after President Obama came out in favor of marriage equality, Lautenberg issued his own statement expressing similar support and said the right for gay couples to marry is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

“Marriage equality is one of the most significant civil rights battles of our time and is critical to guaranteeing equal protection under the law promised to every American in the Constitution,” Lautenberg said.

Rea Carey, executive director of the Natioal Gay & Lesbian Task Force, called Lautenberg a “great champion for equality.”

“He embraced LGBT employment protections on the federal level and the freedom to marry,” Carey said. “And, he was a champion of many social justice issues such as immigration reform, women’s reproductive health, and economic safety net services. His voice will be greatly missed on the Senate floor.”

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, recalled a speech that Lautenberg gave on the Senate floor in opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment.

“Nothing better sums up his undying legacy than his 2004 floor speech opposing a federal constitutional amendment banning marriage equality,” Griffin said. “‘When we see things that are shameful we should not be too spineless to respond.’ Sen. Lautenberg had spine, and he will be deeply missed.”

It’s not clear at this stage what the process is for appointing a successor to Lautenberg. The general consensus is Gov. Chris Christie will appoint a temporary replacement and a special election for a permanent U.S. senator will take place later in the year.

Among the Republican names floated as possibilities for replacements are Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, State Sen. Joe Kyrillos and State Sen. Thomas Keane Jr.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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