The sudden loss of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy has struck a blow to the gay rights movement. Kennedy's deep commitment to equality for all made him a strong advocate for gay marriage, hate crimes legislation and gay protections.

Gay activists and leaders say they have lost a key ally in the Senate.

“It is impossible to fully describe the transformative impact of Ted Kennedy in the Senate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans,” Jarrett Barrios, incoming president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), said in a statement. “From the outset, he valued our contributions and supported our equality. In those early years, his support may have turned heads but that didn't dampen his support – and eventually helped change hearts and minds about LGBT equality in the Senate and around the country.”

Kennedy was one of only 14 senators who stood against passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that defines marriage as a heterosexual union for the federal government and allows states to ignore gay marriages performed outside their borders. He also supported the 2004 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage in the state.

Kennedy sponsored legislation that would ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and the Matthew Shepard Act, which would expand federal hate crimes to include LGBT people.

“Senator Kennedy has, more than anyone else, been our strongest voice in the United States Senate for the LGBT community,” Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, told the AP. “On every piece of legislation – every piece – Senator Kennedy has been the lead.”

“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 favor 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.”

Kennedy died Tuesday in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts after being diagnosed with brain cancer last year. He was the patriarch of the Kennedy political dynasty, which includes President John F. Kennedy and former Senator Robert Kennedy. He was 77.

In 2004, Kennedy released a statement on the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), the proposed federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage: “We all know what this issue is about. It's not about how to protect the sanctity of marriage, or how to deal with activist judges. It's about politics and an attempt to drive a wedge between one group of citizens and the rest of the country, solely for partisan advantage. We've rejected that tactic before, and I'm hopeful that we will do so again. I'm also hopeful that many of our Republican colleagues – those with whom we've worked over the years on a bipartisan basis to expand and defend the civil rights of gay and straight Americans alike – will join us in rejecting this divisive effort.”