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Penny Severns book: The price of a closeted political life
by Tracy Baim, Windy City Times

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"The best years of our lives were written in invisible ink."

That phrase comes in the preface to Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, A Journalist, and the Politics of Gay Love in America, a new book from Seal Press by Terry Mutchler about her five-year relationship with Penny Severns, a state senator who twice ran for statewide office in Illinois.

Severns was a charismatic, up-and-coming Democratic leader from Decatur who was drawn to politics at a young age—at 20, in 1972, she was an alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention. She first won a state senate race in 1986, and went on to become a leader in that body. She ran for lieutenant governor in 1994 along with gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch, the first and still only time two women ran at the top of the ticket. They lost to the Republicans.

Severns ran again for statewide office, in 1998, for secretary of state. Thanks to House leader Mike Madigan, who backed one of her opponents, Tim McCarthy, Severns was challenged off the ballot.

But while politics was what drove Severns throughout her life, her public battles with cancer helped to humanize her in the public's eye, and helped create visibility to the struggle against cancer for many people. Severns was first diagnosed with cancer during her first run for statewide office, and then, tragically, just a week after she was removed from the ballot for secretary of state, she died at age 46 after the cancer had spread aggressively.

For many of us who covered Illinois politics in the 1990s, Severns was seen as an important political figure, a tough woman fighting against a male-dominated system. She was a Democrat representing a heavily Republican area, and she seemed to have that "it" factor that would take her far.

But none of us knew that Severns' internal struggles also included that she was in a relationship with a woman.

The closet can take a terrible toll on individuals and couples, and Under This Beautiful Dome documents this high cost in often painful ways. Author Mutchler holds little back in her detailed look at the wonderful, and painful, memories of the life she shared with Severns.

Their relationship was not just deeply closeted because the women were afraid of how it would impact Severns' career, but also because Mutchler, as head of the Springfield Bureau of the Associated Press—the first woman to hold that post—was in a precarious position covering politics and sleeping with a Senate leader.

In fact, the violations of journalist ethics are perhaps what the couple most debated. They seemed to be mostly in denial about the real-world issues of lesbians, and how they could have contributed to society's understanding of sexual orientation. Rather, they were worried about conflicts of interest, water-cooler gossip, and their families.

By living in the closet, they risked even more long-term, as so many other couples could attest to over the years. Whether the high-profile Karen Thompson-Sharon Kowalski case in Minnesota, or numerous incidents of people losing partners to AIDS and then losing their homes, hiding the truth also means not protecting your partner if you die.

Severns, on her death bed, had urged her partner to finish their will. She worried that her family would cut Mutchler out of the funeral and their shared assets. So tragedy added on tragedy, and Mutchler found out the hard way just how right Severns was to be worried. Even Penny's twin sister ignored what she heard her sister say out loud before she died, about including Mutchler.

But this book, which deals a lot with the start of their relationship, their years together, and Severns' tragic end, also has some interesting tidbits about Illinois politics. In fact, I found myself wishing for more. Severns was a mentor, albeit briefly, to state Sen. Barack Obama, who first won election in 1996, and who sat next to Severns in the state Senate. She also ran for statewide office on the same ticket as gubernatorial candidate Glenn Poshard in 1998—and despite her being very sick, he pressured for her support at a campaign event. On top of that, he was anti-gay, but she backed him. I'd love to know if the fact that he was anti-gay, and she was a closeted lesbian, ever entered her mind. The late state Rep. Larry McKeon was also serving in the state House starting in 1996, as Illinois' first openly gay state elected official. Did Severns ever reach out to him, even behind the scenes?

Based on the direction their lives were heading, it's clear that both Mutchler and Severns were inching out of the closet. Had Severns lived longer, she undoubtedly would have been an openly lesbian elected official in Illinois, from a conservative downstate district. She would have been an even bigger role model, for even more people.

Though she died in 1998, Severns' impact was felt in the state capitol in 2013, when the debate for marriage equality was happening. State Rep. Ann Williams, a friend of Mutchler's, asked if she could tell their story on the floor of the House during the final debate that November. Mutchler agreed, and Williams spoke about the love of Severns and Mutchler, and the fact that they would have been married had it been legal in the 1990s. She asked her colleagues to pass marriage equality, to help couples avoid the problems faced by Severns and Mutchler.

Under This Beautiful Dome is an important book about the complex issues of politics, journalism, and living an authentic life. It is intense, but a refreshing approach to the issue. Mutchler does not hold back in taking blame for her own journalistic ethical violations, or the mistakes she made in not protecting herself from Severns' family. The book seems to provide a catharsis in some ways for Mutchler. And probably for many others, it will be a very cautionary tale.

The online version of this article includes a video interview with Mutchler during her recent booksigning at Barbara's Bookstore at Chicago's Willis Tower.

The video playlist below contains multiple videos. Choose Playlist in the top left hand corner to watch videos out of order, if preferred.

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