Former Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer, who helped push through legislation key to the local gay and lesbian community in the late '80s, died Jan. 19 at Hinsdale Hospital after a long battle with illness. He was 73.
Sawyer was originally a reluctant leader. He was Chicago's second African-American mayor, selected by a divided City Council as Harold Washington's successor in 1987. Washington, who died while in office, had presided over a tumultuous period in Chicago's political history, and Sawyer was seen as a compromise candidate. Although he was mayor for only two years, he was able to play an important role in advancing the rights of the local LGBT community.
While Sawyer was in office, the City Council passed the Human Rights Ordinance in December 1988—something Harold Washington was unable to accomplish. The passing of that law, which protects gay, lesbian and bisexual people from discrimination in areas of employment, housing and public accommodations, was critical to the local movement. Gender identity was added to the ordinance several years later.
Former Ald. William Beavers, a friend of Sawyer who is now on the Cook County Board, talked about what the former mayor did for the gay community. 'Harold always wanted to get a gay rights ordinance passed, but he couldn't get it passed,' Beavers told The Chicago Tribune. 'Gene got it passed.'
'He had been an old-school … alderman, tied only to his constituency, and originally voted no on the human-rights ordinance,' recalled local activist and writer Achy Obejas. 'But during his months in office, he was transformed by the challenge the gay and lesbian community put forth … and he became our champion, risking everything by pushing through the ordinance. In the end, he really believed in the purpose and morality of the law. I counted him as a friend, to us, as well as personally, and I will miss him very much.'
Rick Garcia, one of the key activists lobbying for the gay-rights bill, stated to Windy City Times, 'We mourn the passing of Mayor Eugene Sawyer. He not only brought the city together during a raucous time, it was under his influence and leadership that the gay-rights ordinance was passed in City Council in 1988. I deeply appreciate his commitment to our community and [ am ] grateful for his leadership on gay issues.'
Prior to being elected mayor, Sawyer was alderman of the South Side's 6th Ward from 1971 to 1988. He ran for a full term as mayor in 1989, but lost to current Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Sawyer had three children—sons Roderick and Shedrick and daughter Sheryl ( McGill ) , who began heading the city's Department of Human Services in 2006.
Sawyer was buried Jan. 26 in Oak Woods Cemetery, 1035 E. 67th.