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Gay pioneer Larry McKeon dies at 63
by Amy Wooten

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Former state Rep. Larry McKeon, D-Chicago, has passed away, leaving behind a rich legacy as a both a politician and activist. McKeon, 63, made a historic mark on local politics. In 1996, he was elected to the Illinois House, becoming the state's first openly gay state legislator. He served as representative of the North Side's 13th District, which was the 34th prior to redistricting in 2002.

Pictured: Larry McKeon. Second image: With Bernice Perkins. Third image: From left: With former State Sen. Carol Ronen, Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley and former City Treasurer Judy Rice in 2005. Photo by Tracy Baim. Fifth image: With Deb Mell and Gov. Rod Blagojevich as the latter signs the gay-rights bill. Photo by Tracy Baim. Last image: With Karen Reitan and current Sen. Barack Obama at a 2001 AIDS Foundation of Chicago gala. Photo by Tracy Baim

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, announced on the House floor May 14 that McKeon died from a sudden stroke, reported the State-Journal Register.

The Illinois House of Representatives held an official remembrance of McKeon's life May 20 ain the House chamber. The public was welcome to attend.

A memorial service for McKeon will be held in Chicago in June. Details will be reported as they become available.

McKeon, who was also HIV-positive, served as a state representative from 1997 to 2007. In the summer of 2006, McKeon announced his retirement. His health was declining due to his struggle with HIV and cancer. Democratic ward committeemen selected the openly gay and HIV-positive Greg Harris as McKeon's replacement.

Besides being the first openly gay Illinois state legislator and one of the first representatives in the nation to be openly HIV-positive, McKeon's largest legislative achievement was an amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act, which was passed in 2005. The amendment, which took 30 years to pass, banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in areas such as housing and employment.

In the House, McKeon served as chair of the Labor Committee and vice chair of the Housing & Urban Development Committee. He was also a member of the Aging and Executive Committees, among others. He was elected to five consecutive terms.

Prior to becoming a state legislator, McKeon was Mayor Richard M. Daley's liaison to the LGBT community, and served as the director of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations' Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues. In that role, he advocated for gay rights and worked closely with local politicians on issues close to the LGBT community.

Before entering the world of politics, McKeon served in a number of social service administration roles. He also worked as a police officer and administrator for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, an educator at various universities and a community activist. He was involved in community organizations such as the Ravenswood Community Council, and served as a board member of Horizons and Bonaventure House. McKeon, an Idaho native, was also a veteran of the U.S. Army, where he began his career in public service as a first lieutenant.

Over the years, several LGBT organizations honored McKeon for his work on behalf of the community, including Dignity/Chicago, the Human Rights Campaign, Howard Brown Health Center and IMPACT Illinois, to name a few. McKeon was also a recipient of a Red Ribbon Leadership Award and a Stonewall Award for his outstanding service to the LGBT and HIV/AIDS communities.

After his retirement, McKeon moved to Springfield. He continued to be active during the legislative session, offering a helping hand with policy consulting and more.

Several members of the LGBT community ( as well as allies ) have issued statements, either officially or to Windy City Times, about McKeon. Some of them are below:

'Larry McKeon was a trailblazer for LGBT Americans, an officer who served our great city of Chicago honorably and a friend of mine. He will be remembered for his personal and political courage, and his outspoken efforts as a champion of progressive causes in Springfield. My thoughts and prayers are with Larry, his family and his friends.' — Sen. Barack Obama

'Larry McKeon spent 42 years of his life in public service. He simply loved helping people. As the state's first openly gay state legislator, he was a trailblazing pioneer and a tireless advocate. He spearheaded the drive to amend the Illinois Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination against sexual orientation and its passage in 2005 is a proud moment in our state's history. He has made a lasting difference in the lives of the people of Illinois and he will truly be missed. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family and friends.'— Gov. Rod Blagojevich

'Larry McKeon created positive change wherever he went, and I am proud that he was the City of Chicago's liaison to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities from 1992 to 1996. With Larry's leadership, the City's relations improved tremendously with the LGBT communities. Under his leadership, the City's domestic partnership ordinance was passed, and he helped City officials better understand the needs of the HIV/AIDS community.

Larry was passionate about improving relations between the Chicago Police Department and the LGBT communities. He was the first to hold meetings at which LGBT Chicagoans were encouraged to join the police department, and he was a mentor to all who did. His commitment and actions sparked improvement that continues today.' — Chicago Mayor Richard Daley

'Larry McKeon was my colleague, my predecessor, my role model, my mentor and my friend. Larry was a pioneer and a fighter. He accomplished great things for the LGBT communities. His most celebrated accomplishments were being the first openly gay member of the Illinois General Assembly and sponsoring the bill that added sexual orientation to the Illinois Human Rights Act. Larry's impact, however, went far beyond those in the inspiration he provided our communities. He was one of the most honorable men I have known. — Bill Greaves, director/community liaison, Advisory Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues, City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations

'The DNC mourns the passing of former Illinois State Representative Larry McKeon. State Representative McKeon was a trailblazer and icon for the LGBT community in Illinois and across the nation. McKeon broke an important barrier in Illinois by being elected as the first openly gay member to serve in the Illinois House of Representatives. He also used his status as a person living with HIV/AIDS to promote greater awareness and education on issues regarding HIV/AIDS. His courageous leadership was an inspiration to many, and he will be missed.' — Howard Dean, Democratic National Committee chairman

'I was proud to have had Larry McKeon as my state representative, and glad to have had him as my friend. He made history as Illinois' first openly gay state legislator and as its first openly HIV-positive one. He was the model of a public-spirited, responsive lawmaker, whose concerns encompassed all the people of his district. In public and private life, he was thoughtful in forming an opinion and courageous in voicing it, even though others might not agree with it. Before going to Springfield, he ably served the city and Mayor Daley as a knowledgeable, trusted bridge between local government and Chicago's sexual minority population. I valued his counsel, and I deeply regret his loss to us all. Chen Ooi joins me in expressing our sorrow.' — William B. Kelley, activist

'Larry McKeon devoted his whole career to making sure that people who did not have a strong voice had one in him. He looked out for those who were most in need, who might not have high-powered lobbyists or who were not necessarily politically active, [ such as ] the immigrant refugee community, people who needed affordable housing or did not have healthcare. He was always their voice.' — State Rep. Greg Harris

'I had the honor of knowing Larry for almost 25 years, and he became part of my family, sharing Thanksgivings, Christmas and others holidays, as well as working with him to combat discrimination of all types.

Larry was an advocate for all people that were disenfranchised, and had a keen ability to listen to issues and develop sound public policy to try to address the inequities that people faced, be they gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer, or Asian, Indian, Muslim, American Indian, Vietnamese, victims of domestic violence or racism of any kind.

When Larry came to Chicago, he was the driving force, as a member of Horizons' board of directors, to the founding of Horizons Community Services' Anti-Violence Project, securing the initial funding that allowed the program to grow and flourish.

I spoke with Larry just a few weeks ago, and he seemed happy and excited that the session would be coming to an end soon, so that he, Squiggy and Hillary ( his rescued greyhounds ) could 'hit the road' and go fishing. I am sorry that he wasn't able to do that, but pleased that after all of his health issues, he did not suffer at the end. … We should all be so lucky.' — Laird Peterson, McKeon's former chief of staff

'We were very saddened to hear of the passing of State Rep. Larry McKeon. What an amazing, quiet man with a thirst for justice and equality for all people. We were impressed with his campaigning of human rights for gay Americans and for African Americans. We were equally impressed with his fight for the rights of working Americans as he served as the chair of the House Labor Committee, and his honesty regarding police brutality that caused him to demand video tape recordings during homicide interrogations. Let us also not forget his right for women's rights.

Larry one time told me, 'I speak up for women because there is a woman in each and every one of us.' That same day, he shared with me his concern for all because he had a responsibility for everyone who he served.

And to his family, may they know that there is a land called Heaven, where there is no more pain, sorrow and discrimination. May they find comfort in this fact. And may God walk with them through the coming weeks and months ahead.' — T.J. Williams, minister-in-training at the Riverside Church NYC and Trinity United Church of Christ, and partner Bradley Hauger

'Our community has lost a great friend and leader. Larry was always supportive of Howard Brown: he was there fighting for us when we wanted to build our facility on Sheridan Road and he has sought and obtained funding on a local and state level for many of Howard Brown's programs over the years. We were proud to present him with our Friend for Life Award in 2006. He will be missed.' — Michael Cook, Howard Brown president and CEO

'When Larry got wind of the fact that the Ryan White funding category under which the Chicago Area HIV Services Directory was being eliminated, he facilitated a meeting with Tom Hughes of the Illinois Department of Public Health to see what could be done, because he understood just how important the directory is to so many people. That's just the kind of person he was, truly selfless. When he really believed in something, or someone, and saw a need, he would step right up and do whatever he could to help. He led by example, and to me that is the mark of a true leader.' — Jeff Berry, Test Positive Aware Network

'Center on Halsted pays tribute to the life and service of former Rep. Larry McKeon, the first openly gay member of the Illinois Legislature. The LGBT community in Illinois owes much to this man responsible for adding 'sexual orientation' as a type of discrimination banned by Illinois law. — Center on Halsted's statement

'Larry remains an inspiration to all of us who continue to fight for equality. He was a longtime supporter of Horizons/Center on Halsted and we've lost a true friend.' — Modesto 'Tico' Valle, Center on Halsted

'Larry McKeon was a hero, a trailblazer, a fighter for civil rights, a fierce advocte for those in need and a real friend. We are fortunate as a community and as a city to have enjoyed such strong and gentle leadership. May Larry continue to inspire us all.' — Andrew Deppe

'Larry McKeon often served in an unassuming way, but he was a real fighter when he needed to be. We Illinoisans were lucky to have him in our corner.'— Julie Kruse, policy advocate for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

'While others said 'no,' Larry McKeon answered our call for an openly gay candidate to run for the 34th District of the Illinois General Assembly. Larry broke the gay glass ceiling of the Illinois legislature. His election paved the way for others in our community to follow.' — Rick Garcia, Equality Illinois director of public policy

"Larry was a dear friend of mine and of Chicago House's, and he will be greatly missed. Several times each year he would call and ask if he could come by one of our houses to spend time with our residents. Those visits, he said, helped him keep perspective with his own struggles … his struggles with his health … his struggles with his recovery … his struggles with his day to day frustrations. That, for me, is the perfect metaphor for the lovely person that Larry was: he constantly touched humanity by being so constantly human. Chicago House remains grateful for the legacy that he leaves. Rest in peace, our dear friend." — Rev. Stan Sloan, Chicago House CEO

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