State legislators held an official remembrance in Springfield to mourn the passing of a gay pioneer, former State Rep. Larry McKeon.
The Illinois House of Representatives honored McKeon, the first openly gay and HIV-positive Illinois legislator, on May 20, for his years of dedicated public service. Many of McKeon's friends and former colleagues spoke of the broad range of work he did on behalf of groups such as the gay and lesbian community, immigrants, the homeless, seniors and workers.
With House Resolution 1323, state legislators honored McKeon's legacy as a compassionate lawmaker and activist. Although McKeon is most remembered as the sponsor of an amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which was passed in 2005, those present also noted the many other ways in which McKeon touched the lives of Illinoisans.
McKeon represented the North Side's 13th District, which was the 34th prior to re-districting in 2002. He made state history when he was elected to the House in 1996. He served five consecutive terms until his retirement in 2007, when he was replaced by Rep. Greg Harris, who also happens to be openly gay and HIV-positive.
During the memorial, Harris said that McKeon was proud to stand up for many groups besides the LGBT community over the years, such as the labor, immigrant and senior communities.
Rep. George Scully, D-Crete, agreed: 'I hope we all remember the very broad range of issues he cared deeply about.'
Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, called McKeon's contributions 'enormous,' adding, 'Larry was a man for all seasons.'
Harris also spoke of how McKeon's election as the first openly gay and HIV-positive state lawmaker was both an opportunity and burden for him. But even though all eyes were on McKeon at all times, Harris said that McKeon managed to raise the bar very high.
'I hope he knows that he served our community well,' Harris said, calling McKeon a role model to members of the LGBT community.
'He could show by example what gay people want is the same as what everybody wants.
' … It was a good life, and a life that touched many people in many, many ways,' Harris added.
Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, was moved to tears while she talked about McKeon's legacy as a man who cared deeply about social justice, and a man who, by serving the public, changed many minds.
'For some people he was the first openly gay man they have ever met,' Feigenholtz said. 'For others, he was the first openly HIV-positive person they have ever met.
… We can never un-ring that bell,' she added.
One of those people whose mind was changed by McKeon was Rep. Kurt Granberg, D-Mt. Vernon, who comes from a socially conservative district. He shared that he was opposed to the amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act at first, but after hearing McKeon's personal story, had a change of heart.
'Larry taught me a lesson,' Granberg said. 'I sat in my chair and changed my mind after I listened to Larry McKeon.'
Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Highland, said that although he and McKeon still disagreed on many different issues on the House floor, he had great respect for him.
'Larry McKeon made a difference in Illinois and I believe we're better for it because of him,' Stephens said.
A memorial service for McKeon will be held in Chicago in June. Details will be reported as they become available.