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In His Own Words: the late Rep. Larry McKeon
News Feature Update Monday, May 19, 2008

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The following interview took place May 17, 2007, at the Springfield home of former state Rep. Larry McKeon. This interview is part of the Chicago Gay History Project, featuring hundreds of interviews on video and through e-mail, with current and former Chicago activists. The Web site for the history project launches summer 2008.

TB: Thanks for meeting with us. To start, can you tell me the day you were born, and where you were born?

LM: I was born June 30, 1944 in a little farm town just outside of Napa, Idaho.

TB: Would you talk about those early years? You have spoken before about the adoption, and what that was like, in your first ten years of life.

LM: Well, in fact I lived on the farm for the first ten years of my life. I had two very great parents. My mother gave birth at a small six-bed Sister Mercy Hospital, and left the hospital with me still there. The nuns called my adoptive mother, who was the cleaning lady or charwoman for the hospital, not knowing what to do with this infant. She came over and took me home, and she and her farmer husband adopted me. They had already adopted an older sister, and then a younger brother. I can remember a lot of that. I can remember little things like pumping water, and a crank phone and the outhouse behind the farm building. The cows, the chickens, the turkeys, the rabbits, everything that a small farmer tried to do to survive. Unfortunately, due to the mechanization of agriculture after World War II, they and all of the other small farmers lost their farms, and lost their business. My dad was also hurt in a tractor accident, he had one roll over on him. Breaking horses, wild horses, got hurt a couple of times. So we ended up, I can remember them auctioning off the farm and my favorite horse, and along with some aunts and uncles we migrated to Los Angeles. I remember a couple of chickens we had in a cage, and my dog and most of the personal belongings we could fit in the car and the trailer we towed behind it. It was sort of like the Grapes Of Wrath. The migration.

TB: Let's talk about your early education, and especially going into high school.

LM: Being a very low-income family, in fact I grew up in poverty in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles; I went to Montebello High School, which was predominantly Hispanic. I was one of the few Anglos on the block. It was a great experience. It was a very low-income neighborhood at that time, it's changed remarkably since then. A lot of immigrants. Unfortunately I didn't learn the language for a variety of reasons. I was pretty much a mediocre high school student. … My mother had a fourth-grade education, my father a sixth-grade education, and coming from a large farm family it was presumed you'd go to work on the farm and so forth. I got out of high school, and went to a community college. Worked full time, I actually worked full time in high school because we needed the money just to survive on.

TB: Can you tell us about your college and what you thought you wanted to be in your late teens, and was your sexual orientation becoming, for you, a driving force in terms of what you wanted to be?

LM: Well, you know, there was a lot of experimentation—with another family member when I was in high school, and there was a lot of confusion, having been raised Catholic, and attended parochial school for a few years until we couldn't afford it anymore, and then went to public school. I knew that I wanted to go to college, in high school I took these aptitude tests, they suggested I either be an auto mechanic or a forest ranger. I didn't want to have anything to do with either one, and so long term, I was working full time as a law enforcement officer in Los Angeles County and going to night school, or working in the evening and taking classes in the daytime. It took me eight years to finish a bachelor's degree and another three years to finish a master's degree going part time. It wasn't until '78 when I came to Chicago to attend a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago that I actually attended college on a full-time basis.

TB: Can you talk about what years you worked in law enforcement, and with the military, what happened in that part of your life?

LM: I started working for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department when I was 19, so I have a total of work I did throughout my life, 43 years of public service. When I was 20 I was accepted into the police academy and was the honor graduate. Was the deputy Sheriff, working custody and patrol, in predominantly low-income communities, either Hispanic or African American. I was the youngest Sergeant, Watch Commander in the area most people know as the Watts/Willowbrook area where the Watts Riots were held. In fact, I was a part of the police response team in the Watts Riots, which was just total insanity. All of the police officers that were killed were shot in accidental shootings by other police officers. The racism, the brutality, the sexism, let alone the homophobia were just rampant at the time, and even those last couple of years as a Watch Commander at the Firestone, or Watts/Willowbrook area, it was like an all-white occupation army. The notion of women on patrol was unheard of. Just the issues of racism and sexism were so prevailing that one didn't really think about sexual orientation. It was a time in my life when I was dealing with a lot of ambivalence, and personal confusion and guilt. I was actually in my early 20s when I met my first lover. We were together 19 years, even after I moved here to Chicago. It was that constant pressure and tension of managing and living this big lie, and then having the media exposure. Director of Media Relations, and being part of the security team for the Manson Family trial, and the Watergate West arraignments with John Erlichman and numerous homicides where, you're in TV, radio, newsprint and then would go home to your lover. And so you had to manage constantly this big lie, which takes so much energy, both psychological and physical energy, in terms of managing the lie. If there was anything we could call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at the time, between the riots, and homicides, and that whole personal experience of coming to know who you are, and trying to live with that, and all of the complexities, in a time where the mere suspicion of being gay or lesbian was grounds for being fired. Then being in a position where you had such tremendous public visibility. TV, radio, newspaper, and so forth.

TB: And what was your role?

LM: I was a Watch Commander at, what was known as the Firestone district at that time, which is the Watts/Willowbrook area, which is the roughest, very low-income community where the Watts Riots actually occurred back in the '60s, and 380-some officers, which just that station unto itself was a major police department. As I said before it was like being in a predominantly white occupation army in a community that was 98% low-income African American. The tension was just unbelievable at that time.

TB: You served in the military?

LM: During the mid to late '60s, when the Vietnam era was emerging and the buildup, the [police] department strongly encouraged us to join the Reserves and the National Guard. I joined the California Army National Guard as an enlisted man, and then later received a commission as an infantry officer, served on active duty for a period of time at Fort Benning, and Fort Gordon, both in the state of Georgia. A number of units were called to active duty, and served either stateside, or in Vietnam. Through the grace of God, for some reason my unit didn't get called up. We had a number of activities, including opening barracks that hadn't been used since the Korean War, at Fort Benning, which is the infantry training school for the United States Army, which I was at when I was on active duty. Lieutenant ___ who was involved in the Ma Lai Massacre was right down the hall from me during that trial. It was exposure for me, the first time dealing with a lot of folks that I had never experienced before, and then the whole issue of sexual orientation, and who are you out to, and so forth. And so that all occurred at the same time that I was working in law enforcement.

TB: And can you talk about the end of your law enforcement, and transitioning into your next career move?

LM: I had made up my mind a couple years prior, I mean I wanted to do something different. I was very frustrated with a lot of the things that we dealt with, and in some ways I loved the job, and I loved the experience that I had, I mean imagine being a law enforcement officer in the tumultuous '60s and '70s and an agent of change internally, and yet at the same time the tension in terms of who I was coming to know myself as, and the pressure of trying to manage that when you feel like you're all alone. I knew that there was a Los Angeles gay and lesbian community center that had just opened during that time period. I was afraid to go there. I didn't have a lot of friends who were openly gay or lesbian. I was afraid. You're driven by fear, and I had this relationship that I couldn't share with folks. I knew I wanted to make a change, I was tired of some of the stuff that I had to deal with. The physical brutality, the racism. Working in the Hispanic community, and very low-income, both Hispanic and African American communities and seeing how things and issues were dealt with which I just found appalling, and the way that women were dealt with. The whole notion of women on patrol, and they had these experimental projects to prove that women couldn't do men's work. Of course they let the women self select themselves, and they proved that they were clearly able to do it. Today a woman who is an elected Sheriff, or a Chief of Police, or in a command position doesn't get that much attention, but at that time a woman working the streets, carrying a gun, in uniform was not only a foreign concept, but the powers that be were adamant to prove that women couldn't do men's work.

TB: So, you're making the transition, and how did you get to Chicago? Was it a specific career move, or was it for your education?

LM: Well, I went back to school finished and my undergraduate, masters degrees, and then I got a job at the University of Southern California actually, on a federally funded U.S. Department of Justice project, where I was director of data collection in nine states, including Illinois, tracking 54,000 children that were being randomly assigned from secure detention for non-criminal offenses, versus community-based alternatives. In fact during that period, one of the proudest things of my life, we got over a quarter of a million children that were being kept in secure detention, with very violent offenders, out of secure detention. Illinois was one of those states. I decided then that I needed to go on in terms of graduate school, or wanted to at the time. I applied to a number of universities, including the University of Southern California, which I was admitted to, but not with any financial assistance. The University of Chicago was very generous, so in '78 I moved from Los Angeles, with my partner, to Chicago and completed coursework and exams. I didn't finish the dissertation, but that was a choice that I made. I was assistant to the dean at the School of Social Service administration at the University of Chicago, and headed up the Criminal Justice program on a full-time basis at the University of Chicago.

TB: You then transitioned even further into public life in Chicago.

LM: In fact, in a number of ways it was very liberating. I sort of had this love/hate relationship with what I had been doing, but also with myself, for who I was coming to recognize who I was. And was engaging in some pretty abusive kinds of things, in terms of alcohol in law enforcement circles. I think I used that for many years to anesthetize my own feelings about being a gay man in a gay relationship, and also my feelings from homicides. I used to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, particularly when they involved children, or the brutality and so forth. And I think the alcohol played many roles. … The late '70s, in my 30s, alcohol had become a problem in my relationship and a problem between us as well. I think it was something I used to anesthetize the feelings that were work related. Struggling with my own Identity, and so forth, to the point when it became really uncontrollable for both of us, and ultimately ended the relationship when I decided to get sober 23, almost 24 years ago, and that's a real complex issue. I know in part it had to do with work, and the things I had to deal with at work, the feelings I had to repress, and managing the big lie, as I refer to it frequently. I know it had some issues to deal with the relationship, and my own acceptance of myself. I think when I made that transition in '78, physically moving from Los Angeles to Chicago, it also created a real opportunity that I hadn't contemplated before. Number one I met more people that were gay and lesbian. Number two I certainly was less inhibited about revealing who I was, and wasn't under the pressure to maintain to the same extent that big lie, and also there were opportunities for me to get involved where, when I heard about the Los Angeles gay and lesbian center, I wanted to desperately to go by and visit it, I actually drove by it once and didn't stop. But I drove by it. When I was a police officer, I wished I could go there. I got involved in a number of ways at the University of Chicago. After I did get sober, I ran into some folks that were connected with Horizons Community Services, or Gay and Lesbian Horizons, as it was known at the time. I was eventually asked to serve on the board of directors … and Bonaventure House asked me to serve as their token gay board member, at the time, the Catholic Alexian Brothers were, you could say at best tolerant of homosexuals.

TB: Talk about that era in Chicago for you, in terms of nightlife. What were some of the social scenes like. What are the memories you have of the early '80s, prior to AIDS really affecting the Chicago community?

LM: I was involved in a relationship, and we did get out on the North Side. I was living on the South Side, and of course Hyde Park is a very diverse community, and everything is sort of, apples and oranges mixed together, and that whole Hyde Park culture. But the social climate was very accepting and very mixed. Of course, [there was] one bar I believe on 61st or 63rd street, one of the oldest continuous running gay bars in the city of Chicago which is predominantly African American, a former mayor, and aldermen, and other Democratic powerhouses would sneak in and out of the back door, and it was a private club during prohibition. And still to this day it's a private membership club, although you wouldn't know that going in and out. But that wasn't where most Hyde Parkers would congregate.

Some of the early years, as we were getting out, and finding other places and restaurants in the downtown area around the old Gold Coast and some of the bars in that area in the Near West Side of the Loop and there were some bars around the Diversey area that I got to know about, but it was still sort of a foray into a whole new community, and then after leaving Hyde Park and moving to the North Side, I discovered Halsted Street, which really was the extension of the downtown loop area, and the movement of the community toward the Diversey and Clark neighborhood and now up into Andersonville, Rogers Park, and the suburbs. It was a very transitional community. Lakeview was very a gentrifying community as the population moved from the Diversey and Clark neighborhood north.

TB: Let's talk about the mid-'80s, and what you were doing career wise after college.

LM: In the late '80s, when I realized that my problems with alcohol in particular were problems, I went through a treatment program, and it was very clear that the relationship was not going to survive. And even before I finished that treatment program, I knew that if I couldn't successfully deal with that issue, that I would have to make a decision whether or not I could continue. Which was more important to me, my sobriety or a relationship that had become quite sick unto itself with two alcoholics trying to kill each other on a day-to-day basis. So I had to end that relationship, through the grace of God and the help of my friends I've been sober now for almost 24 years. Not with my own will, but with help from other people and being willing to surrender to that disease, and that's when I got involved with Horizons as a board member … . I had ended that relationship and got into a relationship with a gay man that had also come out of an alcoholic, physically abusive, emotionally violent relationship. Which was like being reborn, like rebirth.

TB: Let's talk about the late 1980s in Chicago, and you mentioned Bonaventure House, but all of our organizations sort of deal with HIV and AIDS issues, and you certainly started to deal with those, talk about it both on a community level as well as on a social level, and emotionally how you were dealing with the late 1980s.

LM: You know, my presumption, which was probably wrong, was that because I was in this relationship for 19 years, that somehow I was immune to all of it, it was about other people. I mean even early on … it's what happened to people in San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York. There was so much denial, and also things we just didn't know about the disease and about being tested. I know the first time I was tested, nobody talked about being retested. So we had this emergent epidemic, pandemic, whatever you want to call it that we still didn't know very much about, and still are learning about today, it's complexities, and how it effects you in other ways in terms of health. It was an exciting time because, I think in terms of being empowered, as a result of becoming sober, and being empowered by learning to love myself for just the way I was, not the way somebody else taught me that I was supposed to be, and making some choices to get involved in doing some things and then looking back at my life experience, from law enforcement to the '60s, and growing up in the barrio and living in a very very low income African American community, the brutality, the racism, and all that stuff, sort of guided some of the choices that I made during those years in my mid to late 30s and early 40s.

TB: When you took the job as gay liaison with the Mayor's Office, at that time you were openly gay, and that's a big step career wise, you took a job that actually was gay.

LM: In January of 1992, Mayor Daley appointed me as his full-time liaison to the gay and lesbian community. That position had been vacant for I believe almost a year, and there was a falling out between the mayor's office and my predecessor, who wasn't believed to be doing whatever it was that he expected [them] to do, but also it was about a year after my partner Ray, who I had met in a 12-step program, had passed away, and just prior to him getting ill for 12 weeks and dying, from complications of Agent Orange in Vietnam, but he was HIV=impacted, I found out that I was HIV=positive. We both had been tested earlier, we weren't retested, and I mean there's just so much we didn't know and people didn't tell you at the time. I sort of had the attitude that I was going to be dead in two years, so what could I do? So I wanted to give back to the community for the things the community had given me, and this position had become vacant, I read about it in Windy City Times. I had a resume and sent it to where they told me to send it, and never heard anything back for months and months. Eventually I got called in for an interview and I think I had five interviews, the last one personally with the mayor. Which had been unheard of, even at that time, but Mayor Daley, our current mayor, had had some problems with the community surrounding law enforcement and his relationship with the community, and we had ACT UP and Daniel Sotomayor screaming at him every place that he went, and he wanted someone maybe a little bit older. They were intrigued by my background in law enforcement, and the fact that I was Director of Criminal Justice Studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago, that I might be able to turn that around.

TB: So what were the years that you were in the position, and maybe name some of the highlights, either some of the people that you met, or the events that were happening in the community?

LM: Obviously one of the most significant people that I got to meet and got to know was Mayor Daley himself. When you meet with him privately one on one and talk about issues, you realize what a compassionate and caring person he is, and also very private person, and very protective of members of his own family and many of the issues that we talked about, relationship with the police department, HIV/AIDS and so forth, he cared very deeply about it, and wanted to know how we could turn it around. One of the things I told the mayor when he first interviewed me is I'd never be an apologist for him. But if you're screwing up, if you're doing something wrong, I'll be the first person at your door to let you know. And that was the nature of our relationship for nearly five years.

Meeting the mayor was one of the most significant aspects, because you had the opportunity one on one to get to really know this person, riding around in the backseat of his car, talking about condoms and lube, AIDS funding, the relationship with the police department, members of the community that he had questions about, including [future] Ald. Tom Tunney who was then serving on his economic development commission and other personalities in the community that he was interested in getting to know more about, or frustrated with for many reasons.

In January of 1992, Mayor Daley appointed me as his full-time liaison to the gay and lesbian community, and some of the many highlights were things like getting the police department to openly and publicly recruit members of the GLBT community. It wasn't so much about hiring more gay and lesbian police officers, it was about changing the internal attitude, the internal dynamic that these people too can serve, and that their service is respected and meaningful, and that was one of the very first things that we were able to achieve with Superintendent Matt Rodriguez the very day that he was appointed. Dealing with discrimination on the basis of HIV and AIDS—the police department was testing people without consent for the HIV virus, contrary to the mayor's own executive order. He sent me over to talk to the superintendent of police, and we got into a shouting contest across his desk, saying 'We're not going to change' and 'we've got legal right to do this, we don't care what the mayor's executive order is.' And I said, 'Fine, then we're going to sue you.' And I went back and told the mayor and then went over to the ACLU and, talked to John Hammel, who was the Director of Gay and Lesbian Issues, and filed suit. Got a federal consent decree against the mayor and the department. The response from the mayor was, great that'll keep the unions off my back. He's not too fond of the ACLU generally. Hate crimes, in my very first couple of months, Ron Cayot was brutally shot on Halsted exiting a club that he worked at, at two in the morning, and ultimately died of complications years later, of that original shooting. [Another highlight was the] response of the Jewish community, which has always been so superb, out there first, response of communities that are allies, concerned about discrimination and hate motivated violence.

TB: Now let's transition from why you decided to leave the mayor's post, and what you were looking toward doing.

LM: Well, in 1995 it was rumored that Rod Blagojevich and Nancy Kaszak, the two of them both members of the of the Illinois House of Representatives, were going to run for the fifth congressional seat, Dan Rostenkowski's seat that we lost to a Republican for a couple of years. I had been very active in chamber of commerce work in the Ravenswood area where I lived at the time, and Uptown and so forth. And also given my work for the mayor was very active with members of the community and had a high visibility. So simultaneously I was being pressured by folks—non-gay and lesbian identified folks involved in business and education and healthcare and veteran's affairs, and issues involving law enforcement and the judicial system as well as members of the community—to think about running for that seat. Which I did ultimately, and the mayor supported me. The Chicago machine ran two candidates against me, and I'm very proud to say we kicked the Chicago Democratic machine's butt during that campaign in 1996 [for a state representative post].

So in 1996 I won the State Representative seat for the 34th district on the North Side of Chicago, was sworn in, and served 10 years, five terms re-elected in each election, each primary. Not only did I run as an openly gay man, I jokingly would tell people that after working for Mayor Daley for five years, there wasn't a closet big enough for me to go back into. But at the same time when I announced a year prior to that in 1995, the banner headline in the Learner Papers was 'HIV does not deter candidate.' That was the big issue. There were people in the gay and lesbian community that were out in front that walked away from the campaign. And it wasn't until about a week or two, that there was a pretty high likelihood that I might win, that they reemerged to take credit for the victory. They said it's bad enough that you're running as an openly gay queer candidate for state elected office, but there's no way in hell that a person living with HIV or AIDS could possibly get elected to public office in this state. So I was very much abandoned by a bunch of folks, that actually encouraged me to run in the first place.

TB: It's going to be really difficult to take those ten years and do it in sound bites, but I'd like to do it as best as possible. First, let's talk about your impact as an openly gay, as an openly HIV-positive person, just being there, forget the specific legislation, let's talk about the social impact.

LM: The impact of me coming down to Springfield started with a bunch of rumors, that oh my god, this limp-wristed homosexual carrying a purse and wearing pumps and lipstick was coming to Springfield. There are people like that here already like that, so I don't know why they were concerned. But a lot of people had no idea what to expect, and when they get this former police officer, college educated, Vietnam-era vet, person involved in healthcare and education and business and had a whole myriad of issues, didn't walk in, in the pumps wearing lipstick with the purse, they said, oh my god, who is this person? People would come up to me and they'd talk to me privately about issues. State employees would catch me in the hallway and grab me by my arm and say, Rep. McKeon I'm glad you're here, and then take off running down the hall. A couple of my colleagues, I always tell people I was the first openly gay man elected to serve, but not the only gay man and then of course a couple of lesbians in the House, but now I realize it's both the House and the Senate, and both the Republican and the Democratic side of the aisles. We've been everywhere. Irrespective of political party, and whether you're talking about the House or the Chamber, the only difference is I was the first person to tell the truth, and get elected telling the truth. I was chief sponsor of the Human Rights Amendment to add sexual orientation to state law to prohibit discrimination. It passed in the House twice before it was passed in the Senate and it had the highest percentage of votes including Republican votes in the history of that bill, which had been around for 30 years. I did a lot of work around HIV and AIDS, we have a fully funded AIDS drug assistance program in the state of Illinois, one of the few states in the country that doesn't have a waiting list. Got that expanded in terms of the drugs available to people living with viral Hepatitis, closely correlated with HIV. Access to healthcare for issues impacting women, members of our community are 20% higher than their heterosexual counterparts in certain forms of cancer and so forth. Then just dealing with labor issues, the first groups to fight for domestic-partnership benefits did not come from the community, it came from labor organizations, university professors was the first one, the Service Employees Union. Then the big one that really propelled the governor into supporting it for employees of the executive branch was that AFSCME, the state's largest collective bargaining unit, did that without much help from our community. They were working behind the scenes, but they really laid the groundwork for getting domestic-partnership benefits by decree, which would not have happened if it wasn't for the university professors, it would not have happened if it wasn't for SCIU, and it would not have happened if it wasn't for AFSCME.

TB: As a state representative who is openly gay, would you talk about the burden of being a representative of the entire state's gay people, even though you're really representing a district?

LM: In fact my colleagues assumed that my district was all gay. And on the North Side of Chicago, that's Sara Feigenholtz's representative district, that's Harry Osterman's representative district. Mine was sort of in the middle and off to the west. It had a large gay population. It was mostly blue-collar working, ethnic neighborhoods. So people just assume, oh he's just the queer guy from Chicago where all of those people live. But they live throughout the state. And just like with state employees down here in Springfield running up and shaking your hand or grabbing you by the arm and saying, I'm glad you're here, for that whole 10 years, I would get calls from men and women, and sometimes family members from all over the state of Illinois, saying my representative or my senator doesn't care about my issues. You do, so you're my representative in the Illinois general assembly. They would call me, they would write me, they would send emails, being the only queer in the house, I would jokingly say, I was the person that they would go to see, and that's true for people that I think come behind me, as long as the majority of those people who are gay or lesbian in public office in the state remain in the closet.

TB: How did you handle that burden, but also some of the burdens of being the only gay person, the pressure from the gay community, to be the perfect queer, to be the person that was always there for them, even when the community didn't always know what there was? They were fighting each other so much. Can you talk about some of those burdens that you faced?

LM: You know, there are people in our community who didn't support the Human Rights Amendment. There are people in our community through their own denial and their own self hatred that weren't out there as champions in responding to health issues like HIV and AIDS and cancer among women. With that self-hatred, that, well you know that's because of who we are and our behavior. So you would have to deal with that, we're dealing with that now around the issue of gay and lesbian families, and the benefits of marriage, whether you call it marriage or civil union. What's in the legislation, what's out of the legislation. I don't want anything to do with that, for some people that continues to be the case, part of our own denial and self-hatred and so forth that we're still dealing with. Not like it used to be. But it's still there, it's still real for a lot of folks.

TB: And what about the lessons you've learned about the power struggles within our own community and how they've affected you emotionally and physically, dealing with the conflict and the infighting in the community? Wat can the next generation can learn about working better together?

LM: The conflict in the gay and lesbian community … I find personally unfortunate, and at times very disturbing and hurtful. But I think for the most part, the most visible part of that is really a small number of people. And in some cases the most intense part is really just a few individuals. Some I regard as just being inherently evil, that can only function through character assassination and gratuitous self promotion, at the expense of other people. They're not team players, they're out for themselves. We all know who they are, and again it's a very small number of people. And people can disagree over policy, people can disagree over strategy, even around policies that impact the LGBT community, but then there are people who just disagree because they are evil and mean-spirited and so full of themselves that they think the entire community revolves around them, and that you can't run for public office without the approval of one individual, or even contemplate running for public office. That all decisions or all questions of public policy has to be directed through one or two individuals in the community. It's about power, it's about control. It raises, in my personal opinion issues of mental health, and sometimes issues of active substance abuse and so forth, which is a tragedy in it's own right.

TB: For the next generation, how can they learn from this, especially on the power struggle?

LM: I think what our young people ought to be encouraged to do, whether they are gay or straight, is you have to believe in something. What brought me in focus in the state legislature was the cumulative experience going back to the '60s. I worked on John Kennedy's campaign, I was at the hotel when Bobby Kennedy was killed [I was there supervising three polling stations in terms of securing the ballots], I know exactly where I was when Martin Luther King was killed, I went through urban riots, I got pummeled and folded and spindled, and getting injured working the streets as a cop. I saw the racism, the brutality, those things. I know what it was like before Roe Vs. Wade when you had back-alley abortion clinics, and people were dying constantly as a consequence. Our younger people may not live those experiences, but they can live vicariously, and believe in something. Believe in something, and to act on those beliefs.

TB: Can you talk with us about Bobby Kennedy's assassination?

LM: I was at the Ambassador Hotel when Bobby Kennedy was killed. It was the night of the California primary election. I was there supervising three polling stations in terms of securing the ballots, making sure they went to the station. I lived two blocks away, walked out across Santa Monica Boulevard and these ambulances went by, and police cars and unmarked cars, I said oh my god somebody got sick, Kennedy was having his primary victory party there. I walked two blocks north to my home and turned on the TV, and it was Bobby Kennedy. Within 30 minutes Bobby Kennedy was dead, and this person was arrested.

TB: You've had far more than your share of health issues, let's talk about how they impacted you obviously on a personal level, but also how you were still able to work as a state representative.

LM: It's mind boggling that my partner Ray could get sick, and die in 12 weeks. In the middle of that I found out I was HIV-positive, but nearly 18 years later, and given where I was at when I found out I was positive, I've probably been positive over 20 years, that's what I believe. And I'm still here. Until the middle of 1995, I'd never had an AIDS diagnosis. Then I started getting sick and losing a lot of weight. I ended up, in May of 2005 I started to get sick, and I didn't know why I was losing a lot of weight, I lost about 30 pounds, I was down here [in Springfield], it was very grueling commuting five- six months out of the year. Driving 210 miles one way to work and back, plus doing everything you have to do in the district and so forth. I was trying to lose some pounds, and I was carrying about 15 more than I really needed, but I didn't stop. I kept losing more and more and more. I went from a 38-inch waist to a 32 in just a few months, I dropped two suit sizes, and I went from 187 ultimately down to 130 pounds and ended up at Northwestern Hospital during our spring break, some people call Easter break or whatever. It was Spring break for us here. I was at Northwestern and they were trying to figure out what was going on, and in the process they found out that I had an infection that was disseminated HIV related, through my digestive system, which was causing the weight loss, and totally inadvertently found that I had anal cancer. Poking and prodding and biopsies, and cameras and all that sort of stuff, and they said well, we can deal with this infection which is an AIDS diagnosis with a prescription drug and take care of that, that's not a big deal, but you've got to start chemo and radiation real quick. And that was the big shock, in fact I really never focused on the fact that I was diagnosed with AIDS because I was dealing with cancer. So I did radiation and chemo simultaneously, which was an experience, and continued to lose weight, muscle tissue and so forth. And just to make sure I was paying attention, they threw in a couple of strokes while I was doing chemo. So my balance is still a bit messed up, but I've had problems falling down most of my life, I think I've fallen on my head far too many times, but it may just be a natural phenomenon. So yeah, it really gets your attention. I jokingly tell my friends I went to Northwestern that week, they had a two-for-one special and a bonus prize: AIDS, cancer and let's throw in a couple of strokes to see if you're paying attention.

TB: You didn't really take off that much time from work.

LM: I missed our spring break through the end of session. I had introduced seven bills in the House, and picked up a couple Senate bills and surprisingly I missed a good portion of that, that was my best legislative year. I got seven bills passed and signed by the Governor that year. Mike Madigan was personally supervising them, and was adamant that those bills were going to get out of the House. I had the Mayor and the Governor and Mike, and a lot of my colleagues calling me periodically to see how I was doing, but Madigan was just adamant. You know I was willing to give those bills up to other people to sponsor, and he said no way and I'd get complete reports every couple of weeks as to their status. I understand that routinely in my absence, which a few people made light of, they call it the order of McKeon. We have third reading, order third reading first reading, second, and that was the order of McKeon these bills that kept calling, and these people running them. McKeon the chief sponsor, and they got passed and signed by the Governor.

TB: You obviously were at that point considering your future, in terms of retirement. But it took you, you went through another session, so what was happening in early 2006 to get you to retirement?

LM: First thing, I think I had to write a bio for something when people asked me how long I had been in public service, and I went back to the age of 19, and then got out of denial about my real age, and I said oh my god, this is 42 years. I don't have to do this the rest of my life, I don't have to put up with some of the things I've had to struggle with to do what I love doing. I can make other choices and I'll be just fine. But it was getting through that fear. Could I survive economically? If I get sick again, will people be there for me? What will I want to do? So it took a good year, year and a half from contemplating the notion that I have other choices, to acting on it. Then I wanted to make sure that somebody came into this job that would do it well, and I had some strong feelings having beaten the Chicago machine, as to who I would like to see. An independent Democrat move into that spot. That didn't happen, but that's all right. He's a judge now. He did better, and doesn't have to put up with some of this nonsense.

TB: Talk about that transition, that was a very interesting time, the aldermen deciding whether to pick a gay replacement or not. What was going on in your mind about that legacy?

LM: Well, first of all, we had the votes for my recommendation months before I made it known publicly that I was going to retire. We had the commitment on the vote. But then it came down to a battle, I believe, as to whether this independent Democratic seat was going to be owned by the Chicago regular Democratic machine, and if so what part of the Chicago Democratic machine? What ward, what organization. So I think ultimately that what it came down to, it was a shock for the 47th Ward Democratic organization to lose this seat, which they thought they owned, to this homosexual, that their candidate was beaten and they wanted it back and laid claim to it, and the other factions among the Democratic committeeman was, well this guy is getting too uppity and we don't particularly want to deal with him, and so it will be anybody but their candidate. There was some consensus except for Gene Schulter in the 47th Ward that this must be an openly gay man or a lesbian. Schulter of course lied through his teeth that he had an open mind and so forth, but that was never the truth and we knew that beforehand. It was the same guy that ran a very homophobic anti-gay campaign against me when I ran in '95 and '96. Who apparently has gotten religion, which I don't believe. So there was a compromise candidate, and that was a candidate that comes out of a Democratic machine organization on the North Side of Chicago. So that trade off was, are we going to have an openly gay man or lesbian in this seat? And what we ultimately had to give up was an independent Democrat [Jim Snyder], that it would be a machine-backed Democratic party candidate [Greg Harris], who has been a personal friend of mine for a very long time, who is a very capable man. But I wasn't about to budge from my position as an independent Democrat, that my first responsibility was to appoint someone that I felt would maintain that independence, and still be a good capital 'D' Democrat, and not a mere functionary of Chicago capital 'D' Democrat.

TB: And what are you doing now, in 2007?

LM: Part of it was I decided I wanted, for some very personal reasons number one, the things I wanted to do in retirement, and whether I could afford to do them. Moving from Chicago to Springfield was in large part, the fact that my cost of living is about a third of what it was when I lived in Chicago. I have so many friends down here, and I bought a used motor home a few years ago, and I want to run around with my two adopted greyhounds and go fishing and do other things, and there's a very vibrant gay and lesbian community here. A very cohesive community here. So it was, you know, the opportunity to do some of those things, and strategizing how I could support myself on a retirement which was not well planned. But also stay connected. There's a community college down here that I may be teaching public policy courses at, one or two courses a year to stay intellectually challenged. What I'm doing is working for a small number of clients on policy issues that I can pick and choose. I have no desire to be a hired gun for anybody for any issue, but I'm working on some labor issues on behalf of men and women, and some issues on chronic homelessness, and moving people from welfare to work, and HIV/AIDS issues with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, human rights issues with the ACLU, Protestants For the Common Good, and our Allies in Organized Labor around human rights, workplace nondiscrimination issues. The gay and lesbian community, the LBGT community, is not a single-issue monolithic community, and albeit the issues of nondiscrimination and employment, marriage/civil union things. There are other family issues, there are other health issues. There's issues about parenting and foster care and adoption. There are economic forms of discrimination not covered by the Human Rights Act, then you have the whole Human Rights Act with a department that's a total disaster. Currently, as of today, with the result of this administration that we currently have, it takes an average of five years for a human-rights complaint to go from door to door in the Human Rights Commission. Why pass a damn law, if you don't fund an agency, and you don't staff it with competent personnel that can manage an agency? Some of the things we're looking at now is maybe some alternatives, where we enforce what agency a state government has responsibility for enforcing those laws. Maybe it's not the Department of Human Rights … maybe it's another investigative agency in state government.

TB: The gay-rights law finally passing [in passed in 2005 and went into effect January 2006], what went through your mind? And also discuss the last bill you passed, raising the minimum wage.

LM: The Human Rights Bill was first introduced now I think 32, maybe 33 years ago by a Republican woman from Hyde Park when we had three member legislative districts. It got seven votes! Then it sort of inched its way up, into the 20s and whatever. … But I passed it twice in the House, and it was clear that as long as Pate Philip was President of the Senate, that this bill wasn't going anywhere. It didn't matter diddly what we as a community did, or our allies, this bill was not going to see the light of day. It was never going to get to the Governor's desk. It was only taking Democratic control of the Senate, that that prospect emerged, and then at the time having a Governor that at least stated publicly that he would sign the bill.

TB: So what emotions went through you when that bill passed?

LM: I was on the floor of the Illinois Senate when the amendment to the Human Rights Act adding sexual orientation was passed, that very moment. I jumped about a foot in the air in joy and there was a roar of applause in the Senate gallery and the next day when I called the bill in the House, and I was watching the counter and I knew we had two extra Republican votes that nobody knew about, so I had a little insurance, because the community activists do a pretty dismal job of counting votes. And so it got up there with more Republican votes that we've ever had, and passed. The speaker was doing the final count, has everyone voted, has everyone voted? I started yelling already, and one of my colleagues said, wait. Wait until he calls the vote. It's not official until he calls the vote. But he did, and that bill passed with more than enough votes to pass. The most Republican support we've ever had. I was elated.

TB: What about the minimum wage?

LM: Increasing the state minimum wage bill far beyond what federal government was just symbolically for me having worked in very, very low-income communities in my district, Hispanic, African America, Asian and seeing families struggle, that was great, I was chairman of the committee on labor, I held the public hearings down here about the minimum wage bill, and we had an amendment which I was the co-sponsor of that became the bill, when we voted on the House floor. So that was exciting, and that was the last bill that I was chief co-sponsor of, and chief sponsor of the amendment. It was my last legislative action as a member of the Illinois General Assembly.

TB: Let's end here with any personal stories of people you want to remember, any family related or any really strong Chicago connected memories that you have.

LM: People have asked me a number of times about things that I've been able to accomplish, and I've truly been blessed. I learned a long time ago that [things] … you may accomplish in life, large or small, it's not the monetary things that are really important, but I think the things that you truly believe in, and it's always the result of other people. It's the people that you've been blessed or privileged to have had the opportunity to work with, to be surrounded by, and it's making careful choices about who those people are, and also living in a 'we' world instead of a 'me' world. I learned a long time ago from a politician that was my mentor back in the '60s when I was a police officer, he never wanted his correspondence to be written such that 'I', 'me'. It was always 'us' and 'we'. And he said that he never had an original thought, it was always the influence of the people that he had been surrounded with. And that was inculcated early into me, and I still strongly believe that. When you come down here [to Springfield], it's damn hard to be a politician and remain humble. But the truth of the matter is that whatever success you have in getting elected, is the result of the work of a lot of other people, it's not you.

Also see Gay pioneer Larry McKeon dies at 63

2008-05-21 .

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