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Illinois first openly gay legislator dies
Associated Press
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Published: 5/14/2008 4:52 PM

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SPRINGFIELD -- Larry McKeon, Illinois' first openly gay legislator and an advocate for expanding state discrimination laws to cover gay people, has died at age 63, friends and colleagues said Wednesday.

The biggest achievement of his 10 years in the Illinois House was adding the words "sexual orientation" to the state law banning discrimination against people for jobs, housing, public accommodations or credit.

"He really blazed the way ... and served with honor," said Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, who took over McKeon's Illinois House seat in 2007.

McKeon was HIV positive and had battled cancer, but Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie said his death apparently was the result of a stroke Tuesday night.

McKeon came to politics after serving in the Army and in law enforcement, rising to the rank of lieutenant in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Later, he was a college professor and administrator.

Eventually he became Chicago's liaison to gays and lesbians, helping to mend a tense relationship over allegations of police indifference to gays being harassed.

In 1991 his longtime partner, Ray Korzinski, was diagnosed with AIDS and died 12 weeks later. McKeon learned he also was HIV positive and figured he had only two or three more years to live.

"In a moment of total irrational thought, I ran for public office," he said in 2002.

After retiring from the House, McKeon served as a volunteer lobbyist for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

The Chicago Democrat said he embraced the label of gay lawmaker even when it overshadowed his other experiences. "I am the queer in the House," McKeon joked in 2002.

McKeon was more than his sexual orientation, Harris said. He spent most legislative sessions championing issues surrounding immigration, health care and homelessness.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said he admired McKeon's intellect and tenacity.

McKeon faced many obstacles when he first arrived in the Illinois House in 1996, but he brushed away snide remarks and learned to work effectively with fellow legislators, said Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago.

"The more his colleagues knew him, the more they accepted him for who he was, and later respected him for his role -- not as a gay legislator, but as a civil rights leader," Fritchey said.

Described as funny and charming, McKeon also had a temper. "When he was mad at you, you knew it," Harris said.

One of the most public examples was in 1999, when he chastised three lawmakers who had voted against his anti-discrimination bill. McKeon said the three had gay or lesbian relatives and should have supported his legislation.

McKeon soon regretted his actions and publicly apologized.

"I think I need to do some self-reflection, contemplation, deal with some personal hurt and anger," he said.

McKeon's friends intend to hold a memorial service but no date has been set yet, the speaker's office said.