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Thursday, March 24, 2005 04:29 pm

Out, but not down

Cover photograph by Ginny Lee

It was six years ago this week that Rep. Larry McKeon, the first and only openly gay state lawmaker in Illinois, outed the homosexual siblings of three Republican legislators.

McKeon lashed out at his colleagues for blocking legislation to protect homosexuals from various forms of discrimination. Once the votes were tallied, he hastened to the press box, where he blamed the bill’s defeat on three colleagues who opposed it despite having gay siblings. Several newspapers published McKeon’s comments, but they didn’t name the three lawmakers.

McKeon’s revelations enraged Republicans, causing the bill to be shelved for two full years, and even provoked a minirevolt within his own sizable gay and lesbian base. “Ethically, it was wrong; politically, it was suicide,” says Rick Garcia, political director for the gay-rights group Equality Illinois and a longtime supporter of McKeon’s.

Under pressure from friends and foes alike to resign, McKeon reluctantly capitulated. His mea culpa arrived in the form of a letter sent to the governor and the entire House, and it cast a large shadow over a gay and lesbian rally held that same day inside the Capitol rotunda.

“My behavior was an act of despair and was inappropriate,” McKeon wrote.

From that day forward, McKeon was branded by many a loose cannon. Now, on the anniversary of what some perceive as the biggest blunder of his political life, the 60-year-old Chicago Democrat is retracting that very public apology.

McKeon now claims he was right to “out the hypocrisy” of his colleagues — and, if pressed, he says he’d do it again.

“I have a very, very strong feeling that I have developed throughout the years about people in the closet in positions of authority,” McKeon says.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that to be in elected office as a closeted homosexual is fundamentally dishonest and is a disservice to the people we serve.

“I think it’s disgusting and hypocritical when people place their political ambitions over the most basic needs of a member of their immediate family.

“And I think it is appropriate to out an elected official if, because of their closetedness, they inflict harm on other people to maintain their dirty little personal secret or family secret.”

These beliefs — which form the first chapter of McKeon’s memoir, a work in progress that he has been writing for the last year — may be discomfiting to some lawmakers.

After all, McKeon has for years publicly taunted his allegedly closeted colleagues in the Legislature, whom, he says, number about a half-dozen. He has claimed many times that he is “not the only gay man in the General Assembly but the only one to tell the truth about it.”

Stopping short of naming names, he adds that there are enough gays and lesbians in the Legislature to form a caucus representing both chambers and both political parties.

“It’s already widely rumored and well-known who these people are,” McKeon says. “Who are they fooling, other than just themselves?”

McKeon’s bluntness is disarming, though maybe not surprising. The former police officer and college professor has been a lightning rod for controversy since he joined the Legislature in 1996 and became one of its most consistently outspoken and progressive voices.

Earlier this year, McKeon’s bill adding sexual orientation to the list of protected classes under the Illinois Human Rights Act finally became law, an astonishing three decades after it was first introduced.

The bill’s passage has prompted a backlash of legislation supported by conservative religious groups seeking its repeal. It has also renewed efforts to amend the Illinois Constitution to ban same-sex marriages.

“People have no idea how radical it is,” says opponent Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute. “Homosexuality is now enshrined in the civil-rights code.”

McKeon has also sponsored bills to abolish the death penalty, to make syringes more readily available to drug users, and to allow HIV-positive people to donate organs to others with the virus.

He made headlines again last month, sponsoring legislation to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. The bill was quickly quashed in committee after the national drug czar flew into Springfield to testify against it.

“I’m somewhat amazed,” McKeon said, a little sheepishly, at the hearing, “that such a lowly state legislator like myself could command such attention all the way from the White House.”

McKeon says that he only wishes he could garner such interest from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whom he supports but describes as “untrustworthy,” “extremely poorly advised,” and “quite inaccessible.”

Though Democrats now control all three levers of state government, McKeon complains that his bills are no more likely to pass today than when conservative Republican James “Pate” Philip lorded over the Senate with an iron fist.

“Many Democrats are very, very disappointed, very disillusioned,” he says.

If it seems as if McKeon is trying to pick a fight — with the governor, with other lawmakers, and even with his own base of supporters — it’s because he is.

Often, he says, that’s the only way to advance his causes.

For McKeon, all politics is personal. Two years ago, when the Catholic Conference of Illinois opposed his bill to extend basic protections to gays and lesbians, he reacted by changing his own religious affiliation. Though brought up Catholic, McKeon now attends Episcopalian services, which he deems more tolerant and inclusive.

“It’s not uncommon for my colleagues to approach me and say, ‘I hope you don’t take my vote personally. I know you feel strongly about this,’” McKeon says.

“And from day one, the first time anyone said that to me, I’d look back at them, I’d poke my finger close to their face, and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I do take it personally.’”

McKeon is known to strut this brazen, uncompromising attitude, which nettles some but endears him to others.

“With Larry, it’s ‘what you see is what you get.’ He’s no pretender,” says state Rep. Lovana “Lou” Jones, a veteran member of the Legislative Black Caucus and close ally to McKeon.

When choosing his legislative battles, McKeon says, he draws directly from his own, often harrowing life experiences — which include hiding his sexual identity for years, struggling with alcoholism, attempting suicide in his late thirties, contracting HIV, and losing his partner to AIDS.

He relates many of these troubling memories with his peculiar brand of gallows humor, which matches perfectly his white moustache, hollow cheeks, sunken blue eyes, and tall, gaunt frame. Inside a brightly painted Mexican luncheonette near his apartment on Chicago’s North Side, McKeon sits forward in his chair, gaze steady, eyes moist, and speaks in a gruff, barely audible whisper. His recollections are often punctuated by a rapid-fire laugh that erupts like a machine gun.

Born during World War II, McKeon was left by his birth mother in a six-bed Catholic hospital in the tiny rural community of Caldwell, Idaho, 30 miles west of Boise. A cleaning lady at the hospital took him in and raised him. A Polish woman with a fifth-grade education, she adopted three children and gave birth to one.

“She found my next youngest brother in a cardboard box in the back pews of the church she was cleaning for Sunday Mass,” McKeon says.

McKeon’s adoptive parents lost their land-grant farm after the war, when McKeon was 6, and the family migrated to East Los Angeles, where other relatives lived. The neighborhood was poor and predominantly Hispanic.

To help support his family, McKeon worked full-time during high school and later enrolled at a local community college. His family continued to struggle financially, leading him at age 19 to join the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

While in his early 20s, he enlisted in the Army Reserve, spending two years on active duty, based in Georgia, during the Vietnam era. His opposition to that war has evolved over the years, fueling his hostility to the current war in Iraq, which he calls “a mistake from the get-go.”

McKeon continued his education, attending night classes, and eventually transferred to California State University at Los Angeles, taking eight years to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science. He later went on to receive a master’s degree in public policy, also from Cal State.

An honor student at the police academy, McKeon quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the youngest sergeant, at age 26, and then lieutenant, at 29, in the department’s history.

“I was assigned to some of the toughest neighborhoods on the West Coast,” he says. But he found that the culture of bigotry and abuse within the department was even tougher to handle than what he encountered on the streets.

“I was terrified,” he says. “There I was, a highly successful, accomplished police officer working in a very heterosexual, homophobic, sexist, and racist environment — and, all the while, I was secretly involved in a long-term relationship with a gay man. That’s a little bit stressful.”

McKeon served a total of 14 years on the force before leaving for a research position at the University of Southern California. He participated in a project that led to widespread reforms in the nation’s juvenile-justice system. Hoping to advance his career in public policy, he applied to several doctoral programs across the country and eventually accepted an offer from the University of Chicago that included the cost of tuition and a generous stipend.

Accompanied by his partner of nearly 20 years, who was also an alcoholic, McKeon moved into a flat in Hyde Park, near the university campus. But their relationship had become abusive, both emotionally and physically. Several years of binge drinking had finally taken its toll.

McKeon accepted a teaching a post at Roosevelt University but found himself increasingly unable to function. That’s when he performed what he now refers to, with some morbid amusement, as the “stupid tie trick.”

“I tried to hang myself on a closet rail with a bunch of silk ties,” he says. “All I did was pull down the closet, and all the books that were on top of the closet, and ruin a very good silk tie.”

McKeon sank into a deep depression, was unemployed for a year, and nearly became homeless. Before hitting bottom, he checked himself into rehab, separated from his longtime partner, and, at age 40, fully came out of the closet. He began to volunteer with local gay-rights community groups.

In retrospect, he says, he believes his substance abuse was fueled by his efforts to “manage the lie” of being a closeted homosexual: “I think the alcoholism was just part of my denial with respect to my sexual orientation.”

At last, things started looking up. McKeon landed a job with a prominent social-services agency and a few years later interviewed for the position of liaison to the gay and lesbian community under Mayor Richard M. Daley — a post that would soon set him on the path to Springfield.

The movement to elect the first openly gay politician in Illinois began to take shape about 10 years ago with a voter-registration drive that enlisted thousands of gay and lesbian voters from across Chicago.

With a potentially powerful voting bloc in place, the time had come for the group to flex its political muscle by running a candidate of its own choosing. The search was extensive, but initially no one was willing to step forward, recalls Rick Garcia, the gay-rights activist and political organizer.

The best chance for victory, Garcia recalls, was to run a candidate for the General Assembly representing the Chicago lakefront, where much of the openly gay and lesbian population is concentrated.

The problem with that approach, though, was that the people who held those seats — including state Sens. John Cullerton and Carol Ronen — already boasted stellar voting records on gay and lesbian issues.

Fortunately, rumors soon began to circulate that state Reps. Nancy Kazak and Rod Blagojevich each planned to run for the 5th Congressional District. That left openings in the Legislature and a golden opportunity for an emerging political movement.

It didn’t take long for Garcia and other leaders to tap McKeon for the race. After all, his résumé sparkled. He was a veteran, a former cop, an educator, and he was aligned with the mayor. No less important, Garcia says, he had a good ballot name and a low-key personality, and he looked decent in a suit.

“The first one you run can’t be a drag queen,” Garcia says.

McKeon, who had been working for Daley for three years, readily accepted the offer. He remembers the day he went seeking the mayor’s support.

It was during a City Council meeting. McKeon waited for the period, roughly half-way through the meeting, when Daley steps down from the dais and is temporarily relieved by the mayor pro tem.

McKeon approached Daley in the hall: “So I say, ‘Mr. Mayor, I want to chat with you briefly about what I’m thinking about doing.’”

He describes Daley, who began his own political career in the Legislature, as “a short little dude” who “always pokes me in the chest.” McKeon told the mayor about his plans to run for Kazak’s seat: “And he looked up at me and says, ‘I don’t know anybody in their right mind who would want to be in the Illinois General Assembly.’”

Daley endorsed McKeon, but in name only. The candidate still had to recruit volunteers, raise money, and fend off the viciously negative campaigns of his top opponents, one of whom spread lies that McKeon had left his job as a police officer amid charges of child molestation.

Things got off to a rough start. On the day McKeon held a press conference to announce his election bid, a reporter from a local community newspaper inquired about his health. McKeon’s unscripted announcement that he had contracted HIV in 1992 led to next-day headlines that wailed: “HIV will not deter candidate.”

The candidate quickly found himself isolated. “Some of my closest allies took a walk,” he says. “They said that ‘It’s bad enough you’re running as a queer, but now you just told the world that you got AIDS.’”

Despite such setbacks, McKeon easily won the hard-fought four-candidate contest.

It wasn’t long before he began to demonstrate his independent streak from his new perch in the state Capitol.

In August 1998, McKeon ignited a firestorm among fellow Democrats by announcing that he would not support the party’s gubernatorial nominee, Glenn Poshard, because of the downstate congressman’s dismal record on gay-rights issues.

McKeon’s decision helped torpedo Poshard’s candidacy and inadvertently cleared the way for Republican George Ryan’s victory.

For this, he incurred the wrath of several Democratic bigwigs.

McKeon recalls that Chicago Ald. Richard Mell, the current governor’s father-in-law and head of one of the city’s most powerful ward organizations, vowed to take revenge.

“Dick Mell was screaming at me on the telephone: ‘Your political career is over! It’s over!’” McKeon says, looking amused.

“Well, I got re-elected three times since then.”

Ray Korzinski represents the great love of McKeon’s life.

The couple met in Chicago in the ’80s. Both had recently fled abusive, alcoholic relationships; both were in recovery; and both were hauling some heavy baggage. Korzinski had been largely ostracized by his immediate family, McKeon recalls.

After the two men had lived together for five years, Korzinski tested positive for HIV. The virus complicated Korzinski’s bout with a rare form of lymphoma, which he attributed to exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam. Korzinski died 12 weeks after learning that he was infected with HIV.

It was during those last few weeks of Korzinski’s life that McKeon discovered that he, too, was HIV-positive.

“He felt a lot of guilt,” McKeon says. “He thought he had it and passed it to me. We talked about it before he died.

“It doesn’t matter who did what, or when. It just is.”

Feeling alternatively devastated and enraged, McKeon spent the next several months convulsed with grief, punching holes in his apartment walls. He figured that, at most, he had a year to live. That was more than a decade ago.

Today McKeon holds down two mostly austere apartments — one in Chicago and another in Springfield, just south of the Statehouse, that he shares with a pair of sleek, spotted greyhounds.

His daily medication regimen includes nearly two dozen pills, which cause side effects that include fatigue, nausea, and loss of appetite. McKeon has lost an alarming 35 pounds since September.

In the last month alone, he has undergone a colonoscopy and suffered through an upper respiratory infection that was quickly followed by a severe case of the flu.

McKeon says that he dates occasionally, but his frequently poor health, in addition to a job that entails a three-hour commute as many as several times a week, has done little to enhance his social life.

Instead, he contents himself with memories of the man he calls his “best friend, spiritual advisor, and comedian.”

To this day, he keeps photos of Korzinski in both his Chicago and Springfield offices.

“If anybody wants to know who Ray is,” McKeon says, his eyes watering, “come on in and I’ll show you a picture of a good-looking 43-year-old Polish boy, OK?”

McKeon admits that he probably isn’t the ideal advocate for medicinal marijuana.

He’s always been somewhat fearful of the drug. As a teenager, he experimented. “I grew up in the ’60s,” he says, by way of explanation. But he never liked it: “Booze was my drug of choice. It was legal, and it was ample and easy to get.”

This year, McKeon became the lead sponsor of a bill that would make marijuana an option exclusively for patients with painful or terminal diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS. Still, he admits that he’s not completely sold on its healing powers.

“I’m ambivalent,” he says. “I wasn’t sure where I stood personally on the issue. I’m still not sure.”

But in regard to at least one aspect, McKeon is convinced. The federal government, he says, has systematically blocked efforts to study the medicinal benefits of marijuana and weigh them against the risks.

He made this argument during a committee hearing, held last month in the Stratton Building, that attracted legalization activists from across the state.

The bill was doomed from the start. John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, flew into Springfield that morning to advise against it.

“We want to do more than just promise people that we can intoxicate them or fool them into making them forget their problem,” Walters testified.

The national drug czar repeatedly lumped marijuana with drugs widely considered more dangerous, such as crack, meth, and heroin. He warned of marijuana’s “addictive consequences” and “carcinogenic side effects.”

“It’s probably also true of eating red meat and breathing Chicago air,” scoffs McKeon, who doesn’t hesitate to thumb his nose at authority, even when it arrives on direct orders from the president.

In the end, the Health and Human Services Committee blocked the bill. McKeon will likely have to wait until next year to begin hosting a series of teleconferences that would bring law-enforcement and health officials from Illinois together with officials from the 10 states that have passed similar legislation.

“I do want to debunk the myths, and I think that there is a lot of learning to do here,” he says. “That goes for me, too.”

McKeon’s medicinal-marijuana bill may be cached for now, but, as he did with the Human Rights Act amendment, he vows to introduce it every year for as long as he serves in the Legislature.

“The last bill hung around for 30 years,” he told the committee. “This one shouldn’t take that long.”

To many observers, his persistence is admirable. To others — including some loyalists who remain upset about the public outcry he caused six years ago — he is bullheaded and misguided, fighting through scandals he creates himself.

McKeon may be ailing, but it’s clear by now that he plans to go down fighting.

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