Master of Persuasion: State Rep. Greg Harris Brings Adoption of Same-Sex Marriage to Illinois

May 1, 2014

Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Democratic state Rep. Greg Harris, sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill, celebrate after the House approved the measure.
Credit Illinois House Democrats
It was May 31, 2013, and the cause of same-sex marriage rights was gusting through America like a spring squall. Public opinion had recently swung around on the issue so dramatically that it took even its long-time proponents by surprise. The earlier trend of states outlawing gay marriage had completely looped back on itself in the 2012 elections, with an unbroken string of states’ voters — Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington — either approving same-sex unions or declining to outlaw them. Perhaps even more important, the U.S. Supreme Court was poised to issue what many predicted, correctly, would be the undoing of the now-anachronistic Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 statute prohibiting federal recognition of gay marriage. 

Then, on that last day of May, in of all places deep-blue Illinois, the juggernaut seemed to hit a wall.

As a throng of gay-rights activists booed, hissed and shouted insults from the gallery, state Rep. Greg Harris stood at his desk on the Illinois House floor, trying and somewhat failing to compose himself. The bald Chicago Democrat with the baritone voice and the Dick Tracy nose, one of a handful of openly gay legislators in Springfield, was about to announce that the nation’s fifth-largest state wouldn’t be joining in the historic national sweep toward marriage equality that day, after all.

In a halting, choked speech punctuated by angry outbursts from the gallery and gavel-banging threats from the speaker’s podium to have the audience removed, Harris laid out what everyone now knew: The marriage equality legislation the state Senate had passed with fanfare on Valentine’s Day wasn’t going to get a final House vote on that last day of session.

After pausing to remove his glasses and wipe his eyes, Harris explained his reasoning for declining to call the bill. 

“When you change the course of history, I believe that should be [by] a substantial majority,” said Harris, his generally booming voice now wavering with emotion. “Several of my colleagues have indicated they would not be willing to cast a vote on this bill today.” 

“You suck!” yelled someone from the gallery. 

“We will be back,” Harris, unfazed, continued. “Until that day, I apologize to the families who were hoping to wake up tomorrow as full and equal citizens of this state.”

“Justice delayed is justice denied!” came another yell from the gallery.

Harris countered, and closed, by invoking Lincoln: “We cannot escape history. ... The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.”

In the aftermath of the aborted vote, dishonor seemed to be the verdict of both sides of the gay-rights debate against Harris. The familiar enmity of anti-gay conservative activists toward him now found unlikely agreement in Chicago’s gay-rights community, with key Movement figures slamming Harris’ decision not to call the vote. “[H]is arrogance and close-to-the-vest approach on an issue that impacts hundreds of thousands of people in this state is unconscionable — and unparalleled in our community’s history,” Tracy Baim, publisher of the Chicago gay-rights publication the Windy City Times, wrote the day after the non-vote. Others outright called for Harris’ resignation.

Harris lobbied other lawmakers to win support for the same-sex marriage bill adopted last year.
Credit Illinois House Democrats

  Harris — long known to Statehouse reporters for his polite but impenetrable poker face when it comes to strategy and vote-counts — proceeded as if he wasn’t being buffeted by a two-front storm. In the months after that nationally watched May impasse, he quietly lobbied legislative colleagues with polls and policy analysis and news accounts of political survival in other states after same-sex marriage votes. 

In short, he played the very role that the gay community was angrily accusing him of playing: that of the back-room politician.

“There are 118 different members down here and they have 118 different points of view, and there’s 118 different discussions,” Harris says, explaining — 10 months later during an interview in his Springfield office — his lobbying efforts during that shaky period between the bill’s stall in May and its ultimate passage in November. “So you have to understand the person, you have to understand their district. You have to understand their politics.”

To understand how Illinois’ Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act went from May failure to historic November victory, you have to understand the politics of activist-turned-politician Gregory Scott Harris. Age 58. Colorado native. Trained in journalism and marketing. HIV-positive. 

And to understand Harris’ politics, you have to understand Chicago in the 1980s. 

“I was never really politically involved or active in the community, like so many other gay men of my age, until HIV hit Chicago and the state of Illinois in the late ’80s,” says Harris. “Everyone I knew pretty much was sick or dying. Remember the ’80s? Reagan was in office. There was not even a word for AIDS back then.”

He’d been raised primarily in Colorado, the son of a defense contractor employee. He realized by high school that he was gay, though he wouldn’t come out until adulthood. “I talk to a lot of high school LGBT groups now — there was nothing like that at that time.”

Harris arrived in Chicago in 1977, at age 22, with a journalism degree from the University of Colorado that was never used for journalism but instead morphed into marketing. He was soon hired to do marketing and governmental relations for the National Home Furnishings Association, eventually rising to executive director. In 1988, the organization left Chicago, but Harris stayed, helping organize programs to deliver home-cooked meals to AIDS victims.

“We all had friends who were too weak to shop, or they were exhausting all their money on health care,” Harris recalls. “There was fear and stigma and people left by their employers and their friends.” 

Harris was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1988. He would be diagnosed with “full-blown AIDS” in 1990, a diagnosis that still stands today.

“Because I have access to decent health care and insurance and a support network and a home and friends and the grace of God, I’m still going, while so many other people have not,” says Harris. “Some days are way worse than others. Some days it’s really sort of a struggle. The medicines do keep you alive, but the side effects can be pretty bad.”

With the political connections he’d fostered in his former job and his community activism, Harris eventually landed a post as chief of staff for Chicago 48th Ward Ald. Mary Ann Smith, which he held until 2006.

That year, state Rep. Larry McKeon, a Chicago Democrat, stepped down after five terms, citing health issues. Long the state’s sole openly gay legislator and HIV-positive, McKeon had waged lonely battles on gay-rights issues for a decade. He’d already won the Democratic primary for re-election in 2006, so with his resignation, the district’s ward committeemen had to choose a ballot replacement. They chose Harris, a neighbor and friend of McKeon’s and a self-described “known quantity” in the district. (McKeon would die after a stroke in 2008, at age 63.)

Once in Springfield, Harris picked up McKeon’s mantle. Though a few other openly gay lawmakers would subsequently sift into the legislature, Harris has remained the primary voice of the LGBT movement there — in large part by deftly employing the very political realism that so infuriated his fellow gay activists in May. No less than House Speaker Michael Madigan — who, as a 72-year-old southwest-side Chicago Irish Catholic, isn’t necessarily a natural ally to that cause — credits Harris with helping bring him there. “He has had an impact on my thinking on issues that affect the gay community for quite awhile. He doesn’t bring a lot of emotion into the issue. He’s able to approach it in a very professional manner.”

In 2010, Harris won what was until then the biggest gay-rights victory in Illinois history: passage of the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection & Civil Union Act.

“This legislation is a fair, moderate center,” Harris said at the time, by way of trying to calm critics who alleged that civil unions were a foot in the door for a future gay-marriage bill. “It does not change the definition of marriage.”

Today, Harris maintains he wasn’t being disingenuous back then. Instead, he says, he, like most of the country, had no idea how quickly public opinion would shift toward acceptance of same-sex marriage.

“At the time, me and a lot of other people saw that one day in the future when we would get to a place where you could pass full marriage equality. But no one envisioned that things would move so fast. America totally changed. It was almost overnight.”

The architect of Illinois’ same-sex marriage statute is, himself, unattached. So on the House floor that last day of May, as proponents of the bill were admitting temporary defeat and preparing to regroup, it fell to then-Rep. Deborah Mell to personalize to the chamber, and to the wider world, what was at stake. 

“I love my wife. And this is our marriage,” said Mell, an openly gay Chicago Democrat who has since left the legislature. “[We] want what you want. We want security. We want good health. We want to be surrounded by our friends and family.” 

She closed with: “Greg Harris, I love you.” But that sentiment was not, by a long shot, universal in Illinois’ gay community at that point.

“[Harris] took LGBT support, for himself and the Democratic party, for granted,” says Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network. “That frankly irritated us. This was a civil rights question. We shouldn’t have to be doing slimy political deal-making to get at a civil rights question.”

Thayer and others maintain that Harris should have forced the issue that day with an up-or-down vote. Even if it had lost, goes the argument, it would have given advocates a clear record of who was on their side, who needed to be lobbied and who needed to be challenged at the polls. 

“[Harris] has proven he is tone deaf to the wishes of both the grassroots and leadership of this community,” Baim, the Windy City Times publisher, wrote in a June 1 editorial. “They almost all called for a vote ‘no matter what.’ Instead, Harris chose to give cover to his political colleagues.”

Baim, Thayer and others argued that Harris’ approach — securing votes with whispered conversations in the halls of Springfield, letting some off the hook as part of the wider strategy, coaxing Madigan to the table rather than trying to force him there — represented too much compromise.

“When you pass a law, the point is to not just get the law changed but to change the culture,” says Thayer. “If you pass it behind closed doors, it has very little impact” on the wider issue.

Thayer allows that Harris “probably has a very different version of how things went down.” He does. 

“A lot of people said, ‘Just put it up there. We want to see who our friends and enemies are,’’’ says Harris. “Strategically, that’s not the best thing because when it hit the board, you would have made a lot more enemies than you had made friends.”

Harris’ politics were forged in the same setting as Thayer’s, Baim’s and others in Chicago’s gay rights movement. But he has also been tempered by his years in Springfield. He talks not just of right and wrong, but also of the possible and improbable; not just of principles, but of strategies. 

“I could see the way the outcome was going to unfold” if the bill was called on May 31 and failed, says Harris. “Should that have gone on the board and not been a success? People would have been locked into that vote, and locked into that position. It would have set the entire movement back further.”

Harris’ defenders after that contentious May day included Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “His eloquent call for action and recognition of same-sex couples must be and will be heard,” Emanuel said in a statement after Harris held the bill.

He has also earned the respect of many of those who are politically at odds with him.

“He’s probably the most standup guy I’ve met down here,” says House Republican Minority Leader Jim Durkin. “Sometimes, some members will run the bill just to get a roll call vote to try to put somebody on the spot, to use it for political advantage. Greg wouldn’t do that. Our caucus respects him.” That may help explain how Harris’ bill ended up getting three Republican votes.

House Speaker Madigan, who perhaps knows more about the nuances of moving legislation through Springfield than do Harris’ critics in the gay-rights movement, called Harris’ wait-and-work strategy “a lifesaver” for the bill. “It would have had a more difficult time passing in the fall” had it failed in the spring, Madigan says.

Even David Smith, executive director of the staunchly anti-gay Illinois Family Institute, calls Harris “a great guy.” “He’s a charismatic gentleman, and I think we would have lots to talk about outside politics and religion.”

Given the ultimate outcome — a 61-54 final passage of the bill on November 5 — there is perhaps no one with more “I-told-you-so” rights than Harris. But he tends not to invoke them.

“Some people have said they were wrong,” says Harris. “And I’ve said, ‘Eh, people have to do what they have to do.’ We’ve gotten our anger out, and now we have to keep our eye on the prize. The prize is winning this.”

Kevin McDermott is a political reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

Illinois Issues, May 2014