Greg Harris is a survivor. He made it through the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago politics on the far north side, managing campaigns and serving as chief of staff to former alderman Mary Ann Smith (48th) before serving in the Illinois House for more than a decade.
Harris, appointed in 2006, became the first openly gay man to succeed another openly gay man in the state legislature, the late representative Larry McKeon (D-13th). During his tenure, Harris spearheaded the legalization of same-sex marriage in Illinois and was the Democrats’ chief negotiator in the years-long budget fight against former governor Bruce Rauner.
He was elevated to majority leader in time for the General Assembly’s groundbreaking 2019 spring legislative session, which passed a $45 billion capital plan, legalized marijuana, raised the minimum wage, and established abortion as a fundamental right in the state. He continued leading the majority through the COVID-19 pandemic; the election of a new speaker, Chris Welch (D-7th); the passage of the Legislative Black Caucus’ four-part post-George Floyd agenda— education, economic equity, health care, and criminal justice reform—in 2021; and the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act that following summer.
“Leader Harris is the embodiment of a public servant, and throughout his 15-year career he has been a passionate advocate for what’s fair and just,” Welch said in a statement. “His command of a wide range of public policy issues has been a vital asset for our state. As a values-oriented leader and the first openly gay majority leader, he has given a voice to so many who have continuously felt left out of state government. I am grateful to have worked alongside Leader Harris in the House chamber, and I am remarkably blessed to call him a friend.”
With Harris’ departure, Illinois will lose a state legislator whose lived experience includes gay Chicago life before and activism during the AIDS crisis. Harris tested positive for HIV in 1988 and lived for years with AIDS himself before the arrival of effective antiretroviral therapies. He survived drug and alcohol addiction and suicide attempts, continuing membership in a 12-step program and sponsoring those who continue to suffer.
“Almost everyone else I know, my friends back then, died during that time,” Harris said. “I still think, ‘Why did I survive that, and others didn’t?’”
He got involved in community organizing and local politics almost a decade later when he was politicized by the AIDS crisis. He tested positive in 1988 and developed AIDS in 1990, at which point most of his friends were sick, dying, or dead.
“There was just literally no support system, no medical care, no organized gay community to speak of,” he said. “There was no corporate support. It was the Reagan years; he wouldn’t even say ‘AIDS.’”
Many HIV-positive Chicagoans were losing their homes, and unable to access food, pastoral care, and the meager health care treatments available. Motivated to change the circumstances, Harris found activism. As others worked on housing, legal assistance, and did direct action with ACT UP, Harris’ group Open Hand Chicago provided home-delivered meals: 41,476 in 1989, its first year of operation, and 750,000 by the end of 1994. He also chaired the city’s first AIDS Walk in 1990.
“Everyone sort of went and did things where they were comfortable,” he said. “I think everyone went where they thought they could do the most good. Getting people food seemed to be a really important thing.”
Harris took AZT, the first HIV treatment available. Asked if it helped, he said, “I’m still here.” He nevertheless developed cryptosporidiosis, an opportunistic infection, surviving by getting nightly intravenous nutrition. He also suffered from substance abuse and mental health issues. He made more than one unsuccessful attempt at suicide.
“This time around, knock wood, I’ve just been participating in a program of recovery and doing things that people suggest I ought to do. And it’s worked, but it’s not been easy,” Harris said. “It’s not, I don’t think, unusual for people to do those things or go through these things, but for politics in particular it’s always been, ‘Oh, you never talk about that.’ That’s been one of those things historically that people have wanted to keep within themselves because of all the negative attacks that can be used against you.”
He decided to be open about his recovery from the very beginning, saying that doing so takes away power people could have held over him, and adding that he’s glad more elected officials are being open about depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
“A lot of people you meet on the street are like, ’Thank God you’re willing to talk about this openly. We see a lot of hope that maybe one day in our job we’ll be able to talk about the struggles we’ve been having,’” Harris said. “It’s always been very interesting to me, that so many people have taken note of the fact that I’ve talked about depression, suicide, those kinds of things.”
In 1991, Harris managed now-congressman Mike Quigley’s City Council campaign against then-incumbent Uptown alderman Helen Shiller (46th).
Shiller said her relationship with Harris improved once he became a state representative, and that he capably navigated the different communities in the district. She said they developed professional rapport, especially in terms of incubating a societal safety net. She said he never wavered in his support for those doing social work, even when they were opposed by gentrifying forces: “Those who just wanted them gone because they represented hope and expectations for people who brought them to the community.”
“I always appreciated that,” Shiller said. “And I always appreciated that he ultimately took on that role statewide as the defender of those institutions we had the funding that we had for much of the safety net.”
Harris began introducing legislation to legalize same-sex civil unions and marriage in Illinois in 2007, amid the national GOP effort to gin up their base’s turnout by putting gay marriage bans on state ballots. While working on that effort, Harris also dealt with both the impeachment of former governor Rod Blagojevich and the onset of the Great Recession in 2009.
The Illinois civil unions bill passed in 2011. Harris introduced same-sex marriage legislation again in 2012 and 2013. An umbrella organization, Illinois Unites for Marriage, organized LGBTQ+ Illinoisans and allies to lobby all 118 representatives for the bill.
“It was a tremendous education process, for one thing,” Harris said. “In districts like mine along the lakefront, we had a pretty large community of people who were out being LGBT. That was not necessarily the case in districts around the state.”
It passed the Senate in February 2013 and the House, narrowly, that November. The first LGBTQ+ couple was married later that month.
Harris “was right in the bucket from day one, as the main advocate in the House” for same-sex marriage legislation, former Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan said. “He did an excellent job.”
“I think it’s had a tremendous effect on folks,” Harris said. “You see increases in family units being formed, adoptions, folks having children and raising them, people feeling far freer to be themselves out in society, broader support in corporate America. All kinds of good things have come from it.”
Harris presides over a session of the Illinois House during the COVID-19 pandemic