CHICAGO (CBS) — State Rep. Greg Harris (D-Ill.), the architect of the successful effort to legalize civil unions in Illinois, has been named Person of the Year by Gay Chicago Magazine.

The publication honored Harris, one of two openly gay or lesbian members of the Illinois House, for his efforts to win votes for the controversial bill.

“It was Harris, the successor to Rep. Larry McKeon, the state’s first openly gay legislator, who came to embody the bill to his fellow legislators as he painstakingly worked with allies to win those legislators’ votes one by one,” Gay Chicago Magazine reporter Gary Barlow wrote.

The magazine quoted Harris as he opened the House floor for discussion on civil unions Nov. 30: “We have a chance here, as leaders have had in past generations, to correct injustice and move us down the path to liberty.”

Harris, a former chief of staff to Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th) was elected to the state Senate in 2006 after McKeon, the first-ever openly gay member of the state Senate, decided to retire. McKeon died in 2008.

The magazine points out that Harris began his activism in the gay community in the 1980s, helping put together efforts to care for gay men suffering from HIV and AIDS, and co-founding the groups AIDS Walk Chicago and Open Hand Chicago – now Vital Bridges.

At that time, people in Chicago and Illinois could be fired or denied an apartment for being gay, the magazine points out.

But Harris tells the magazine that the change in attitudes since then was highlighted when he spoke to a Gay/Straight Alliance at a suburban high school expecting a “little room with eight to 10 people behind a closed door,. He instead found a large group of students and parents, and an openly lesbian principal welcoming him, he told the magazine.

The measure will give same-sex couples all 648 legal benefits of marriage. These include the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital and make decisions about their medical care, and property inheritance rights. But the bill does not recognize same-sex marriage.

The bill passed the state House on Nov. 30, and went on to pass the state Senate the following day, after 90 minutes of impassioned debate.

The move makes civil unions essentially a done deal in Illinois. Passing civil unions was part of Gov. Pat Quinn’s campaign platform this year, and he is expected to sign the bill early next year.

If Quinn signs the bill, it could go into effect as soon as July 1 of next year.

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