For 11 years, Penny Severns represented Decatur in the Illinois state senate. Severns was elected when she was just 34, defeating a Republican incumbent. One of the campaign stunts that endeared her to Decatur’s blue-collar voters: when her opponent held a $50-a-plate fundraiser, Severns held a 50-cent fundraiser, serving chicken sandwiches and potato chips.
I lived in Decatur in the mid-1990s, and Severns was the biggest celebrity in town. It’s common for Downstate legislators to be treated as superstars, but Severns was so popular and so well-known that she actually had to move to a more secluded residence after finding a man standing in front of her Main Street house at midnight, asking for a job. In the Senate, Severns was an early mentor to Barack Obama, a fellow occupant of the “Liberal Row” where Obama sat during his Senate term.
A politician so promising doesn’t settle for the state senate. Severns was Dawn Clark Netsch’s running mate in the 1994 gubernatorial campaign. Four years later, she was making a run for secretary of state when she died of breast cancer at age 46. The following year, Gov. George Ryan signed a bill naming Illinois’ breast, cervical and ovarian research fund after Severns.
A few years after Severns’ death, her partner, a journalist-turned-politician who had once covered the Illinois legislature, spoke publicly about their relationship. It wasn’t a surprise to learn Severns had been a lesbian. I’d heard rumors as such in Decatur, but nobody pressed her about it, and few people seemed to care.
Decatur is a conservative, working class, religious community. It’s a place where you can’t plan a public event on a Wednesday night, because so many people are in church. When gay men were arrested for soliciting sex in a park, the state’s attorney felt comfortable calling them “a bunch of fags.” Churches solicited petitions against the ordination of gay pastors. As the state senator for that district, Severns probably felt she had to keep silent about her sexuality. In 1996, while Severns was still in the senate, Larry McKeon was elected as the first openly gay legislator in Illinois, from a district on the North Side of Chicago, where it’s OK to be open about such things.
Still, as the General Assembly inches closer to passing a gay marriage law, we should remember Severns as Illinois's most significant, most accomplished gay legislator. She lived the way she wanted to live, even if she didn’t talk about it. And she was so beloved in her hometown that I have a feeling it wouldn’t have mattered if she had talked about it. As I said, everyone suspected it anyway. Once Decatur got to know Penny Severns, Decatur loved her -- and would have loved her no matter who she loved.
This post was originally published on May 8, 2013.