Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Born Today in 1931: Rep. Stewart McKinney Fought for Homeless, Died of AIDS

President Gerald Ford and Rep. Stewart McKinney
In an interview with New York magazine from April 15, 2012, then Congressman Barney Frank talked about the events that led to him coming out as a gay man:
"Then a member of Congress died of AIDS, named Stewart McKinney, and a major debate ensued about whether he was or wasn’t gay, and it was very distasteful. Stewart was a wonderful man, he did a lot for the homeless, one of the last of the really liberal Republicans, and I said, geez, this is awful, if I get hit by a truck tomorrow, I don’t want there to be this big debate, was he gay? Was he not gay? So I decided that I was going to come out."
Stewart McKinney was born today, January 30, in 1931. He represented the Connecticut's 4th congressional district in the House of Representatives from 1971 until his death from AIDS in Washington, D.C. in 1987.

McKinney was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and raised in Connecticut. He attended Princeton University from 1949 to 1951, but dropped out and enlisted in the United States Air Force. He attained the rank of sergeant, and completed his enlistment in 1955. McKinney then returned to college, and received a B.A. from Yale University in 1958.

He raced cars and was involved in several car-related businesses, including Auto Interior Decorators, Inc. and Fairfield Firestone, and was President of a chain of tire stores called CMF Tires. He also owned Lantern Point Real Estate Development and other ventures.

In 1966, McKinney was elected as a Republican to the Connecticut State House of Representatives, where he served two 2-year terms, 1967-1971. He was Minority Leader in his second term.

In 1970, McKinney ran for the U.S. House and won. He served in the House as a moderate Republican until his death in Washington, DC. McKinney served on the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee and is credited with coining the phrase "too big to fail" in connection with large banks. In Congress, he served on the House Select Committee on Assassinations. During this time, he also served as a director of Bridgeport Hospital. 


He is widely known for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1986, which provides federal money for shelter programs.

In March, 2014, Think Progress reported:
So it was in 1987 that McKinney and other congressmen crafted a landmark piece of legislation — the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act — that finally took action to fight homelessness from a national level. The McKinney Act created more than a dozen programs that provide homeless services, with another $1 billion in funding for things like emergency shelters, job training, and housing vouchers.
But it still needed to get through Congress, no easy task in an age of austerity.
That’s when advocates, led by the Community for Creative Non-Violence and the National Coalition for the Homeless, decided to hold the Great American Sleep-Out in March. It was purposefully timed to coincide with the bill’s vote on the House floor. A number of celebrities, including Martin Sheen and Dennis Quaid, slept outside that night with their homeless brethren. More than a dozen congressmen also participated, as well as many homeless advocates. 
McKinney’s doctors and colleagues strongly advised him against sleeping outside that chilly March night. The Connecticut congressman had been living with AIDS since 1979. It’s extremely dangerous for anyone to sleep outside when temperatures are below freezing, but especially so for someone who could easily die from pneumonia.
McKinney knew the danger but decided the issue was so important to him that he was willing to risk his life for it. Other members of Congress tried to make sure he dressed as warmly as possible. But when it’s 20-something degrees out, an extra sweater only goes so far.
Two months later, McKinney died from AIDS-related pneumonia. He likely contracted the illness by staying out in the cold during the Great American Sleep-Out. 
His physician did speculate that McKinney became infected with HIV in 1979 as the result of blood transfusions during heart surgery. 

However, McKinney was known by friends to be bisexual, though his family said this was not the case, which raised the issue of how he had contracted the disease. Antigay prejudice at the time of McKinney's death in 1987 may have promoted a disingenuous approach to speculations on the cause of McKinney's HIV infection. Arnold Denson, the man with whom McKinney had been living in Washington, and to whom McKinney left property in his will, said that he had been McKinney's lover, and that he believed McKinney was already infected when Denson met him.

McKinney was married to Lucie Cunningham, the daughter of Briggs Cunningham II and Lucie Bedford, the granddaughter of a co-founder of Standard Oil. They had five children.


After his death, Congress renamed the Salt Meadow National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge.

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