Openly gay, longtime Minnesota State Senator Allan H. Spear has died at the age of 71. Spear died on Saturday from complications following heart surgery on Thursday, reports the New York Times.

Spear had served 29 years in the Minnesota senate starting in 1972. Two years later, he became one of the first elected officials to lead an open and honest gay life, when he told a Minneapolis Star reporter that he was gay. “There's nothing I'm ashamed of. Nobody should have to talk about it on the back stairways.” Fittingly, Spear died on National Coming Out Day – a day set aside to help gay and lesbian people come out of the closet.

Senator Spear worked tirelessly to achieve a decade-long dream of passing gay civil rights protections in Minnesota – a dream he realized in 1993 when Minnesota became only the 8th state to do so.

“He was intellectual and professional in his approach to civil rights,” Marcia Greenfield, a longtime friend and colleague told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.

“Without a doubt, everyone who served with him would rank him as one of the brightest members who served,” former Senate majority leader Roger Moe told the New York Times. “Knowledge is power, and because of that he had the ability to bring people together.”

In 1977, Spear would call on the Minnesota Senate to oppose an anti gay marriage bill. “Why is this called the Defense of Marriage Act? It seems to me that insofar as gay and lesbian couples want to be married, they're not attacking marriage, they're embracing marriage. They are essentially saying that marriage is a desirable state. Marriage is something that provides benefits, that provides emotional stability, that provides the kind of recognition that all people in society want.” He lost that argument, but thankfully won many others.

A University of Minnesota history professor, Spear retired from politics in 2000 after serving his last eight years as Senate President.