"Boy, oh boy, oh b-o-y," was all Circuit Judge Willie M. Whiting could say last week as she listened to what was happening to Gay and Lesbian Hall of Famer/state's attorney staffer Vernita Gray.
Gray was in Whiting's housing court room Feb. 27 for the second time in less than a month, fighting for the right to keep her South Shore condominium against a condo association she said is targeting her, in part, because she's gay.
And this time, the association had accomplished its goal of getting Gray outbut it had to break the law and violate a judge's order to do it.
"I don't even believe what I'm hearing," Judge Whiting said, as the attorney for The 7355 South Shore Drive Condominium Association explained that her client had "misunderstood" a Feb. 7 judge's order and had illegally allowed sheriff's deputies to evict Gray from her condo.
Condo Association President Shelley Norton tersely declined a Windy City Times request for comment, saying, "I'm not permitted to respond to you at this time. I'm sorry."
Gray returned from her job as the gay and lesbian liaison for the Cook County's State's Attorney's office late on Friday Feb. 23 to find an eviction notice on her door with a note on how to retrieve her cat from a neighbor.
The neighbor let her into her splintered front door and inside her condo, where everything but the paintings on her walls had been taken away without a trace.
All of her furniture, electronics equipment, clothing, photos, community awards and diplomasgone.
"I don't have that much stuff, but the stuff I do have is very important to me," Gray said last week as she surveyed what was left of her home.
As she walked its rooms, she talked about what was gone, the things she could replacetwo 30" television sets, a DVD player, five brand-new dining room chairs, a collection of cashmere sweaters; and the things she can never replaceher awards from Howard Brown Health Center, Horizons, and the Stonewall Foundation, a dresser she's had since she was a child, a photo taken of her with the mayor as she was inducted into the city's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
In addition to all of those honors, Gray is former gay and lesbian victim/ witness coordinator for the Cook County State's Attorney, under both Dick Devine and Jack O'Malley. Prior to that, she owned a popular North Side restaurant, Sol Sands, and she is one of the community's most well-known activists. She started the city's first gay helpline out of her Hyde Park home more than 30 years ago, and her apartment served as temporary shelter for many gays just coming out of the closet.
Gray's current job takes her on speaking engagements to schools and other institutions around Cook County, and ironically, on Feb. 22, the night before the illegal eviction, she was on WGN TV speaking about anti-gay hate crimes.
Gray moved into her one-bedroom condo about 12 months ago. The cozy, 47-unit building sits several blocks from the South Shore Cultural Center and just off of Lake Michigan; Gray can see it lapping against the beach from her livingroom.
Gray's friend, Pat Gilbert, was so taken with the unit that she decided to buy in the building, too.
But the condo association wasn't having it.
Gilbert and Gray said association president Norton repeatedly blocked Gilbert's purchase because Gilbert is white.
Gray, the condo association and all of the building's other residents are African-American. In a Housing and Urban Development complaint Gilbert has filed, she said the association is intent on keeping it that way.
Adding to the trouble, Gray said, was that the condo association realized that she and Gilbert are lesbians.
"This is about race and homophobia," Gray said.
After nearly six months of fighting, Gilbert gave up on buying in Gray's building, but not before she filed the discrimination complaint with HUD. She has since bought a unit in a building nearby, closing her deal in just six weeks.
Meanwhile, Gray said she was dealing with habitual harassment by the condo association.
She stopped getting her mail regularly, and she didn't receive condo association notices sent to every other resident. In one case, she was fined $50 for not being home to let workmen in, even though she'd never gotten the notice that they were coming.
Gray was also gaining a reputation as someone who would not take things quietly, and she often questioned the association's decision-making. Noting that no association meetings were ever held and that she was never given a budget of the building's finances, Gray began withholding her $183 monthly assessment.
In November, saying that she owed a total of $1109.58 in late fees, the condo association sought to have Gray evicted, appearing in court on the 2nd and the 16th of that month.
But they never notified Gray of the eviction proceedings, and on Feb. 7, 2001, Judge Whiting vacated the eviction order and gave Gray until March 9 to pay the $1100.
In a move that Gray said was retaliation for the court proceedings, Norton sent a letter to all of the building's residents accusing Gray of tampering with the gas bill.
"Our gas bill was maliciously rerouted to a previous North Side address of a current owner who resides in this building," the letter reads. "Peoples Gas investigated the issue and determined the call was received from a person identifying herself as Vernita Gray. ... This action caused us a delay in getting our billing and additionally could have caused a potential danger to the residents of the building if a shutdown had occurred."
Gray denied the allegation, and said Norton never approached her about the situation before sending out the letter.
On Feb. 23, Gray went to the condo association's lawyer to deliver the $1100 in fees. But the attorney wouldn't take her check, and wouldn't say why.
That same morning, Norton had allowed sheriff's deputies to remove Gray's belongings, never mentioning that the eviction order they were acting on had been vacated.
In court on Feb. 27, Norton and her attorney maintained that they hadn't understood that the eviction had been put on hold.
Judge Whiting just shook her head.
"You know, you did a very strange thing, lady," she said to Norton. "I'm just flabbergasted, I really am."
"I assumed a judge's order would be followed," she said. "We do not have any semblance of justice if our orders are not followed."
The judge added: "You knew what this woman's position is, what her background is."
Whiting wasn't the only one who couldn't believe what she was hearing, and the court buzzed as attorneys and onlookers whispered their disapproval.
Gray said attorneys who were in the courtroom that day have since approached her offering to handle her civil case against Norton and the condo association.
On hand to watch the proceedings was Merilyn Brown, an attorney/advisor for HUD who has been assigned to Gilbert's case.
Brown told Whiting that Gilbert and Gray's complaint against the condo association would be amended to reflect her findings.
Gray filed an emergency motion to end up in court that Tuesday, and as she told the judge, all she had were the clothes on her back.
Before court, Norton's attorney reportedly approached Gray's attorney, Yvette Stringer, and offered to return a plastic bag of Gray's medications "to settle this."
Stringer refused, and during the proceedings, Gray got back not only her medications but her condo, too, to the obvious displeasure of Norton, who said, "if the judge orders it, I will return the keys."
As for Gray's possessions, they are still missing in action.
Whiting ordered Norton to return her possessions to Gray, but by presstime Tuesday, Gray had only gotten back a cordless phone and an armoire that had been in her bedroom.
Sheriff's deputies have told her they followed standard procedure and placed everything out on the curb, but witnesses said they never saw anything outside. No TVs, no bedding, no furniture, nothing.
All Gray is left with now is a few scattered pairs of shoes, her paintings, garbage left behind by the deputies, and splinters of wood where the lock to her door used to be.
She noted the strange way the eviction was carried out: several perfume boxes were left behind with their contents removed; a binoculars case was left, but the binoculars were gone; some personal photos were gone, but others were left, untouched, on her window sill; a vase was broken and left behind, and several drinks were taken from her refrigerator.
If the condo association was hoping to bully Gray out of the building, she said last week that they've failed.
As defiant as ever, she has no intention of leaving her condo or the South Side, where she said too many people are afraid to be openly gay.
"I'm going to be gay everywhere I go," she said. "We have gay people everywhere, and this is getting to be ridiculous."
Chicago activists Mary Morten and Paul Fairchild are holding a benefit for Vernita Gray on Sunday, March 11 at Morten's Andersonville home. The event will include a registry, where participants can sign up to help Gray replace missing items. For more information, contact Morten at (312) 747-8787.
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