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PASSAGES Vernita Gray, longtime activist, dies
2014-03-19

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Vernita Gray, one of Chicago's longest and most prolific activists for LGBT rights, has died. She was 65.

A memorial will be held Monday, March 31, 1 p.m. at the Goodman Theatre.

Gray and wife Pat Ewert were the first same-sex couple married legally in Illinois, Nov. 27, 2013, after winning a court victory because of Gray's critical health situation. That paved the way for additional court rulings that hastened marriage in Illinois ahead of the original June 1, 2014 implementation of full marriage equality in the state.

Additional photo spread at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/photospreadthumbs.php .

Related stor:y Vernita Gray: A community remembers 2014-03-26 at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Vernita-Gray-A-community-remembers/46776.html .

Gray, a native Chicagoan, graduated from St. Mary High School and Columbia College. She came out as a lesbian soon after she attended the 1969 Woodstock music concert in New York, where she learned about the Stonewall Riots.

A longtime cancer survivor, Gray lost her battle early in the morning of March 19, with her wife by her side. Friends and family had visited with Gray in her final weeks, as she said her goodbyes. She was laughing and giving advice up until the end.

Gray's cultural and activist interests were varied. She was a poet who knew how to rally the troops at events, including anti-violence marches and most recently the Oct. 22 March on Springfield for Marriage Equality, her last public speaking engagement.

She worked in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office for 18 years, including in the position of victim/witness assistant, where she helped LGBT crime survivors, and as an outreach worker on LGBT issues. Prior to that, she owned the popular Sol Sands restaurant in Uptown, and had worked for the phone company and for Playboy magazine.

Gray was one of those people you might run into at any kind of event and among any sort of crowd—at every Chicago Pride Parade since the first in 1970, at a community gala or fundraiser, at the Dyke March, at a women's music festival, at a poetry slam reading her own words, or even at the White House—which she visited four times during President Barack Obama's administrations.

As a young girl she watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., try to desegregate the heavily divided city of Chicago. Her visits to the White House brought tears to her eyes because she never thought she would see an African-American president, especially from her hometown of Chicago. She first went there for a June 2009 Pride reception. The next time, in October of 2009, was for Obama's signing of the federal hate-crimes law, something she had supported for many years. Gray's most recent visits were in December 2009 and 2013, for White House holiday celebrations. She attended the 2009 event with her good friend Mary Morten. For one visit, she went with Renae Ogletree, who at the time was in the final months of her unsuccessful battle with cancer.

Gray was a ubiquitous activist. In the early 1970s, she was instrumental in starting the first gay and lesbian helpline in Chicago in her own apartment—the phone number was FBI-LIST. Her one-bedroom place on 56th Street and Drexel Avenue also served as an overnight shelter for a number of teens who had been kicked out by their families because they were gay, lesbian or transgender. Gray gave them a place to go and was there to lend a hand when they needed someone. She was also a founder of the Women's Caucus of Chicago Gay Liberation in 1970.

In the 1970s she was an editor and wrote for the Lavender Woman newspaper. She also worked on her own writing and poetry, eventually releasing the chapbook Sweet Sixteen. After encouragement from award-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Gray too creative writing classes at Columbia College.

She called herself a hippie, and often signed her work with the final word "Peace." She told biographers Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen, who will soon release the book, Vernita Gray: From Woodstock to the Whitehouse: "I certainly embraced the hippie values of being who you are and changing the world and revolution—revolution happening for Blacks and revolution happening for women and revolution happening for gay people. Once that light bulb went on about the revolution happening for gay people, it was like I found myself. Being a gay hippie then became my life."

Two trips also shaped Gray in her younger years. One was a cross-country trip with gay men in a red Cadillac convertible in the early 1970s. The other trip was more monumental—first to Paris, and then to the Taize monastery in France in 1972.

She told Keehnen and Baim: "This all came about because I was going to the Lutheran church and had met some people who were from France and were going to this monastery called Taize [in France's Burgundy region]. … [One] of my main jobs was, they had a room full of typewriters with all different languages. I would answer all the letters … . The monastery was really about social action.

"When I returned to Paris in March, I visited a bookstore there called Shakespeare and Company. Someone there told me they knew James Baldwin and they knew when they expected him to be coming to the bookstore. … Sure enough, that day I was at Shakespeare and Company and he walked in the door. I was in awe. I said I really like your writing. And he smiled. I was just inspired. He was really one of my heroes. I also knew that just because I was gay, that did not mean I wanted to move to France like James Baldwin. I really wanted to go back to Chicago, back to my gay community. That was important to me. The social-work aspect of the monastery was very inspiring. That really prompted me to do things. It reignited that spark."

Gray was an activist who juggled her love of community with her love for friends and partners. She had several long-term relationships, including one in which she helped raise two children. Gray and Ewert met on a women's cruise in 2009, and became engaged later that year. They had a civil union when those became legal in 2011, and held a big ceremony that same year. After their 2013 marriage, President Obama sent congratulations: A love like yours is truly something to treasure."

She had a love of music, dancing, game shows and food—especially chocolate. She and Ewert loved their dog, Sophie.

For her work, Gray has received dozens of honors. She was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1992. She received the prestigious Stonewall Award, the Horizons Community Services Human First Award and many other accolades.

After a battle with breast cancer in the early 1990s, Gray's struggle with cancer took a turn for the worse two years ago. She knew her time was limited, but she shared it with the community, advocating until the very end for full equality.

Judge Patricia Logue, former head of Lambda Legal Midwest and a longtime lesbian activist herself, performed the marriage ceremony for Gray and Ewert in front of several dozen family and friends. In her remarks, Logue called the event "a very personal yet historic occasion—an event long-awaited and hard-won, (and) one that crystallizes the impact of equality and inequality in all our lives. And once, again, as so often happens in our nation's long civil rights journey—we are assisted by a federal court decree in favor of justice and humanity for a minority group."

Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Illinois filed marriage the case Nov. 22, two days after Gov. Pat Quinn signed the marriage law into effect, seeking immediate action due to Gray's failing health. Judge Thomas Durkin issued the decision

Among Gray's survivors, in addition to her wife Pat Ewert, are her mother Fran Hairston; stepfather Howard Hairston; cousin Dameon Christian; goddaughter Shantell Steve; her many longtime friends including Mona Noriega and her children Camille and Ramon; Fay Robinson; Kay Miles; Mary Morten and Willa Taylor; Paul Fairchild; Jim Bennett and hundreds more.

In lieu of flowers, donations should be made to Affinity Community Services, Broadway Youth Center at Howard Brown, or Center on Halsted.

Here is an excerpt from Gray's 1985 chapbook of her poetry, Sweet Sixteen, from the poem of the same name:

this journal of poetry

is a celebration

of my 16th anniversary

out of the closet

and into the streets

coming out

a celebration of my/self

a self i have nurtured

my sultry separatist self

strong

black

womyn

who loves wimmin

STATEMENT FROM MAYOR EMANUEL ON THE PASSING OF VERNITA GRAY

"Today we mourn the passing of a fearless woman who spent her life fighting for equality and civil rights. Vernita Gray was an inspiration to all who crossed her path, from President Obama who knew her by name to the victims of violence she comforted and the young people for whom she was a fierce advocate. Her legacy can be felt in the many institutions she supported and by every LGBT couple in Illinois who is now free to marry the person they love. My thoughts and prayers are with her wife Pat Ewert, her family, and the community of friends who loved her so dearly."

Lambda Legal Mourns the Loss of Chicago Activist Vernita Gray

(Chicago, IL, March 19, 2014) — Late last night, after a years long battle with cancer, Chicago activist and Lambda Legal plaintiff Vernita Gray passed away at her home with her wife Patricia Ewert at her side. Jim Bennett, Midwest Regional Director for Lambda Legal, issued the following statement:

"Vernita was a pioneer in Chicago, both as a self-identified out and proud black lesbian and a local activist. In 1993, she was a plaintiff in Lambda Legal's first case in the Midwest, marching her way into the Bud Billiken Parade after first being told the "Proud Black Lesbians and Gays" were not welcome. Her tireless work on behalf of women of color and her advocacy for the entire LGBT community leaves a legacy that will live on in the hearts of all of those she touched with her kind eyes and strong, wise words.

"On the day before Thanksgiving last year Vernita and her bride, Patricia Ewert, were the first same-sex couple to be married in Illinois after Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Illinois filed suit in federal court on their behalf and won an emergency order allowing all same-sex couples who face terminal illness to be married immediately. Vernita and Pat's wedding was a beautiful celebration of love, commitment and dedication to each other.

"Lambda Legal is proud to have represented Vernita in our earliest case in the Midwest and most recently in our case Gray v. Orr, but mostly we're proud to be able to call Vernita a close friend and advocate for our organization and our movement. With humor, common sense and wisdom, she challenged those inside the movement to work together, be more inclusive, more diverse and to push hard to move forward. There was too much work to be done to go slow. To those indifferent or in opposition of our civil rights struggle, she met them where they were and, more often than not, helped them evolve to a better place. It was Vernita, early in President Obama's U.S. Senate run, that challenged him to understand the connection between the civil rights struggle they shared on race, to the struggle she faced being treated as a 2nd class citizen because of her sexual orientation.

"On a personal note, as her illness took a greater physical toll, Vernita would often greet me by asking, 'How's the community today?' I want to tell her that today, the community is incredibly sad, but we're much better off and we have much to celebrate because she lived her life loud and proud."

Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice mourns the loss of Vernita Gray

NEW YORK, NY—Today, the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and its supporters mourn the loss of Vernita Gray, a longtime LGBTQI activist and supporter of our community. Gray and her wife, Pat Ewert were the first same-sex couple to legally marry in Illinois following a legal battle to expedite their marriage due to her declining health. Illinois' same-sex marriage law does not take effect until June 1, 2014.

Statement from J. Bob Alotta, executive director of Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice:

"It is with profound sadness that we mourn the passing of Vernita Gray. For decades, Vernita has been an inspirational leader for the LGBTQI community in Chicago and beyond. Her path to activism began in her home in the early 1970s when she started Chicago's first gay and lesbian hotline and provided shelter to LGBTQI teens with no place to go. Even while battling cancer, Vernita never wavered in the fight for full equality for all. Thanks to her, countless numbers of lesbian, gay, trans and people of color have been emboldened to live their lives authentically and with profound dignity. She leaves an incredible legacy in the U.S. and around the world that will propel us forward on the path to making her life's work for equality a reality for all."

The Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice will honor the legacy of Vernita Gray at an event in Chicago on May 16 at the Mayne Stage. In addition to Gray, activists Julio Rodriguez and Tracy Baim will also be honored.

Joint statement from Affinity Community Services, Broadway Youth Center at Howard Brown Health Center and Center On Halsted:

We extend our deepest condolences to the wife, family and friends of Vernita Gray. She left an indelible mark on our hearts and communities with her compassion, fierce advocacy, wicked sense of humor, and deep commitment to community empowerment.

Vernita's contributions to LGBT activism are substantial. And beyond her accolades we remember the love and kindness she showed everyone she encountered, whether an old friend or new acquaintance.

Even in our mourning, Vernita reminds us of her character and moral compass. She has requested to her next of kin that in lieu of flowers, she be remembered with generous contributions to Affinity, Broadway Youth Center of Howard Brown Health Center, or the Center on Halsted. We are touched and honored by her thoughtfulness and unwavering commitment to social justice.

As we say our last good byes, we honor her legacy of proud activism and altruism. V, we will miss you and continue to carry the touch of your passion for community.

Sincerely,

Kim L. Hunt, Affinity Community Services

David Munar & Imani Rupert,

Broadway Youth Center at Howard Brown Health Center

Modesto Tico Valle,

Center On Halsted

* * *

Videos

Windy City Times video: First Illinois Same-Sex Marriage: Vernita Gray and Pat Ewert 11-27-2013 at the link: www.youtube.com/watch .

Windy City Times video: Vernita Gray Speaks at the March on Springfield at the link: www.youtube.com/watch .

Windy City Times video: Chicago Marriage Equality 3-25-2013 with Vernita Gray at the link: www.youtube.com/watch .

Windy City Times video: Pride Parade Chicago 2013 Nettelhorst School, Vernita Gray at the link: www.youtube.com/watch .

Biographical video interviews with Gray on many topics at menu at this link: www.chicagogayhistory.com/biography.html .




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