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Remembering Vernita Gray

Vernita Gray and Patricia Ewart on their wedding day
Vernita Gray and Patricia Ewart on their wedding day
Getty Images

In the not too distant past, when the Stonewall riot was something localized to New York and a distant happening for others outside of Manhattan, the thought that gay and lesbian people might get married someday, not to mention move rapidly into the mainstream of American life seemed like a dream to those who led the fledgling movement.

But, when the movement took off from its grassroots beginning, there were some that dared to dream, and to dream big.

And, last week that person who shared her personal dream of what it meant to be free from the constraints of a closet life, died of breast cancer at age 65.

Her name was Vernita Gray, and long before it became fashionable, this outspoken woman who as a black woman, and a lesbian, lived the life less traveled became a household name of sorts, for those at the vanguard of civil rights for gay people in Chicago.

It might be said that if Vernita Gray had not been born, she might have been made – in the eyes of advocates, but that idea now seems merely rhetorical, because for her it was, fully, and completely realized.

The last time that I saw Vernita was on the streets of downtown Evanston, (Illinois), and looking dapper in her fedora, and wearing her trademark, mega kilowatt smile, we hugged and she told me how she had fought the disease that finally took her last week, but also how the devotion of her, wife, and widow, Pat Ewert manifested itself in love and devoted care of her as she fought the good fight.

Their marriage was expedited, on appeal, because of her terminal cancer, and both she and Pat feared she might not live to see the original approved date of June 1, until a local judge gave them both that final gift.

The marriage capped a five year relationship.

While gay marriage, and personal stories now abound in popular media, and seem even common place; when a United States president gives his support for same-sex marriage, it’s hard to remember that distant past when someone like Vernita dared to be different, and who courageously took her struggle publicly, front and center, how truly brave that effort was.

At that time to publicly reveal your sexual identity, you could lose your home, your job, and even children – coming out as gay was dangerous.

So enter Vernita: head held high and vocal and seen, seemingly everywhere at once.

As the Huffington Post reported her saying, "In 1969, I didn't really have a clue about a career, what I wanted to do with my life. As an African-American woman coming out as a lesbian, I knew I wanted to be free and wanted to be afforded all the opportunities in our culture to be who I really was. I knew that I did not want to be a closeted lesbian," Gray told the Windy City Times' Tracy Baim as part of the Chicago Gay History project in 2007. "I knew that I wanted to be gay and wanted to enjoy my life with other gay people."

Such simple straightforward logic was her forte, and her legacy, in a time when gay and lesbian people have made such strides is a tribute to her courage, honesty and dignity.

To her many accomplishments are also that as journalist when she founded Chicago’s first lesbian newspaper, Lavender Woman; helped to establish the lesbian caucus of the Gay Liberation, and in her private life as restaurant owner of Sol Sands, and also her work at the Cook County’s State’s Attorney Office, for 18 years, helping those victimized by violence.

She is mourned by many of those that worked with her to get the benefits that gay Chicagoans now enjoy.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) told me “Vernita leaves a huge hole in so many of our lives. Our challenge is to live our lives by her amazing example - authenticity, generosity and tenacity. I will miss V more than I can express.”

In an emailed statement, Rick Garcia, longtime activist and leader of numerous LGBT campaigns and organizations, and now Senior Policy Advisor at The Civil Rights Agenda said:

“Vernita Gray's passing is a great loss for the LGBT community but we still have her today in the many successes our community has gained. Vernita was a pioneer. She stood up for us long before it was safe, acceptable or lucrative. She stood up when it was dangerous. And even when she was ill her voice never wavered. She helped build the firm foundation that we all stand on today.

We worked on so many things together over the years. I am so going to miss hearing Vee say "I'm here, Baby, what do you want me to do?”

Mary Morten, president of the Morten Group, and another long-time friend said, “Vernita and I worked together while I was Mayor Daley's liaison to the LGBT community and she was the community liaison for the States Attorney's office. We had known each other for several years, but working in these two large bureaucracies were a whole new game. She was my advisor on all things political in our gigs. I remember one of many times that I was complaining about how long it was taking to get something done and she said , " Mary, welcome to city government --where you will do a lot of hurrying up and waiting." She was a tireless advocate for those who were underrepresented and never, ever did she think of her work as burdensome. She looked forward to each and every day and it showed.”

The life lived large was her, the passion uncompromising, and the love was never withheld.

Vernita Gray lives on in our hearts and minds.

Follow me on Twitter @dgrantchi

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