Crossroads Fund is proud to host a pooled fund which honors and remembers local LGBTQ activist Vernita Gray. In keeping with Vernita’s love for LGBTQ young people and her commitment to supporting LGBTQ homeless youth, the Vernita Gray LGBTQ Youth Fund grant provides an annual gift to support groups working with these vulnerable populations.
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Here is more information about Vernita and her amazing life:
Vernita Gray is considered to be one of the longest and most prolific LGBT rights activists in the country. Gray, a native Chicagoan, was raised on the West side of the city. She attended St. Mary’s High School and graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a degree in creative writing. 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.
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 October 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.
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 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.
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. 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.
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.”Gray successfully balanced 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.
After a battle with breast cancer in the early 1990s, Gray’s struggle with cancer took a turn for the worse in 2012. She knew her time was limited, but she shared it with the community, advocating until the very end for full equality. She was a staunch advocate for early detection and knew that a mammogram saved her life for many years.
Gray and her wife Pat Ewert were the first same-sex couple married legally in Illinois on November 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.
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, among many other accolades. Gray’s life is documented in the upcoming book Vernita Gray: From Woodstock to the Whitehouse by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen.