Vernita Gray has dedicated most of her life to the fight for LGBT equality. She is the director of community relations and special events at the Cook County State's Attorney's office—a post she achieved after 16 years of service.
But Gray has been working with the LGBT community even before pride parades existed. She came out in the fall of 1969 and immediately organized a gay and lesbian hotline, and hosted support groups from her Chicago apartment.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," Gray said of her motivation to create change. "When I came out there wasn't any place that gays and lesbians could go and be safe. That is really what prompted me to become the community activist that I am today."
At just 20 years old, Gray found that many of her friends became homeless when the families discovered their sexual orientation. Her apartment became the "crash pad" and quickly transformed into a safe haven for homeless youth when they had nowhere else to go. Shortly after, Gray became involved with Gay Horizons, an LGBT community center that offered services to the homeless as well as to victims of hate crimes and domestic violence.
In 1992, Gray was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame for her resilient efforts as an early leader in the gay-liberation movement.
"It is a real acknowledgement of love," she said of the award. "To be in a city where the mayor acknowledges that gay and lesbian people have talent and that we are your sisters and your brothers and your doctors and your teachers. It also represents that we are a part of a larger community—that we are a part of the pie and the struggle. There are no ways around that. We are part of that pie here in Chicago and it is great that our mayor acknowledges that."
Now in her sixth decade, Gray not only works extensively with LGBT youth, but with the aging as well. She serves on the Task Force of the Aging, the LGBT advisory committee to the AARP and the National Gay and Lesbian Senior Task Force.
"I feel it is imperative to work with both populations because the services didn't exist 50 years ago," said Gray. "And really, when we talk about seniors, they still don't exist. I am a product of my time. When I was a youth, I had friends who were homeless. Now I have a friend who went into a senior residence and when I saw the way that she was being treated in there, I was appalled. We still have work ahead of us because we aren't all glamorous gays like you see on TV. Every gay man does not have a beautiful condo and track lights—let's face it. Some of us will age into senior residences because we don't always have someone to take care of us. So it is just a part of my life journey right now."
From opening up her home to homeless gay and lesbian youth to working with political and non-profit organizations, Gray says her work with the LGBT community is far from over.
"It is a lifelong commitment," she said. "It's an incredible family, it is an incredible love and it is definitely an incredible gift in my life that I could have never imagined."