Politically Correct Women
Photo: Paul Michael Aquilar
Parental Rights in the Sunshine State
She’s handled the 3:00 a.m. feedings and then gone to work a few hours later, pulled her son from the imaginary lava pit in their den, held his hand as he touched the bottom of the deep end of the pool and cried as she put him on the bus for his first day of kindergarten.
Cathy James is the nonbiological mother of a 9-year-old whom she co-parents with his mother Judy, her life partner of 14 years. But because of the ban on adoption by gay Floridians (Florida is the only state in the United States that specifically forbids gay adoption), James’ son has only one legal parent.
“I have no legal standing in my child’s life,” says James. “Yet, if my partner of 14 years, his biological mom, died tomorrow, everyone that is heterosexual would be eligible to adopt him and I would not.”
Faced with such an untenable state of affairs, James has set out to change the system. In 2006, she founded, and is currently on the board of, Securing Our Children’s Rights, Inc., a nonprofit political lobbying organization working to secure, protect and preserve the rights of children of LGBT parents.
“This is a family values issue if ever there was one,” says James. “My son was not the result of a one-night stand, a 55-hour marriage à la Britney Spears [or] poorly-learned sex education. He was dreamed about for years and is the result of the love of two women who were nurtured in wonderful Christian families. [His] parents married for life.”
It’s the disconnect felt by many gay people—the dramatic difference between their own positive self-image, and how the world often views them. Deb Mell says that’s what initially brought her to activism. “I knew something was wrong and that something had to change in the way we are viewed,” she says.
The daughter of longtime alderman Richard Mell, she got a real taste of negativity a few years back when she marched in Chicago in support of gay marriage. Of the 300 participants in the peaceful protests, Mell was the only one arrested, and she believes that may have been due to her political ties.
She went on to become active in Equality Illinois, receiving an award for Activist of the Year from the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women, as well as the Howard Brown Cornerstone Award for Community Excellence.
Today, Mell is a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. Her district is an aging, working-class community. With escalating foreclosures, unemployment and some recent gang activity in her constituency, Mell keeps busy working with local police and other community leaders to address these issues.
She acknowledges that political protest isn’t everyone’s cup to tea, but believes that even the smallest action can be powerful.
“The sign-holding, chanting activist probably isn’t for everyone, but I believe when we come out of the closet—especially when it is difficult—we are being activists,” she says.
Pride in the Windy City
To know lesbian life in Chicago is to know Vernita Gray.
She helped found Chicago’s first lesbian newspaper, Lavender Woman, helped organize the city’s very first Pride Parade, and set up one of Chicago’s first gay information hotlines—which she operated out of her apartment.
“My phone was always ringing, and there was always someone in my little apartment because my place was also a crash pad for my eers who had no place to go,” says Gray. “Today we call them homeless.”
Since 1993, Gray’s talents have been put to good use at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, where she was the LGBT victim-witness coordinator, working with victims of hate crimes, domestic violence and the families of homicide victims. After six years she was promoted to LGBT liaison, responsible for reaching out to high school students about hate crimes and issues of violence in the community. For that work she was given a Stonewall award.
She also worked beside Barack Obama when he was an Illinois senator as a member of his LGBT advisory council. Their acquaintance brought her to the Democratic convention in Denver, and to his inauguration in Washington, D.C.
In addition to her ongoing projects in the State’s Attorney’s office, Gray also devotes time to LGBT senior citizen’s issues, and in particular, access to nursing homes where the gay community feels comfortable.
“We will not be going back into closets as we age, particularly my generation of boomers,” observes Gray. “We are going to the old folks’ home with our rainbow flags, so they better get ready.”