Vernita Gray, a longtime gay-rights activist who currently serves as the LGBT liaison for the Illinois states attorney's office, delivered the keynote address during lunch June 25 at the 14th Annual International LGBT Conference for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Professionals.
Gray, who has received many awards for her service, is widely acknowledged as a deep and powerful speaker, and this address was no exception. Gray cited columnist Neil Steinberg's June 23 Sun-Times article that discussed the conference as well as LGBT progress versus ongoing concerns regarding homophobia within the Chicago and other police departments, underscored by the fact that about half of LGPA/GOAL membership is "anonymous." She then provided her own take on pride and progress for the country's queer cops.
Here are some choice cuts from Gray's remarks:
"Good afternoon, my brothers and sisters in community. I never thought 41 years ago that you police officers would be a part of my community. Forty one years ago if you were gay on the police force you would have been deep in the closet. ... In fact, any gay man or lesbian would have been afraid to call the police for fear of being re-victimized.
"The phrase 'hate crime' did not exist though there were many hate-crime victims. … One of my drinking buddies who is a retired police officer often reminds me the police would just grab a drag queen and beat her ass until do-gooders like me came along.
"Thank God for change. ... We are making strides, we are moving, we are headed in the right direction to our goal of full inclusion and total respect and dignity due each of us as citizens of this great country.Read more story below....
"One good thing for me about being Black is that I know what it is and what it feels like to not be fully included in the American dream, so when I came out gay I refused to be closeted and I have dedicated my life to serving my Black, gay, human community.
"Sad to say we cannot live in a city, state or town without police. The job you do is a hard one and the burden of having to worry about your sexuality interfering with your work is simply unfair. ... We deserve the right to be able to talk about our vacations in P'town and West Hollywood and how our partners make us crazy just like our straight coworkers husbands and wives drive them crazy….
"Every day you are risking your lives for our safety and I thank you and I salute you because you do have an extra burden and I pray that day will come that people look at what we have gone through and shake their heads in disbelief because we are all human first….
"We are now 41 years past Stonewall and I always love the irony that the butchest lesbian and the hairiest Bear at IML and Mr. gay muscleman all follow in the heel prints of those Queens at the Stonewall bar who said enough is enough, we demand and deserve the right to be who we are….
"There was a time the only gay officer I knew was in the Village People. Now I have the privilege of working with gay officers to help and not harm our youth…I salute officer Jose Rios for all the work he does around gay youth. It is so wonderful and encouraging to hear young folks speak positively about a police officer….
"I salute and thank all of you officers. And to the 500 [ still closeted officers ] when you do come out we are all here to welcome you and support you and until that day happens we are all here working to create a work environment and community that's welcoming of LGBT police officers and detectives….
"We serve, protect and care about our communities from the bottom of our LGBT hearts and Neil Steinberg may not be here to write about it but one day we will have full equality and inclusion in every police department in this wonderful country…."