Gray Is Good: 6 LGBT Seniors You Should Know

Vernita Gray and Pat Ewert at their Chicaco civil-union ceremony in 2011

Today is the last day of LGBT History Month, but instead of pulling out some factoid from the past, we decided to honor some older LGBT activists who not only witnessed gay history—they continue to help make it.

Even as a new generation of LGBTs  gets its feet wet in the activist waters, it’s important we celebrate those vital individuals who have been breaking down barriers for decades. Some are championing causes they’ve celebrated their entire lives, and some are working with groups that target the needs of older gays, like Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE).

Get to know a handful of these still-fired-up trailblazers in the pages that follow.


FIRST: Is there a doctor in the house? You bet!



Don Kilhefner, Ph.D
West Hollywood, CA

Los Angeles psychologist Kilhefner, 72, is one of the founding fathers of the seminal queer spiritual movement the Radical Faeries (along with late pioneer Harry Hay). He also helped start Los Angeles’ Van Ness Recovery House, the first residential program for LGBTs with chemical dependency, and L.A.’s Gay and Lesbian Center.

It’s clear lifelong well-being within the gay male community, both spiritual and physical, has been Kilhefner’s life calling: In 1999 he co-founded the Gay Men’s Medical Circle  in West Hollywood, and in 2009 the Gay Elder Circle, which he describes as “a group of old gay men who are consciously embodying and claiming the role of ‘gay elder’ in our community.”

But he doesn’t let the youngin’s off the hook, either. In a column for L.A.’s Frontiers magazine, he wrote: “Forty years after Stonewall, the legacy of the work of my generation, the Gay Liberation generation, is visibility where there was invisibility, self-respect where there was self-loathing, defiance where there was fear, and community where there was aloneness. What will be the legacy of your generation? My heartfelt blessings are on your efforts.”

 NEXT: Forty-plus years on the front lines (and headlines) of Chicago


Vernita Gray
Chicago, IL

Gray, 62, has funneled her energies into gay activism since the 1960s. She set up an LGBT hotline in 1969 —the same year she came out—and her apartment served as a de facto community center and “safe haven” for homeless queer youth. She helped create Chicago’s first lesbian newspaper, Lavendar Woman and was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1992.

More recently, Gray served as the LGBT liaison for Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and is on several committees relating to the aging gay population, including AARP’s LGBT advisory board.   “When we first came out, we were excited just to walk down the street, hold hands and be openly gay,” Gray told the Chicago Tribune about her relationship with longtime partner Pat Ewert. “Then, it was exciting to turn on the TV and open a magazine and see a gay person. Now, as we have matured and our revolution has reached 40 years, we want some real-deal things. The fight for same-sex marriage and benefits is very real to me because if something should happen to me, I want [Pat] to get the benefits of my hard work..”
Photo by Hal Baim

NEXT: From an out teen in smalltown America to a major activist in New York City

Jay Kallio
New York City, NY

Kallio, 56, has led the life of activist practically since he first came out publicly in 1969, at age 15, to his high-school health class. “For that admission, I was targeted by the local Ku Klux Klan,” he recalls. “They came up behind me in school hallways and stabbed me in the back and butt with needles, and threw bricks through all the windows of my family home.”

With “It Gets Better” and anti-bullying campaigns still decades away away, Kallio carried on with his chin up and, in 1972, moved to New York to begin an illustrious career as an LGBT activist. Kallio, who was born biologically female, finally began a yearlong gender transition in 2005. He has worked with dozens of organizations over the years, including the Gay Activist Alliance, Lesbian Feminist Liberation, Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, GMHC, ACT UP, Congregation Beth Simcha Torah and SAGE. He counts the creation of NYC’s first Dyke March in the 1970s as one of his proudest accomplishments. Kallio believes access to affordable health care is crucial to the trans community and, a breast cancer survivor himself, he’s worked with the LGBT Cancer Network.

Though Kallio knows there’s much work to still be done, he says he’s proud of how far the community has come. “So many people paid with their lives for the freedom from discrimination and despair we may enjoy today,” he shares. “Much greater progress has been made than I ever would have predicted from the days when we were a hidden, often blackmailed, outcast minority.”



NEXT: Father actually does know best


Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle
Dallas, TX

A faculty member at Fort Worth’s Brite Divinity School, Sprinkle, 60, has been making a difference within the typically impermeable walls of organized religion. An ordained Baptist minister, Sprinkle attended Yale Divinity School and is Brite’s first openly gay  scholar. He’s authored two books for Chalice Press, Disciples & Theology and Ordination, as well as reams of articles addressing theology, the Church and queer studies. Sprinkle has also pastored or co-pastored five congregations in Connecticut, Texas and North Carolina (where he was born and raised).

Shocked awake by a “near brush” with anti-gay violence, Sprinkle was inspired to create his website, Unfinished Lives, which he describes as “a place of public discourse which remembers and honors LGBTQ hate-crime victims, while also revealing the reality of unseen violence perpetrated against people whose only ‘offense’ is their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender presentation.”

Asked by the HRC to comment on the passage of 2009’s Matthew Shepard Act, Sprinkle wrote: “The end of the beginning of full equality for my people has come. And we who believe in the fullness of justice will not rest until it comes continue to preach, to pray, and to advocate until all of us our free to love without the threat of violence.”


NEXT: Women in love



Shelly Bailes and Ellen Pontac
Davis, CA

Bailes, 70, and Pontac, 69, were amongst the first legally married gay couples in California. Under the order of San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, the two were first issued a California marriage license in 2004, but it was nullified six months later. After many rallies, demonstrations and a California State Supreme Court judgment in favor of same-sex marriage rights, they tied the knot again in June 2008 (prior to the passing of Proposition 8).

The founders of their local Marriage Equality USA chapter and the political group FORGE (FOR Gay Equality), Balies and Pontac also took a stand against the Boy Scouts of America’s anti-gay policies, help feed the homeless and volunteer for numerous community causes. New York-born Bailes is a representative for the LGBT community on Davis’ Citizens Advisory Board, has co-chaired Davis’ Human Relations Commission and was instrumental in the passing of Davis’ 1984 Civil Rights Ordinance—one of the first in the country that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. “Anyone can make a difference,” Bailes says, “and it’s important to be who you are.”

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