Gray Is Good: 7 Trailblazing LGBT Elders

We're having a senior moment.

Let’s face it: Ageism is a real issue in the LGBT community. Whether it’s our obsession with youth, or the silencing of a generation by the AIDS epidemic, we don’t do nearly enough to honor and learn from our queer elders.

Today we look at trailblazing seniors who fought—and in some cases are still fighting—for inclusion, equality and justice.

  • Tom Ammiano, 75

    Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/MCT

    Ammiano was the first openly gay teacher in the state of California, coming out in 1975 when he co-founded the Gay Teachers Association.

    Three years later, he campaigned against Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned out educators in public schools. Along with Harvey Milk and Hank Wilson, Ammiano founded “No on 6,” a campaign that helped defeat the initiative.

    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

    He remained involved in politics after that victory—getting elected to the San Francisco Board of Education in 1990 and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1994. Five years later, he ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of San Francisco.

    In 2008, Ammiano was elected to the California State Assembly, where he served until 2014. Before leaving office, he succeeded in passing legislation protecting students against discrimination based on gender identity and expression. Ammiano continues to campaign for LGBT equality, marijuana legalization, and other causes. In 2017 he starred in the one-man autobiographical show Mincing Words.

  • Vernita Gray

    Vernita Gray/WMAQ

    Gray was at Woodstock when news of the Stonewall Riots hit. She went back home to Chicago, came out as a lesbian, and established the city’s first gay helpline out of her apartment, which doubled as an overnight shelter for homeless LGBT youth.

    She was also integral in founding the Chicago chapter of the Gay Liberation Front and edited Lavender Woman, an early lesbian newspaper.

    Gray worked for many years in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the second largest prosecutor’s office in the country, as a liaison to the LGBT community. And she remained a presence at LGBT marches and events for decades, getting inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1992.

    In his first six years in office, President Obama invited Gray to the White House four times.

    More recently, Gray doggedly pursued marriage equality in Illinois, despite being diagnosed with breast cancer. Governor Pat Quinn signed marriage equality into law on November 20, 2013, but it would not take effect until June 1, 2014. Gray petitioned to be allowed to marry early because of her failing health. And on November 22, 2013, she and partner Pat Ewert were wed.

    Gray lost her battle with cancer on March 18, 2014, at age 65.

  • Jim Darby, 84, and Patrick Bova, 79

    Scott Olson/Getty Images

    Another Chicago couple, Jim Darby and Patrick Bova, also took advantage of Illinois’ marriage equality law—51 years after they met.

    The lead plaintiffs in Lambda Legal’s challenge to the state’s ban, Darby and Bova were among a dozen couples who wed at the Museum of Contemporary Art on June 2, 2014. Darby, a veteran of the Korean War, admitted he never expected to live to see his wedding day. 

    “I did not think this would ever come,” he told The Huffington Post. “I was involved with the gay veterans for 20 years and it seemed like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would never come to an end. And when it did, it came so fast we were almost caught by surprise.”

    Darby and Bova met back in 1963, at a cruising ground in Chicago’s Hyde Park.

    Lambda Legal

    “I was walking to the beach and I saw this tall handsome guy walking down the street reading a book,” recalls Darby. “While he was walking. And I whistled at him! My friend panicked and said, ’We don’t whistle at guys on the South Side!’ But I didn’t give a shit.” By September the two had moved in together.

    In addition to building a life, together they remained dedicated activists—especially in the fight to allow gays in the military. (Darby was arrested at a White House protest against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 1993.)

    Scott Olson/Getty Images

    In recent years, the two traveled repeatedly to Springfield to lobby for marriage equality, speaking with lawmakers and press outlets about their story.

    “What I often say is that when Jim enters the room, it doesn’t matter if it’s with a group of people or even in the morning when he comes down for coffee, he brightens the room,” Bova explains. “He lightens it and brightens it and brings the atmosphere alive… He’s a catalyst for happiness.”

  • Kate Bornstein, 69

    Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

    Bornstein is an author, playwright, performance artist, and veteran trans activist. Her 1994 book, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us is a seminal work in understanding gender identity as a spectrum rather than a binary.

    Kate Bornstein/Bluerasberry

    Though there was some awareness of trans people when she transitioned in 1988, the options were always presented as a dichotomy—male or female—with a fixation on passing. For nearly 30 years, she’s challenged those assumptions with essays, workshops, one-woman shows and performance art pieces.

    “I don’t call myself a woman,” Bornstein once explained, “and I know I’m not a man.”

    She’s also written about anorexia, aging, mental health issues, and facing a lung cancer diagnosis.

  • Cleve Jones, 62

    Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

    Jones may be best known for starting the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, the world’s largest community art project. But he’s been a staunch gay rights activist since the 1970s, when he was mentored by Harvey Milk. In 1983, Jones co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, one of the largest AIDS advocacy groups in the U.S.

    This year his memoir, When We Rise, was turned into an ABC miniseries, and Jones was honored at the 2017 Logo Trailblazer Honors.