A Web Portal For Lesbians Of Color

Mary Morten - Activist
(Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame Inductee 1996)

Mary Morten has the distinction of blazing several trails in city and organizational work, and she spoke of the "inherent pressures that one feels when you are the first." She was the first African American to serve as the mayor's liaison to the gay community, and the first Black, openly gay, working president of the Chicago Foundation for Women.

The one thing Mary F. Morten won't tolerate is silence.  "Being silent is a way of agreeing," says the lifelong activist, who, since 1997, has been Mayor Richard Daley's liaison to Chicago's gay community.

Ms. Morten is making some noise with her support of "It's Elementary," a controversial video about gay and lesbian issues, which she hopes to distribute to Chicago Public Schools.

To the occasional outraged parent, Ms. Morten says the film is about creating an environment that isn't hostile to people who are perceived as different.

"Homophobia is the last area of discrimination that people will still tolerate," she says. "We need to get out a different message."

Her activist streak was handed down from her mother, who believed in that 1960s call to action: If you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Her future was sealed in 1984 while volunteering for Geraldine Ferraro's vice-presidential campaign. She walked into the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and noticed there weren't many women of color there, and decided that had to change. "I walked in and never left," she says.

She eventually became president of NOW and since has served with groups including the Women's Self-Employment Project — a non-profit that helps low-income women find jobs — and the Chicago Abortion Fund.

Ms. Morten moves in many circles, equally at ease among African-American groups and gay groups, or in the universe of charities and non-profits.

That's a huge advantage when it comes to organizing and fund raising, says Christine Grumm, executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women, where Ms. Morten is chairman. "She's a leader because she can put together a diverse group and build a common agenda."

Mary Morten has lent her energy, enthusiasm, and talents to many gay and lesbian community organizations and businesses. She is also known to many for her work as an associate host on Chicago’s Lesbigay Radio.

Morten, a former president of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women, was the first African American to hold that position. During her tenure, she established the chapter's Women of Color Committee and Lesbian Rights Committee.

Morten is also a video producer and has revealed the experiences of African American lesbians by creating a documentary, The Nia Project. (Nia is Swahili for purpose, the fifth of seven principles of African Nation Building.) She has also discussed those experiences in books such as The Color Complex and Divided Sisters. She is currently working on a project to chronicle the involvement of lesbian and gay African Americans in sociopolitical causes.

Through her documentary, Morten sought to reach not only African American lesbians but also their immediate and extended families as well as a wider audience so they could understand the lesbians' experiences.

Mary Morten is the president of Morten Group, a consulting firm specializing in social change through skills development, public policy and advocacy. Scope of work includes: organizational and resource development; trainings\workshops on diversity; public policy initiatives; trustee cultivation and film/video development. In her consulting practice, Morten works extensively with schools, administrators and teachers on diversity trainings and policies of inclusion and access. She has also worked with local and national foundations. Morten was one of the original team consultants for the Women's Funding Networks' report: Smart Growth A Life -Stage Model for Social Change Philanthropy. Mary teaches Putting Evaluation to Work for You.

Morten's contributions to Chicagoans have not gone unnoticed. In 1993, she was the youngest woman, and one of three open lesbians, honored by Sculpture Chicago's public art display. A limestone boulder and plaque on Wacker Drive's Riverfront Walk commemorate her work as a community activist and advocate.

Morten's specific work on behalf of Chicago's gay and lesbian community must not go unnoticed either. Finally, she is recognized for her substantial contributions.

Source:  http://www.glhalloffame.org/html/mmorten.html

Recent News

On April 1, 2004, a diverse group of feminists came together in Chicago for a forum organized by The Public Square to discuss the legacy and future of feminism. The event, held at the Harold Washington Library, was attended by some 300 people. Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority, was joined on stage by Lisa Jervis of Bitch magazine, Beth Richie, a black feminist leader of the anti-violence movement and initiator of INCITE: Radical Women of Color Against Violence, and Mary Morten, former head of The Chicago Foundation for Women, Chicago NOW and one of the conveners of a black feminist network that has been meeting in Chicago for the last nine months. The multiple voices spanned generations, sexual orientations and race. And the issue that was front and center in the discussion was that of coalition.

Beth Richie argued that issues like the growing prison industry and its insatiable appetite for black bodies had to be central to a progressive feminist agenda because it is paramount to black communities. Mary Morten highlighted the various ways women come to embrace the term feminism and how our historical reference points are different. Lisa Jervis reminded the audience of the importance of the independent media. She started Bitch, which emphasizes the use of the term “bitch” as a verb not a noun, as a “young feminist response to popular culture.” Without an independent media, the multiplicity of voices, whether in concert or contestation, are less likely to be heard, Jervis insisted. Eleanor Smeal spoke from her experience as former national president of NOW and a veteran of the women’s movement. After insisting that feminism is not dead, or even ailing, she talked of the difficult but necessary work of coalition-building. For the first time a national march initiated by feminists reached out to more traditional civil rights groups as partners and cosponsors, including the ACLU and the NAACP. In addition, Sistersong, a black feminist organization founded by Atlanta-based human rights activist Loretta Ross, has be key in planning.