Director Chicago Commission on Human Relations' Advisory
Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues
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
Ms. Morten is making some
noise right now 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
"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
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
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.
Currently the executive vice
president of a not-for-profit business development organization,
the Women's Self-Employment Project, Mary Morten helps women
with low to moderate incomes to become economically
self-sufficient. She is a member of the Mayor's Task Force on
Home Occupation and was a chief leader of the Home-Based
Business Coalition, which advocated for passage of a revised
ordinance governing home businesses in 1995.
Morten currently chairs the
Chicago Commission on Human Relations' Advisory Council on Women
and in that capacity sits on the full commission. She is also
the immediate past chairperson of the Chicago Abortion Fund,
which provides financial aid and referrals to women seeking
reproductive health services.
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