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Mary Morten
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 community.

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 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.

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 contributions.






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