Ninure Saunders lost her battle with cancer that morning (Chicago time), apparently, after what had been a valiant, though long and tiring, struggle. When I didn’t see any new posts on Facebook for quite some time, I suspected that she might not be doing well, though I had no idea who to contact to ask.
Ninure and I met more than 30 years ago—in 1982—when we both worked at a telemarketing firm. We became friends, and she and I, and another guy we worked with and became friends with, would sometimes get together for drinks after work. At the time, I really didn’t know many other people in the city.
She’d been plagued by health problems her whole life, including arthritis that gave her a lot of pain and eventually led to her needing a walking stick. She also had bad eyesight, and was pretty much legally blind, though she did have sight.
One night after work, she and our friend and I were hanging out at my tiny apartment. We were drinking vodka and Kool-Aid (hey—don’t judge: I was in my early 20s!). For some reason I still don’t really understand, we thought it would be a good idea for her to mix the drinks for us. The euphemism “over served” was a bit of an understatement, and it was the only time in my life when I was drinking and lost time. We laughed about that for years afterward.
Sometime later, we both volunteered for the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the grassroots organisation I gave many years to and have mentioned before. We eventually both became officers—me treasurer, then secretary, she was membership director then female co-chair.
There are many stories from those days, not all of them pleasant, of course—war stories never are all positive—but I think another friend from that era, Tim, summed it up well on Facebook:
“Our old Illinois Gay & Lesbian Task Force group from the 70s & 80s keeps getting smaller. When we, all of us, weren't driving each other nuts, we could unite and battle like nothing you've ever seen. Not bad for a rag tag bunch of volunteers. Wonderful memories. What a fighter she was. RIP.”And she WAS a fighter—and an effective one. She contributed to far too many victories to count, and was passionate about justice and fairness. She had a quick wit, a warm openness (she loved hugs) and was a great person to have in-depth political discussions with.
She was also a devout Christian, one of the areas where we diverged, even then. I was still a Christian in the early years of our friendship, but not like she was. More importantly, she also lived her Christianity to the best of her abilities, and it informed her commitment to social justice.
One time around the mid-1980s, I was complaining about some religious right person saying or doing something awful against LGBT people (some things don’t change…), and I said that the guy clearly wasn’t a real Christian. She gently chided me: “You can’t know what’s in his heart,” she said, adding that he might come right, basically. I took that advice to heart for decades, and really only changed in recent times when I noticed that radical right folks who called themselves Christian were condemning mainline Christians (my own background) as being “fake”. Times change.
We changed, too, and drifted apart in the very late 1980s, though we eventually became friendly again in the 1990s, then even later, friends on Facebook. So, I was aware of her declining health, though she clearly didn’t want to dwell on it.
I miss those early days, and especially the early days of our activism. It was all still fun and exciting back then, even if we tended to lose more battles than we won. Tim’s right: We really COULD “unite and battle like nothing you've ever seen”, and also laugh about it all. It kept us from despair.
So, goodbye, Ninure. I’m sorry we never got the chance to have one last hug, but at least your pain and suffering have ended. I’m grateful for the fun times we had together, and I thank you for making my life better. I may not share your religious beliefs, but I’ll say the closest appropriate thing I can sincerely say, quoting from the late Irish comedian Dave Allen: "Thank you, goodnight and may your God go with you." She would have appreciated that.
The photo of Ninure up top is from Facebook, though I have no idea who took it. I'd use one of my own, but I'm not sure where my photos from those days are at the moment. If I find them, I'll probably change the photo to one of my own.