Navy veteran advocates on behalf of LGBTQ service members
Navy veteran Stanley Jenczyk of Niles came relatively late to volunteering on behalf of LGBTQ service members like himself.
Jenczyk, 77, is a junior board member of the Chicago chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights. Founded in 1990, AVER is a nonprofit veterans service organization that seeks full and equitable treatment for all present and former members of the U.S. Armed Forces -- particularly LGBTQ soldiers.
"(AVER) advocates for many (of) the same issues as other veterans organizations like quality health care, homelessness and PTSD," said Jenczyk, a member of the American Legion in Morton Grove.
Jenczyk joined AVER in 2010 -- the same year the federal government repealed and started phasing out the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" law that prevented LGBTQ soldiers from openly serving in the armed forces.
"LGBTQ veterans have some different problems," said Jenczyk, who highlighted AVER's work with state Rep. Joyce Mason of Gurnee, this year on the state legislature's passage of House Bill 1290. The legislation, awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker's signature, would restore state veteran benefits to individuals who received other than honorable or general discharges because of their LGBTQ status.
With AVER, Jenczyk is best known for his advocacy and fundraising efforts in the past decade to establish LGBTQ military monuments.
In 2015, the first federally approved monument honoring LGBTQ veterans in America was dedicated at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois.
"It took 5½ years," Jenczyk said of his sometimes difficult dealings with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other public officials to get the granite monument built in a federal cemetery.
He also was the driving force behind a second granite monument to LGBTQ veterans in Chicago. It was built in 2017 at Halsted and Addison streets in front of the former 23rd District Town Hall police station, which is now part of an LGBTQ senior living center.
Both monuments prominently feature a pink triangle, a symbol originally used in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and '40s to label gay and lesbian concentration camp prisoners. LGBTQ activists reclaimed the symbol in the 1970s as a symbol of protest.
"A lot of young people in the LGBTQ community and the general public don't know what the pink triangle means," Jenczyk said. "It's very important when you put up monuments that there is history behind the words and the symbols that are on it."
He credits his unwavering volunteer work with AVER and other LGBTQ organizations, in part, to his Catholic school upbringing.
"The nuns and brothers drilled into me and my other classmates that you must do something for someone else who is not a member of your family," Jenczyk said. "Life itself will be a better place for you, and in the long run, you will be a better human and more prosperous of heart."
But Jenczyk said his main motivation to get involved in LGBTQ community work was to battle the extreme depression he experienced after his longtime partner, Matthew Thomas Lind, died from a heart condition in 2009.
"My greatest accomplishment in life was to spend 36 short years with Matty," Jenczyk said. "Everything else is secondary."