PFLAG pioneer John Cepek worked to advance LGBT rights

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Gay rights supporters (standing, from left), Rev. Jennifer Kottler, Rick Garcia, John Cepek, and his wife, Char, applaud along with other supporters in the gallery after the Illinois House passed Senate Bill 3186, Tuesday, on Jan. 11, 2005. | Jeff Thompson/The State Journal-Register

John Cepek worked to protect LGBT kids six years before Ellen Degeneres came out; seven years before the debut of TV’s “Will and Grace”; a decade before the Netherlands became the first country to legalize gay marriage, and 13 years before the nation’s first gay marriage took place in Massachusetts.

After Mr. Cepek’s son John told his parents in 1990 that he was gay, Mr. Cepek, a resident of Indian Head Park, became national president of PFLAG — Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — which has more than 400 chapters across the United States.

“I’ve got a straight son. I’ve got a gay son. I want the same rights for each of them,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times while lobbying Springfield in 2009 for marriage equality.

When Mr. Cepek and his wife, Charleen, marched in Gay Pride parades under the PFLAG banner, emotional young people embraced them. “We’d do the Chicago Pride parade,” said their other son, Michael, “and just the outpouring of support — people crying and running up and hugging them — because they’d been rejected by their own families, disowned.”

Charleen and John Cepek. | Family photo

Charleen and John Cepek. | Family photo

“To see a parent walking with their straight son, and their gay son — showing their love was really important,” Michael Cepek said. “This was almost 30 years ago.”

“They stood up for their family and for everyone’s family long before it was acceptable, long before it was common,” said Rick Garcia, an Illinois gay rights activist.

Mr. Cepek died on March 15 in Munich, 17 days after he fell in Croatia while on an Adriatic cruise with his wife. The accident occurred on Feb. 26 when they returned to their vessel from a walk. “He tripped over the rope that was holding the boat in place and he hit the concrete on his chin,” Charleen Cepek said.

“He got up, went to his room and he was OK for maybe 45 minutes. And then, he passed out,” she said. “It was a slow brain hemorrhage.” After surgery in Croatia to ease pressure from bleeding, doctors recommended a move to a hospital in Munich, where he died. “It was just one big nightmare,” said his wife, who was married to him for 47 years.

The Cepeks were indefatigable, Garcia said. “No other state in the Midwest has the protections for gay and lesbian people that Illinois does,” he said, “and he was at the forefront.”

The couple “came to testify before legislative bodies, they spoke at rallies, they talked to legislators,” Garcia said. Mr. Cepek used to tell him, “ ‘It’s nice for these PFLAG groups to come and hold hands and help the parents, but that’s not enough. We have make sure our kids are treated fairly and equitably.’ ”

John Cepek (second from left) at the launch of PFLAG National’s Straight for Equality program with his wife Charleen Cepek (left), singer Cyndi Lauper, and former PFLAG National executive director Jody Huckaby. | PFLAG photo

John Cepek (second from left) at the launch of PFLAG National’s Straight for Equality program with his wife Charleen Cepek (left), singer Cyndi Lauper, and former PFLAG National executive director Jody Huckaby. | PFLAG photo

Mr. Cepek campaigned to allow gay scouts and scoutmasters into the Boy Scouts, and to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Illinois Human Rights Act. He also worked on the “It Gets Better” campaign.

“I must have hit the lottery when I got mom and dad for my parents,” said their son John. “There was absolute support.”

He came out to his parents during the 1990 Christmas season after his mother correctly intuited that the pile of presents he bought for another youth suggested they were more than friends. “Their first reaction was, gosh, well, we better learn about this,” John Cepek said, “so they went to the library and checked out all these books.” He said their conclusion was, “Being gay or lesbian is not a choice. It’s innate. You’re born that way.”

Mr. Cepek recalled their reaction in a 2008 interview with, saying “we very quickly realized we were OK with having a gay son. I grew up in the ’60s. I was one of the kids who had marched to a different drummer. In our society, being gay is definitely listening to a different beat.”

“I believe from the bottom of my heart he saved lives, kids especially,” Garcia said.

After a spate of teen suicides in 2010, Mr. Cepek wrote an open letter directed to despairing LGBT youth, urging them to reach out to their local PFLAG chapters for support if they were rejected by their families.

His message: “You deserve to be happy, you deserve to be alive, and you deserve to be loved.”

John Cepek | Sun-Times archives

John Cepek | Sun-Times archives

After joining his local PFLAG chapter, Mr. Cepek rose to be the group’s national president in 2006, a post he held for four years.

“He knew the perfect combination of approaching issues with the seriousness that they deserve, but using humor to break the ice, bring people together, and get the conversation going,” said PFLAG’s Jean-Marie Navetta, who partnered with Mr. Cepek to run its Straight for Equality program. “His approach influenced many of our efforts at PFLAG National, and, I think, brought us to a new place as an organization.”

Mr. Cepek worked 34 years at UIC, retiring in 2004 as director of publications services, his wife said. He was born at MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn and went to Lyons Township High School in La Grange. His mother was a homemaker and his Czechoslovakia-born father worked at a Sunbeam factory.

The Cepeks eloped while attending UIC. “John was a free spirit and he thought this would be more romantic,” his wife said.

He enjoyed Pilsner beer, Scandinavian thrillers by Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson, and the winsome 1983 Bill Forsyth film “Local Hero” featuring Burt Lancaster. He loved his rat terrier, Sammy. “Sammy’s very sad,” his wife said. “They know part of the pack is missing.”

Mr. Cepek is also survived by a brother, Bob. A memorial service is planned at 4 p.m. Friday, May 12, in Cardinal Room 329 at UIC’s Student Center East, 750 S. Halsted. Refreshments are to follow.

John Cepek was director of publications services for UIC. | UIC photo by Roberta Depuis-Devlin

John Cepek was director of publications services for UIC. | UIC photo by Roberta Depuis-Devlin

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