Cecilia “Ceci” Gratias was most at home in coffee shops — late-night meetings over food and drinks brainstorming about the future and how to make the world a better place, Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said.
For 20 years, she devoted herself to public service.
Her most precious cause: enhancing the lives of LGBTQ people in Austin and around the world.
She worked until the day she died, friend Debbie Love said, on Nov. 5 from cancer. She was 53.
“She is the best person I have ever known — her warmth, her love, her openness,” Flannigan, a longtime friend, said Sunday afternoon at a memorial service for Gratias outside City Hall. “She was able to build bridges across communities that no one else could build. She walked into a room and everybody instantly loved her. People who themselves never could agree could at least agree how great Ceci was, as a person and a community leader.”
Dozens huddled under cloudy skies dressed in purple, Gratias’ favorite color, wiping tears from their eyes. In the background, the sound of car horns blared, which Flannigan called “fitting.” “There’s something appropriate (about) celebrating her life in the middle of a community that doesn’t know they have benefited by her.”
For two decades, Gratias brought visibility to LGBTQ rights in the city, working with the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce by first organizing Pride parades and festivals and then serving as the chamber’s president and CEO. She set up a scholarship foundation that was responsible for sending many people to college.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, Gratias left the chamber but continued to work for the community, joining Flannigan, who was elected to the City Council in 2016, in his District 6 office as constituent relations director.
“She was a behind-the-scenes, get-things-done kind of person,” Flannigan said. “One of the hardest things for me is knowing how many other things we talked about that were going to come next. … It feels like the moment we reached the mountaintop, it was the end of the road.”
At the ceremony, Austin Mayor Steve Adler read a proclamation in Gratias’ honor, remarking on her rich life “dedicated to kindness, social justice, peace, humility, public service and the rights of individuals to live and love in truth.”
After the ceremony, attendees marched amid the sound of horns up Congress Avenue and along Fourth Street, honoring the activism and social justice that had typified her life. The procession ended in a reception at Oilcan Harry’s, a well-known LGBTQ nightspot downtown, where those closest to her danced and shared memories.
Gratias, who was born in the Philippines, found her home in Austin. She volunteered with numerous organizations, including OutYouth, Human Rights Campaign Austin and LifeWorks’ homeless youth program. Her friends described her as a no-nonsense person who could warm anyone with her infectious giggle.
She was a devoted Catholic and died with a rosary in hand.
Gratias will be honored later this month by the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in Washington for her legacy.