The very model of a role model: Ceci Gratias

Business leader honored by Human Rights Campaign with Bettie Naylor Visibility Award

Ceci Gratias didn’t come out until early 1996 at age 32.

“I had crushes on girls,” Gratias says with a shy smile. “But people said it was just a phase — hero worship. So I dated boys.”

The real truth hit her all at once.

“I was engaged to a guy, but I couldn’t commit to a wedding date,” she recalls. “Then it just dawned on me. I broke up with him, but didn’t tell him I was gay. I didn’t want him to think he made me gay. So basically, I came out to myself. I accepted me for me.”

It has been a long haul for Gratias, 52, born and raised in the Manila, Philippines, metro area. She worked in her family’s business, then later in accounting, human resources and high tech in the United States.

She now delivers constituent services on the ground in District 6 for Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan. Long before that, she served as an aide to former Mayor Pro Tem Gus Garcia, who encouraged her to volunteer for groups such as Out Youth and the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

She became that business group’s first full-time president and CEO but resigned earlier this year when she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She is undergoing chemotherapy.

On Saturday, the Human Rights Campaign Austin will honor Gratias at its annual gala with the Bettie Naylor Visibility Award, named for the gutsy Austin activist who died in 2012. Five blocks of West Fourth Street, traditionally a magnet for the LGBT community, have been named for Naylor.

RELATED: “Human Rights Campaign Austin Gala Dinner (2016)”

“That’s so perfect,” says Gratias, who remains outwardly cheerful and generous despite her medical condition. “She was one of my mentors.”

The road to role model

Gratias’ father and mother, both from the Manila area, operated an auto repair business there.

“I was raised by an entrepreneurial family,” she says. “I did bookkeeping for Mom at the age of 8. That’s the way Asian families work.”

The truth is, she would have done almost anything for her mother.

“Whatever she wanted, she got,” Gratias says. “Meanwhile, I was a semi-good girl. I hid some stuff from Mom and Dad. You see, Mom was in denial that kids could do bad things. But I couldn’t get anything past my dad.”

She attended an all-girls Catholic high school and the University of the Philippines, where she studied psychology.

“My specialty was HR, which was new at the time,” Gratias says. After graduation, she moved to the U.S. “Reno, Nev., first, where I worked in the casinos. Then Los Angeles, where I took executive assistant positions. I worked in accounting even though I hadn’t studied accounting. It was weird.”

In LA, the Filipino community is extensive.

“It’s like an extended family, with all the restaurants and stores,” she says. “We were doing all the Filipino stuff — traditions, food, ingredients. Here, there are three or four small Filipino stores that I know, plus a Filipino restaurant in Round Rock.”

In time, she wanted to escape the LA craziness.

“It’s so spread out,” she says. “It takes forever to get anywhere. I’m amused when people complain about the traffic in Austin.”

After doing some Austin temp work in 1996, Gratias landed a series of administrative jobs in one industry and another.

“I didn’t really know anybody,” she says. “But all the startups were here, and I had a background in IT.”

She met Flannigan at the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, where she liked helping small businesses grow.

“I helped put together the first Pride Parade in 2002,” she says. “Back when the Chamber was producing it. The Pride Foundation took over a few years ago.”

RELATED: Richard Hartgrove and Gary Cooper: Witnesses to profound social change

Among other responsibilities, she chaired the board of directors for the once-endangered Out Youth as it was becoming a more stable organization.

“I was at the board meeting when it was announced that Bill Dickson was paying off the mortgage on the Out Youth house,” she says. “I remember when we burnt the mortgage papers.”

Life is particularly complicated now. Not long ago, Gratias broke up with her partner.

“We’re still friends,” she jokes gently. “I’m the typical lesbian who keeps up with her exes.”

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