Vernita Gray, half of 1st gay couple to marry in Illinois, dies at 65

March 19, 2014 (CHICAGO)

Gray and wife Pat Ewert were the first same-sex couple married legally in Illinois, Nov. 27, 2013, after winning a court victory because of Gray's critical health situation. That paved the way for additional court rulings that hastened marriage in Illinois ahead of the original June 1, 2014 implementation of full marriage equality in the state.

She was an only child who came out to her mother at age 19.

"I feel honored to know that she was strong enough to stand and work hard for what she thought was right," said mom Fran Hairston.

The woman she married had smiles and tears on this day of reckoning.

"She would have people approach her on the street and say, 'I was a teenager in high school when you came to talk and because of what you said I stopped running with those gangs. I changed my life. I'm an attorney now,'" said Ewert. Of course my heart is broken; it was an honor to be with Vernita right to the end and to bring her comfort."

They were together for five years, married just shy of four months.

"She loved so big and was so present all the time," said Ewert. "She said, 'I will be waiting for you'... that makes me happy. Yeah, I know she is ... I have no doubt."

Gray, a native Chicagoan, came out as a lesbian soon after she attended the 1969 Woodstock music concert in New York, where she learned about the Stonewall Riots, an obituary release written by her family said.

A longtime cancer survivor, Gray lost her battle Tuesday just before midnight, with her wife by her side. Friends and family had visited with Gray in her final weeks, as she said her goodbyes. She was laughing and giving advice up until the end, family said.

Gray worked in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office for 18 years, including in the position of victim/witness assistant, where she helped LGBT crime survivors, and as an outreach worker on LGBT issues. Prior to that, she owned the popular Sol Sands restaurant in Uptown, the release said.

Her family said Gray attended every Chicago Pride Parade since the first in 1970. She also visited the White House four times during President Barack Obama's administrations.

After a battle with breast cancer in the early 1990s, Gray's struggle with cancer took a turn for the worst two years ago, the release said.

Judge Patricia Logue, former head of Lambda Legal Midwest and a longtime lesbian activist herself, performed the marriage ceremony for Gray and Ewert in front of several dozen family and friends.

Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Illinois filed marriage the case Nov. 22, two days after Gov. Pat Quinn signed the marriage law into effect, seeking immediate action due to Gray's failing health. Judge Thomas Durkin issued the decision

Among Gray's survivors, in addition to her wife Pat Ewert, are her mother Fran and her children Camille and Ramon.

A memorial service is being planned.

In lieu of flowers, donations should be made to Affinity Community Services, Broadway Youth Center at Howard Brown, or Center on Halsted.

"Today we mourn the passing of a fearless woman who spent her life fighting for equality and civil rights," said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "Vernita Gray was an inspiration to all who crossed her path, from President Obama who knew her by name to the victims of violence she comforted and the young people for whom she was a fierce advocate."

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