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Vernita Gray, half of first married same-sex couple in Illinois, dies

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Updated: April 21, 2014 6:49PM

Vernita Gray made history last November by becoming half of the state’s first same-sex couple to exchange marriage vows, a ceremony hastened by Ms. Gray’s cancer battle.

It caught up with the activist Tuesday, when she died at her Edgewater home at 65. Ms. Gray had breast cancer in 1996 and battled several recurrences.

A federal judge expedited the marriage license for her and her wife, Patricia Ewert, because of Ms. Gray’s illness.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel called her “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.”

Gov. Pat Quinn called her a pioneer. “She recognized that no one should have to wait for equal rights when it comes to love,” he said in a statement. “She fought for what she believed in and made a difference for people across Illinois.”

A member of the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, Ms. Gray was an early leader in the LGBT community. She came out after attending Woodstock in 1969. When she told her mother she was gay, her mother said she already knew, family friend Mary Morten said.

Soon, Ms. Gray organized a gay and lesbian hotline at her home. The phone rang so much, she “had to vacate her apartment to obtain a modicum of privacy and peace of mind,” according to the Hall of Fame. She organized support groups and lent an ear — or money, or a couch to crash on — to gay youths spurned by their families.

Ms. Gray attended St. Mary High School on the West Side. She studied creative writing at Columbia College. She traveled abroad, lived in Paris and spent time in reflection at a French monastery, said a friend, Faye Robinson.

She worked as a copywriter at Playboy Magazine and at the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, where she was a community liaison to crime victims and their families, and a charismatic speaker who lectured in schools, on bullying and hate crimes.

Ms. Gray and Ewert met on an all-women’s cruise during Pride Month in 2009, Morten said. They had their first date at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and became engaged that same year. They said their vows in a private ceremony at their Chicago home last Nov. 27. They honeymooned in Ixtapa, Mexico.

President Barack Obama sent the couple a congratulatory letter, saying, “A love like yours is truly something to treasure.”

She and her wife loved their dog, Sophie, and their cat, George W.

“Vee” enjoyed TV’s “Wheel of Fortune” and “Chelsea Lately,” fondue at Geja’s, anything chocolate and cranberry vodka cocktails.

She liked all kinds of music, from classical to alt-country’s Lyle Lovett to hip-hop artist Missy Elliott. For years, her ring tone was Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”

Fearing Ms. Gray wouldn’t live to see their planned wedding day, the couple filed a lawsuit asking to wed before Illinois’ gay marriage law takes effect in June. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Durkin granted their request. Ms. Gray was delighted about increased legal protection for Ewert, according to Lambda Legal. “I’m excited to be able to marry and take care of Pat, my partner and my family,” she said.

Ewert said it was a privilege to be her wife. “It’s so rare in a person’s life that they have the opportunity to be around true greatness, and Vernita Gray was great,” she said. “She changed the world. She made it a better place.”

“She was just a joy,” Ewert said. “She was always happy, always positive. Sometimes in the middle of the night you could hear her laughing [in her sleep] because that was the kind of joy she had.”

In addition to her wife, she is survived by her mother, Fran Hairston; her stepfather, Howard Hairston; her cousin, Dameon Christian; her stepchildren, Camille and Ramon Noriega; and her goddaughter, Shantell Steve.

A private celebration of her life is planned at 1 p.m. March 31 at the Goodman Theatre.


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