Ill. Marriage Equality Pioneer Dead at 65

Vernita Gray, part of the first same-sex couple married in Illinois after winning a court order, was a veteran activist in her hometown of Chicago.

BY Trudy Ring

March 19 2014 3:44 PM ET

Vernita Gray at the October 22 March on Springfield for Marriage Equality

Vernita Gray, a longtime activist and part of the first couple wed under the Illinois marriage equality law, has died at age 65.

Chicago resident Gray, who had cancer, died just before midnight Tuesday, Windy City Times reports.

Gray and Pat Ewert, who survives her, were the first same-sex couple married legally in Illinois, after going to court for the right to marry before the marriage equality law’s effective date. The law, signed in November, is set to go into effect June 1, but the two women sought and won an emergency court order allowing them to marry immediately, as Gray was not expected to live until June. They were married November 27.

Further court actions allowed marriages to begin for any couple in which at least one partner had a life-threatening illness, then for all couples in Cook County, which includes Chicago. This month, Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan issued an opinion saying same-sex couples could begin marrying throughout the state, although some counties are still waiting until June to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

Gray, who was inspired to come out as a lesbian after attending the 1969 Woodstock concert, where she learned about the Stonewall riots, “was one of those people you might run into at any kind of event and among any sort of crowd — at every Chicago Pride Parade since the first in 1970, at a community gala or fundraiser, at a women’s music festival, at a poetry slam reading her own words, or even at the White House — which she visited four times during President Barack Obama’s administrations,” according to Windy City Times.

She “knew how to rally the troops at events,” the newspaper notes. Her last speaking appearance was at the October 22 rally for marriage equality in Springfield, the state capital. Her activism also included launching Chicago’s first gay and lesbian helpline, in her apartment in the 1970s. In addition, she offered her apartment as a temporary home for LGBT young people who had been kicked out by their families. Among the honors Gray received for her activism was election to the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

Professionally, she spent 18 years working for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, holding positions including victim/witness advocate and outreach worker on LGBT issues, and before that she was a restaurateur. Her life will be chronicled in the upcoming book Vernita Gray: From Woodstock to the White House by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen.

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