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Terminally ill woman, partner to be first same-sex couple to marry in Illinois

Wednesday, November 27, 2013
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CHICAGO — Even as they celebrated their home state becoming the 16th to legalize same-sex marriage, Chicago couple Vernita Gray and Patricia Ewert couldn’t help but feel bitter disappointment: Marriages cannot legally start in Illinois until June 1, 2014, a day one of them might not live to see.

That was until a federal judge intervened this week and allowed the two women, in their mid-60s, to get an expedited marriage license as Gray suffers from terminal cancer.

Timmy Samuel, Courtesy of Starbelly Studios (AP)This June 2011photo provided by Starbelly Studios in Chicago shows Vernita Gray, left, and Patricia Ewert smiling during their civil union ceremony at Millennium Park in Chicago.

Timmy Samuel, Courtesy of Starbelly Studios (AP)
This June 2011photo provided by Starbelly Studios in Chicago shows Vernita Gray, left, and Patricia Ewert smiling during their civil union ceremony at Millennium Park in Chicago.

Now the two are set to become the first gay couple in Illinois to take their vows, a private ceremony that could take place as early as Wednesday.

“She went from one day being as full of energy as she could be to being completely bedridden,” Ewert said of her partner’s deterioration.

As for waiting until June, Ewert said: “It’s a long time in the cancer world.”

Their legal battle could be just the beginning and may fuel efforts to change the effective date of the law, which Gov. Pat Quinn signed last week. There’s legislation pending to allow the law to take effect immediately and it could come up in late January when lawmakers gather in Springfield.

Quinn, who helped Illinois legalize civil unions in 2011, said if lawmakers sent him that bill he’d sign it.

“I’d say the sooner the better,” the governor told reporters Tuesday.

The women filed a lawsuit in federal court late Friday last week, citing Gray’s cancer as a reason to get a marriage license quickly. Then on Monday, a judge ordered the license and Cook County clerk officials hand-delivered it.

All that remains is having a ceremony officiated.

“This is the realization of a very long cherished dream for them both,” said Camilla Taylor, the head of the legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, which helped represent the couple.

She said marriage also means that Ewert will be better protected when it comes to taxes and other federal benefits not guaranteed with a civil union.

The two first met at a work event hosted by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and soon started dating. They were engaged in 2009. Ewert said she was “immediately attracted” to Gray, who worked as a victims’ advocate in the Cook County court system. Ewert works for state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat.

“Vernita is bigger than life. She has done so much with her life and given so much to her community,” Ewert said. “She is a force of nature.”

But both women have struggled with health issues; both have had breast cancer. Gray was first diagnosed in 1996 and underwent chemotherapy about the same time as Ewert.

However, things worsened for Gray, especially in June when cancer was found in her brain. She underwent surgery to have a tumor roughly the size of a golf ball removed from her head.

It was also around that time when the women watched efforts to legalize gay marriage stall in the Illinois Legislature, which Ewer t said was “terribly” disappointing.

The measure first passed the Illinois Senate in February, but the House sponsor said he didn’t have the votes in his chamber in May and didn’t call it for a vote. He vowed to bring it back and did so earlier this month when it passed through his chamber by a close margin.

Ewert said the judge’s quick turnaround was a surprise.

“Things went so much faster than we expected them to,” she said. “We didn’t expect there to be so much interest. We’re just two little old ladies from Chicago.”

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