Longtime LGBT civil rights advocate Vernita Gray dies

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Vernita Gray, left, and Patricia Ewert after their wedding.

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An earlier photo of Vernita Gray.

Vernita Gray, a longtime gay rights activist who wed her partner in Illinois' first same-sex marriage, has died at age 65.

Gray died late March 18 of cancer at the same Chicago home where she married Patricia Ewert in late November 2013, family friend Jim Bennett told The Associated Press. Bennett was among those who were gathered at the home when Gray died.

Gray's failing health and her wish to marry persuaded a U.S. District judge to order that an expedited marriage license be granted to the couple ahead of the June 1 effective date of the state's gay marriage law.

That ruling cleared the way for more same-sex couples to marry ahead of the June 1 date.

Gray worked for LGBT equality for decades and was an early inductee into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.

She advocated for same-sex marriage long before many other activists saw it as a possibility.

A former restaurant owner, she worked for the Cook County state's attorney's office for 18 years, assisting crime victims and witnesses.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn praised Gray as "a passionate and driven advocate for equality in Illinois."

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in a statement released on March 19, praised Gray's work for equality and civil rights. "Vernita Gray was an inspiration to all who crossed her path, from President (Barack) Obama, who knew her by name, to the victims of violence she comforted and the young people for whom she was a fierce advocate," Emanuel said. "Her legacy can be felt in the many institutions she supported and by every LGBT couple in Illinois who is now free to marry the person they love."

Equality Illinois, the statewide LGBT civil rights group, said, "Equality Illinois is joining the sad chorus of voices mourning the passing overnight of Vernita Gray. A fighter for LGBT equality for over four decades, including eight years on the board of Equality Illinois, Vernita made history again last November when she and her longtime partner Patricia Ewert became the first same-sex couple to wed in Illinois thanks to a judge’s order. Our condolences to her widow Patricia and to Vernita’s family and extended network of friends."

Gray was inducted in the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 1992 and recognized as the founder of a gay and lesbian hotline as early as 1969. She also hosted support groups in her home in Chicago.

The induction statement said, "After attending Woodstock and learning of the existence of the 'gay liberation' movement, she returned to Chicago and began organizing support groups at local colleges. And with friends, (she) organized and hosted in her home support groups for lesbians. In 1969, she participated in the development of a telephone hotline at her home for members of Chicago's gay and lesbian community. With her well-known sense of humor, the hotline telephone number was FBI-LIST. Interest in the support groups and hotline was so intense that Gray eventually had to vacate her apartment to obtain a modicum of privacy and peace of mind."

Gray also was instrumental in forming the first Lesbian Caucus of the nascent Gay Liberation organization in Chicago in the early 1970s and the first Chicago lesbian newspaper, called Lavender Woman.

She was a business owner for 11 years, running the Sol Sands restaurant and a company that created audio-visual materials for children.

She was a graduate of Columbia College and published poetry.

Lambda Legal, the legal defense group that along with the ACLU represented Gray in her quest to marry, issued a loving statement praising Gray as "a pioneer in Chicago, both as a self-identified out and proud black lesbian and a local activist."

In 1993, Gray was a plaintiff in Lambda Legal’s first case in the Midwest. The statement said Gray marched "her way into the Bud Billiken Parade after first being told the 'Proud Black Lesbians and Gays' were not welcome. Her tireless work on behalf of women of color and her advocacy for the entire LGBT community leaves a legacy that will live on in the hearts of all of those she touched with her kind eyes and strong, wise words."

"Lambda Legal is proud to have represented Vernita in our earliest case in the Midwest and most recently in our case Gray v. Orr, but mostly we’re proud to be able to call Vernita a close friend and advocate for our organization and our movement. With humor, common sense and wisdom, she challenged those inside the movement to work together, be more inclusive, more diverse and to push hard to move forward. There was too much work to be done to go slow. To those indifferent or in opposition of our civil rights struggle, she met them where they were and, more often than not, helped them evolve to a better place.  It was Vernita, early in President Obama’s U.S. Senate run, that challenged him to understand the connection between the civil rights struggle they shared on race, to the struggle she faced being treated as a 2nd class citizen because of her sexual orientation."

Bennett, who was gathered at Gray's home with other friends when she died and is Lambda's regional director, signed the statement.