Pioneering activist Vernita Gray dies at 65

Vernita Gray (l) and Pat Ewert / Facebook

Vernita Gray (left) and Pat Ewert. Photo: Facebook.

Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame inductee Vernita Gray died before midnight on Tuesday at home in Edgewater Beach after a long fight with brain and bone cancer at age 65.

On Nov. 27 of last year, Gray and partner Patricia Ewert became the first same-sex couple to wed in the State of Illinois. Due to Gray’s terminal diagnoses, a federal court ordered Cook County to issue a marriage license ahead of the official start of the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act on Jun. 1, 2014.

A stalwart activist, Vernita had been a leader in Chicago’s LGBT community for over 40 years—after learning of other progressive sexual liberation movements while attending the legendary Woodstock music festival from Aug. 15 to 18, 1969.

Gray received creative writing and communication degrees from Columbia College Chicago. With her credentials, she was published in various literary magazines and established the first lesbian newspaper in the Windy City—Lavender Woman. Her advocacy also included the creation of a lesbian and gay support hotline, which she ran from her home. She also formed the lesbian caucus of Gay Liberation, an early predecessor organization of Chicago’s Gay Liberation Network.

Gray’s other achievements included small business ownership, operating Sol Sands restaurant.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement on the passing of Gray.

“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. 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. My thoughts and prayers are with her wife Pat Ewert, her family, and the community of friends who loved her so dearly,” the mayor said.

Gov. Pat Quinn also issued a statement.

“Vernita Gray was a passionate and driven advocate for equality in Illinois. She recognized that no one should have to wait for equal rights when it comes to love. She fought for what she believed in and made a difference for people across Illinois,” the governor said. “Vernita was a leader in the fight for marriage equality, and a part of the anti-violence movement whose poetry resonated with so many, including President Barack Obama.”

Gray’s memorial will be held Monday, Mar. 31 at 1:00 p.m. at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn in Chicago.

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About Gerald Farinas

An Edgewater Beach resident, Gerry is news director of Opus News. He is concurrently an Evanston-based social services professional and media consultant.