Longtime gay rights activists and well-known Chicago couple Vernita Gray and Patricia Ewert were married Wednesday afternoon in the state's first legal same-sex wedding, officials said.
The two women exchanged vows in a short ceremony in the living room of their North Side apartment surrounded by nearly two dozen close friends and family, said Erik Roldan, a spokesman for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who attended the event.
The wedding — during which a friend of the couple's sang "At Last," popularized by Etta James — was officiated by Cook County Associate Circuit Judge Patricia Logue.
"Every day is crucial for same-sex couples like Vernita and Pat, who may not be able to, and shouldn't have to, wait until next summer to get married," said Camilla Taylor, Marriage Project director for Lambda Legal, which represented the couple in their lawsuit. "We're thankful for the swift action by the court and the Cook County clerk's office to allow this to happen as soon as possible, and we're beyond thrilled for Vernita and Pat, who are now able to say, 'We're married.'"
The ceremony was reserved and lasted less than a half-hour, but it represented a victory for many who have fought for the right to legally wed, Roldan said.
Gray and Ewert were issued a marriage license application Monday after a federal court that day ordered the Cook County clerk to deliver the paperwork to them. They were given their license more than six months before the state law legalizing gay marriage takes effect because Gray has terminal cancer.
Gray, 64, and Ewert, 65, have been in a committed relationship for more than five years. In 2011 they entered into a civil union. They have participated in several commitment ceremonies and held events publicly celebrating their love with their friends, court documents state.
Gray has lived in Illinois all her life and has breast cancer that has spread to her bones and brain. She recently was told she may have only days or weeks to live. It was her last wish to be married to her partner, Taylor said.
While they were committed to one another, until Wednesday they were denied some of the rights married couples receive, Taylor said.
For example, before they married, if Gray had died, Ewert would have been forced to pay estate tax on the property Gray left behind. And before Wednesday, the couple could not access family medical leave or other benefits for survivors, Taylor said.
Last week, Gov. Pat Quinn signed the measure legalizing same-sex marriage in Illinois. But the law doesn't take effect until June 1. At least one state lawmaker has proposed speeding that up, a move Quinn says he supports, but any such effort is unlikely to come up for a vote until next year.