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Gay Rights Activist Vernita Gray Dies

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Vernita Gray, left, and Patricia Ewert married in November under the state’s new same-sex marriage law. They were the first same-sex couple to wed in Illinois. (CBS)

Vernita Gray, left, and Patricia Ewert married in November under the state’s new same-sex marriage law. They were the first same-sex couple to wed in Illinois. (CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) – A lesbian activist has died, nearly four months after she made history by becoming one of the first two women to marry each other in Illinois.

WBBM Newsradio’s Regine Schlesinger reports it was a bittersweet moment as a dying Vernita Gray married her partner Patricia Ewert in late November.

It was the state’s first same-sex marriage, but was only allowed to take place when it did because Gray had terminal cancer.

The state’s marriage equality law does not officially take effect until June 1, but a judge allowed Gray and Ewert to wed in November because her cancer meant she wouldn’t survive that long.

Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim, who has written a biography of Gray due out in a few weeks, said it was poignant to see Gray and Ewert become the first lesbians to marry legally in Illinois.

“She often said that ‘We never even thought that that was possible that marriage would become equal in our lifetime,’ and it was so terrific that she was able to marry her partner in life before she passed away,” she said.

Gray died late Tuesday at the age of 65, her newlywed wife at her side at their Chicago home.

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

Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised her work for equal rights for the LGBT community.

“Today we mourn the passing of a fearless woman who spent her life fighting for equality and civil rights. 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,” he said in a written statement. “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.”

Since Gray and Ewert were married, a federal judge has ruled same-sex couples in Cook County don’t have to wait until June to get marriage licenses, after several couples sued the county over the continuing ban on same-sex marriage. The ruling affected only Cook County, but Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has since suggested county clerks across the state can issue same-sex marriage licenses, too, though most are waiting until the official start date.

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