CHICAGO – In a short ceremony inside their Chicago apartment, two beaming brides made Illinois history Wednesday as they became the first gay couple to wed under the state's new law legalizing same-sex marriage.
The law approved last week doesn't go into effect until June, but one of the women -- Vernita Gray -- is terminally ill with cancer, so she and her partner of five years, Patricia Ewert, were granted an expedited marriage license by a federal judge's order.
The two made it official Wednesday in front of more than 20 friends at their high-rise home on the city's North Side. A Cook County judge officiated, and a close friend who deemed himself the "flower girl" tossed red rose petals and the couple kissed several times.
They were pronounced wife and wife.
"So happy, so incredibly happy," Ewert told The Associated Press after the wedding. "We feel so blessed to have this honor bestowed upon us. I love my partner, my wife now, more every single day."
When Illinois legalized gay marriage earlier this month, it was bittersweet for the couple, in their mid-60s. They feared that Gray might not live until the law would allow them to wed. They filed a lawsuit, and a federal judge allowed the two women, in their mid-60s, to get an expedited marriage license.
The mood was cheerful and festive Wednesday; Ewert wore a leopard print shawl that belonged to Gray's mother and Gray donned a dark silky jacket. A friend sang Etta James' "At Last." The couple signed papers at the ceremony which was attended by many of the city's gay rights activists; Gray has long been involved in the movement.
"Vernita goes back in our community. Everyone feels a friendship with her," said Jim Bennett, the "flower girl" and a regional director for Lambda Legal, the group that helped represent the women in court. "That Vernita helped be the pioneer that leads us to this path was the icing on the wedding cake."
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. Sixteen states, most recently Illinois and Hawaii, have legalized same-sex marriage. In Illinois, 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 this week. However, it could be a tough vote since the original bill passed by a close margin.
The women filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday, 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.
Lambda Legal officials said marriage 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 at Christmas 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.
But both women 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. A tumor roughly the size of a golf ball was 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 Ewert said was "terribly" disappointing.
The measure first passed the Illinois Senate on Valentine's Day, 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.
The June 1 date has created some headaches for county clerk offices since it's a Sunday. Some have said they'll be open for business that day, while others said they won't have the resources.
Ahead of the wedding day, Ewert said she was happy to see the judge's quick turnaround.
"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."