Lambda Legal Mourns the Loss of Chicago Activist Vernita Gray

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March 19, 2014
Vernita Gray and Pat Ewert

Late last night, after a years long battle with cancer, Chicago activist and Lambda Legal plaintiff Vernita Gray passed away at her home with her wife Patricia Ewert at her side.

Vernita was a pioneer in Chicago, both as a self-identified out and proud black lesbian and a local activist. In 1993, she was a plaintiff in Lambda Legal’s first case in the Midwest, marching 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.

On the day before Thanksgiving last year Vernita and her bride, Patricia Ewert, were the first same-sex couple to be married in Illinois after Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Illinois filed suit in federal court on their behalf and won an emergency order allowing all same-sex couples who face terminal illness to be married immediately. Vernita and Pat's wedding was a beautiful celebration of love, commitment and dedication to each other.

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.

On a personal note, as her illness took a greater physical toll, Vernita would often greet me by asking, "How’s the community today?" I want to tell her that today, the community is incredibly sad, but we’re much better off and we have much to celebrate because she lived her life loud and proud.