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 rose petals and the couple kissed several times.
They were pronounced wife and wife.
"This is the realization of a very long cherished dream for them both," Camilla Taylor, the head of the legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, which helped represent the couple, said before the wedding day.
When Illinois became the 16th state to legalize 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.
"She went from one day being as full of energy as she could be to being completely bedridden," Ewert said of her partner's deterioration.
As for waiting until June, Ewert said: "It's a long time in the cancer world."
But the mood was cheerful and festive Wednesday; Ewert wore leopard print and Gray donned a dark leather jacket. They quick signed the papers after the ceremony.
"It's a great day for Vernita and Pat, and an historic day for Illinois, for a deserving and loving couple to have the chance to be married on an expedited basis," John Knight, LGBT Project Director at the ACLU of Illinois, said in a statement. "Their love and commitment to each other has been demonstrated over time, and we're thrilled they didn't have to wait."
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. 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.
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.
Taylor 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 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.
"Vernita is bigger than life. She has done so much with her life and given so much to her community," Ewert said. "She is a force of nature."
But both women have 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. She underwent surgery to have a tumor roughly the size of a golf ball 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."