A special Thanksgiving for special neighbors

Posted on Sun, 12/01/2013 - 12:00pm

By Tracy Poyser

Vernita Gray and Pat EwertUnless you turned off your radio and TV and didn’t read any local or national papers in the days surrounding this year’s Thanksgiving, you won’t have missed the exciting news about two very special Malibu East neighbors. By court order, longtime Chicago activist Vernita Gray married Pat Ewert, her partner of five years, on Nov. 27, making them the first same-sex couple in the state’s history to be legally married within Illinois. Their touching and joyous ceremony was performed in their Malibu East apartment by Judge Patricia Logue, former head of Lambda Legal Midwest and a longtime lesbian activist, in front of about 25 family members and friends.

Some background: Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work. Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Illinois filed the case Nov. 22, seeking immediate action in light of Vernita’s terminal cancer with limited life expectancy. Judge Thomas Durkin issued the decision on Nov. 25, and Cook County Clerk David Orr’s marriage license was hand-delivered to the couple. Being the trailblazers they are, Pat and Vernita allowed a video of the ceremony to be posted on the Windy City Times’ website. You can check it out at: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Gray-and-Ewert-make-history-as-first-Il…

So, with so much media noise and public attention surrounding their wedding, I wanted to share with you what Pat and Vernita told me about themselves, their love for our condo community and neighborhood, and their lifelong commitment to social justice and kindness for everyone. What struck me most during my interview with them two days before their one-week anniversary was their grace, grit and humor in the face of daunting odds, and their willingness to step out and give up privacy so that others would gain hope.

Pat grew up in Kansas City and moved to Chicago in 1980. She’s been involved in social justice and women’s causes ever since. Professionally, she made a career in business development, HR and management consulting in several major companies, and as a partner in her own consulting firm. Ten months ago, she became community outreach coordinator for state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, specializing in relationship development and support of nonprofits, constituents with issues, and social service groups. After coming out about seven years ago, she sold her Lincoln Park home near DePaul in favor of living close to the lake in a vibrant, diverse community – and happily landed in Edgewater at Malibu East in 2008.

Vernita was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side and still has a condo there. Like Pat, she had a professional life full of variety and commitment. Vernita has been active in advancing LGBT rights for more than 40 years. She owned a restaurant for about eight years and spent a year at the ecumenical community of Taizé in France. For almost a decade prior to retiring two years ago due to her cancer diagnosis, she worked in the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Her primary focus was on anti-violence programs including LGBT victims of hate crimes, families of homicides, bullying victims, and other targets of criminal bias. When she started working there in 1993, Vernita was stunned by the number of hate crimes in Chicago and other major cities. She believes that, although progress has been made since then, there is still so much to do until people can live peacefully and free of bias and hatred. Like Pat, she sees Edgewater and especially Malibu East as a mini United Nations where diverse people live in greater harmony then elsewhere in the city.

Vernita’s boss, Anita Alvarez, met Pat at a Chicago Foundation for Women fundraiser. She encouraged Vernita to contact Pat. That led to Vernita’s inviting Pat to march with the state’s attorney’s group in the Gay Pride Parade, and Pat inviting Vernita to a LAMDA event – and the rest is happy and bittersweet history. Their happiness was both challenged and strengthened when Pat, too, was diagnosed with aggressive Stage 1 breast cancer three years ago – fortunately she’s cancer-free now.

When civil unions for same-sex couples became legal in Illinois in 2011, Pat and Vernita were among the first 29 couples to tie that knot. Although that status still provided only limited rights compared to legal marriage, at least Pat was able to take on full responsibility for Vernita’s healthcare decisions when bone and then brain cancer rendered Vernita temporarily unable to speak for herself. Both women have nothing but praise for the progressive philosophy and caring staff of NorthShore University HealthSystem’s Evanston Hospital.

All the congratulations from their Malibu East neighbors, from cards under their door to hugs in the elevator, have been just amazing to them. They both cherish their lives moment-to-moment, with humor and a bit of irreverence. “All the media make it sound as if I’m about to drop dead, but I’m not quite ready yet,” is how Vernita puts it with a grin. If anything, the reality of Vernita’s illness seems to make their joy of being newlyweds even stronger.

I asked the two women what straight people could do to best support gay-rights causes so our society can get to the point where gay marriage is no longer newsworthy in itself. “Talk about your gay friends and family with people you know. We are your sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends. Let people know that you support the rights of ALL people, and open your wallets and contribute to gay causes” says Vernita.

Vote for the right people, of course,” adds Pat.

At the end of her emails, Pat provides the following: “Zen thought for those who don’t take life too seriously: Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.” That says it all, and I hope you’re as honored and delighted as I am to have these two remarkable women as neighbors.