Gay marriage in Il already making a difference for couples

Jun 2, 2014

Gay couples in dozens of Illinois counties are free to get marriage licenses for the first time starting Monday. But federal court rulings late last year allowed some same-sex couples in Cook County to get married early - if one person in the relationship was terminally ill. As Illinois Public Radio's Alex Keefe reports, those handful of marriages are offering some of the first tests of the new state law.

History happened right here - the living room of this 18th story condo in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.

EWERT: First same-sex couple in the state of Illinois, yeah. She stood right there, and Vernita and I were there, we....

66-year-old Patricia Ewert (EE-wurt) shows me the very spot where she married her wife Vernita Gray last November - just days after an emergency federal court order.

Video shot by the Windy City Times shows Pat in a spunky, leopard-print blouse, Vernita in a dark blazer with a white rose boutonniere, the room packed with friends...

WEDDING VIDEO:  (laughing, singing wedding song then fade under)

At that point, Vernita was 64, and nearing the end of a long fight with cancer, which had spread to her bones and to her brain. But Pat says the wedding day - November 27th - was still pure joy.

EWERT: And so the day of, you know, I was still living in complete denial. You know, I kept telling everybody, ‘She’s not that sick.’

WEDDING VIDEO: And now,  by the power miraculously (laughs) vested upon me by the constitution and laws of the state of Illinois, I join you in marriage and pronounce you wife and wife, now and forever (cheers fade out)...

At first, Pat says they were just trying to get use to the word “wife.”

EWERT: Vernita kept saying, you know, ‘This is my partner Pat,’ and I’d go, ‘Wife, darling!’” (laughs)

They weren’t married long.

Ewert and Gray are one of eight same-sex couples in Cook County who were allowed to get married early due to terminal illness. Not only were these the first gay marriages in state history. But their circumstances mark some of the first legal tests of what gay rights activists had been fighting for - rights relating to medical decisions, estates and federal benefits.

By mid-March, Vernita’s health had declined - she’d been in and out of hospice, and finally went home with Pat - again, surrounded by family and friends.

EWERT: We went back in and we were with her when she breathed her last breath. And, uh, it was interesting, it was kind of sweet in some ways ‘cause it still felt like she was with us. And we just kinda sat around the bed and talked about her. You know, the happy times and the good times. And, uh, probably after about 20 minutes, it felt like she was gone.

And then, the phone calls: a death certificate, a property to sell, insurance and Social Security arrangements. Pat says the couple had trouble in the past with a hospital that refused to recognize their civil union. But she says MARRIAGE made a huge difference.

KEEFE: Was it the word “wife” that did it? I mean, is it - people just get it then?

EWERT: I honestly believe it was the word wife that did it. ... Being someone’s ‘partner,’ being in a civil union - a lotta people don’t get it. They get what wife means.

Wife - and also, husband.

ILIO: Right here. (pats counter) His back was here.

57-year-old Ken Ilio (EE-lee-oh) shows me the spot on the floor in his bathroom where he found his long-time partner, Ron Dorfman, dead of heart failure on February Tenth.

ILIO: Here’s the - his wedding ring, so I still put it in there.

KEEFE: Oh, this is his wedding ring that you keep in the bathroom.

ILIO: Mm hm.

KEEFE: And he - he died right there.

ILIO: Right, so I put it in there.

Ilio and Dorfman were married on December Thirteenth - after a doctor told them Dorfman’s heart disease meant he could have just weeks to live. He was 73.

It was an intimate ceremony, with a priest and a couple friends, at the hospital chapel.

ILIO: We considered that day the best days of our lives. So we were actually very happy those three months.

Ilio says what was extraordinary - after finding his husband there in the bathroom, and everything that’s followed - is just how ordinary things have been. The cop at the scene didn’t ask any questions when he told them about their marriage - and nobody else has, either.

ILIO: It would have been so devastating if this was not granted. ‘Cause I would have had a hard time, you know, following up after the death, you know all the papers and all that. And...Illinois’ doing this right.

Dorfman is still everywhere - the wedding ring in the bathroom, his collection of American flag art hanging around the condo. And a journal entry Ilio wrote about the night he met his husband, 20 years ago. The entry he read at their wedding ceremony...

ILIO: ...all Ken could remember that night was the roses strewn on the way to the car of the shining man, named Ron. And the rest, as they say, was history. (closes book).