I suppose we’re lucky if we ever get to meet our heroes much less actually know them. They always appear larger than life – not to scale like us mere mortals.
I never met Harvey Milk – he died at the hands of an assassin in 1978, long before I ever dreamed of coming out as a lesbian. And yet, he changed my life in immeasurable ways. He was the first openly gay elected official in the state of California and is still regarded as the most influential LGBT activist in history.
I have often turned to his voice for inspiration when I have felt defeated and depleted in the long march to equality for LGBT Americans.
All men are created equal. No matter how hard they try, they can never erase those words. That is what America is about.
I didn’t know Edie Windsor either, but this late octogenarian paved the way for the dissolution of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and the legalization of same-sex marriage. And it all began because she thought it wasn’t fair that she should have to pay almost $400,000 in estate taxes when her spouse of over 40 years died in 2009.
Edie’s words have also encouraged and sustained me as I wondered if I would ever see marriage equality in my lifetime.
Marriage is a magic word. And it is magic throughout the world. It has to do with our dignity as human beings, to be who we are openly.
Well, I was lucky enough to know Pearl Berlin and for that, I will always be grateful.
Pearl. Everyone in the Triad knows who I’m talking about. You don’t need the last name – just like Cher or Beyoncé or any of the other one name superstars.
And make no mistake – Pearl was a star, a petite one, but my God, did she shine brightly, particularly in the LGBT galaxy. She died last week at the age of 93.
I met her 22 years ago when I moved to Greensboro and joined the Triad Business and Professional Guild – a now defunct LGBT networking/social group. And, of course, you couldn’t meet Pearl without meeting Lennie, her wife of almost 52 years.
They were always LennieandPearl with no space – almost spoken as one syllable with no breath in between. I remember asking someone who “that” couple was sitting at a table near me at my first Guild meeting. The person glared at me like I had just sneezed on them and said, “THAT’S Lennie and Pearl and they have been together 30 years.” I felt like I should bow my head or curtsy. I was truly among gay royalty. Back then, most of us didn’t know any openly gay couples who had been together that long.
I had to check my math twice the other day when I figured out that Pearl was 71 years old when I met her. The lively woman I met back in 1996 was over 30 years older than me but I had no doubt that she could run circles around me. I mean like literally run.
She was vivacious and enthusiastic and warm and funny. So damn funny. And she was so interested in everything and everyone in our group. I learned that she was an esteemed professor retired from UNCG, very involved in local politics and that she and Lennie were world travelers who had been everywhere at least once.
I was impressed to say the least – and maybe just a wee bit intimidated. This was one dynamic duo. But I quickly learned that they were as kind and generous as they were accomplished and imposing. They just sort of oozed gravitas. They were the most grownup grownups in the room and their opinion on just about anything mattered to every member of that group.
It was a different climate 20 years ago – not nearly as accepting as today – and our group had to navigate a lot of tricky and delicate issues such as the prospect of publicizing our meetings. Several Guild members were teachers, but they were not out at their work for fear of losing their jobs. We wanted our group to grow but we also wanted everyone to feel safe. Lennie and Pearl were always the clear and strong voice of reason on any issues we debated back then. And believe me, it might not have been as raucous as an episode of Morning Joe, but we had some lively discussions back in the day.
Lennie and Pearl began moving into a bigger spotlight during the Amendment 1 battle in 2012. That was the insidious referendum to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage and civil unions. They spoke at many events that spring – advocating for radical things like love. At one infamous rally on the steps of the Greensboro Government Plaza, Lennie ended her remarks by planting a sweet kiss on Pearl’s lips. It is one of my favorite photos of them – even though the News & Record deemed it “too much” to run in the print edition.
I invested a lot of sweat and tears in that battle to defeat Amendment 1 and on election night as I watched the crushing results come in – our side lost 61% to 39% – I was inconsolable. The next night, I sat alone in the dark in front of my TV and watched Lennie and Pearl be interviewed by Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC. There they were – as determined as ever to stay the course. They acknowledged that the path to equality is never easy and Pearl noted the remarkable progress in gay rights she had witnessed in her lifetime.
There she was – running circles around me again.
But Lennie and Pearl didn’t wait for the state or the federal government to catch up with their love. They married on June 2, 2013, their 47th anniversary of being together. I can still see Pearl, on her cane, practically racing down the aisle of Beth David Synagogue. Some walks down the aisle are longer than others and she had waited long enough to marry the love of her life. They say rain on your wedding day is good luck and Lennie and Pearl were showered by a downpour of tears that day. I know because I contributed a good bucket or two myself.
Lennie and Pearl were our Shero Sherpas and we would have followed them anywhere because we knew that they cared so deeply for our community and would never guide us into anything we couldn’t handle. For as long as I can remember, they have been the beloved elders of our tribe and our hearts are saddened by Pearl’s death.
But it’s hard to remain sorrowful when I think of Pearl. She seemed to always have a smile – even in more recent years as her health was declining. There’s a great clip from the wonderful documentary, Living in the Overlap, that I think really captures the essence of Pearl. She’s speaking at a panel and wraps up her remarks with a little relationship advice.
Never mind the looks, they can deceive. Never mind the money, sure it’s nice to have, but it fades away. Go for someone who makes you smile. Find the one who makes your heart smile and you’ll have it all.
Thank you, dear Pearl. You were right again.