Pearl of wisdom

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Pearl Berlin.

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.

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Harvey Milk.

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.

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Edie Windsor.

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.

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Lennie and Pearl. Gay royalty. Photo courtesy of Lennie Gerber.

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.

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Lennie and Pearl in Luxor, Egypt. They traveled the world together. Photo courtesy of Lennie Gerber.

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.

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The Kiss. Photo credit: Lynn Hey, Greensboro News & Record.

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.

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The day after Amendment 1. I was horizontal. They were still fighting.

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.

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The brides on their wedding day. Mazel Tov! Photo courtesy of Lennie Gerber.

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.

10542005_10204176997880513_6443655610355371358_nBut 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.

 

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LennieandPearl.

 

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The beginning of an epic love story. Circa 1966. Photo courtesy of Lennie Gerber.

 

 

 

 

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The honeymoon’s over

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My wife and I will celebrate our second anniversary next month. We were married in Washington, DC five months before same-sex marriage became legal in our home state of North Carolina. We were tired of waiting and we thought that North Carolina would be one of the last sandbags against the rising tide of gay marriage.

And the Old North State would probably still have been holding hands with Alabama and Mississippi if not for the decision of an “activist” (bite me) judge who ruled on October 10, 2014 that the state’s denial of marriage to same-sex couples was unconstitutional.

2014 was a euphoric year for me and for everyone who supported marriage equality as state after state fell into the “I do” column. I went to more weddings that year than I had since my early post-college days when all of my hetero friends were getting hitched. I remember going to Crate and Barrel what felt like every weekend back then to peruse yet another gift registry. The straights love their pizza stones.

And all of those weddings that I attended two years ago were glorious in their own way, most especially my own.

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I wanted to marry my wedding day I loved it so much.

I confess that I was cranky (admittedly, not an uncommon state for me) that I had to leave the state that I had lived in and paid taxes in for almost 20 years, the state that my wife was born in, to legally marry the person that I love. That said, we wanted the legal protections and benefits that marriage provided so we had to leave our home to protect our home.

Irony always tastes like metal to me.

So there we were on a sunny late afternoon in spring, standing in front of a minister, a few dear friends and vases of cherry blossoms. It was a wedding that neither of us had ever dared to dream of and it was so far away from the dark nightmare of May 8, 2012 when Amendment One passed with 61% of the vote.

We were surrounded by light and love and I have never felt more affirmed in my life.  And it took 57 years for me to experience that feeling.

Now the state that I live in and pay taxes in has decided to once again legislate discrimination into law in the form of HB2, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, making it illegal for cities to expand on state laws regulating among other things, workplace discrimination and minimum wage standards.

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Protesters at a rally against HB2 in Raleigh. Photo courtesy of Mary Nations.

The Republican controlled legislature has reverted back to the fear mongering tactics that have served many states well over the past several years – you know, the old “God, guns and gays” strategy that Karl Rove and his cronies executed so efficiently. Just make it about everything but the real issues and scare the hell out of people along the way.

Instead of genuine concerns like health care, poverty and education, make it about going into the opposite sex restrooms to rape and pillage our women and children. Make it about transgender folks because, Lord knows, they haven’t endured enough harm from inane misconceptions. And for good measure, shorthand the bill by calling it “the bathroom bill” to sensationalize the matter and divert the true discriminatory intent.

Well guess what, Governor McCrory? We call bullshit on your bathroom bill.hb2meme

HB2 is unconscionable and it is mean and it is wrong.

And I am pissed off.

For the past 11 years, I worked for an AIDS service organization that provided services to mostly very poor people living with HIV. Their needs were great – housing, food and medical care. They also desperately needed acceptance and affirmation and damned if we weren’t pretty good at providing those things, too.

Stigma is still a huge issue for anyone living with HIV/AIDS and HB2 cultivates stigma against LGBT North Carolinians in disgusting ways by promoting fear and ignorance over understanding and acceptance. And, as these bills always do, it marginalizes the least among us – the ones without money or power or position – the ones who are different.

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Art courtesy of a brave soul living with HIV/AIDS.

It seems as if every hour another business is coming out against HB2 including PayPal which announced yesterday that it would not proceed with a planned expansion in Charlotte, costing North Carolinians 400 good paying jobs.

Maybe money is the only thing that will get the attention of the governor and the legislature but that makes me mad, too. This shouldn’t be about money; this should be about basic human decency, which should never be a partisan issue.

The past few weeks I’ve revisited the words of the late great Harvey Milk, as I often do in times of civil strife. His words have a clarity and timelessness that fortify me.

It takes no compromise to give people their rights. It takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people their freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression. ~Harvey Milk

What’s at stake in North Carolina today goes way beyond party lines. It is time for all North Carolinians to put their principles over their politics and their paychecks.

It is time for all of us to exchange our vows.

“We are not this.”

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Amen.