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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Shit just got real

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Maybe there’s a God above

But all I’ve learned from love

Was how to shoot somebody who out drew ya

And it’s not a cry that you hear at night

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

~ Lyrics from Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen died yesterday and this Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year continues.

Funny. I thought losing my job would be the worst thing that happened this year.

Not even close. Losing my country is a hell of lot worse.

I thought Wednesday morning would be my low point but just like all those worthless tracking polls, I seriously miscalculated. Yesterday was worse. Reality is setting in. President-elect Trump.

I have tried to avoid all television (thank you Baby Jesus for Netflix) – even MSNBC, that bastion of liberal news. Nope. I can’t even take Rachel Maddow. It’s too much like looking in the mirror – I can see the pain on her face. I know I should avoid social media, too, but it is comforting to mourn with others. I know there has been a lot of hate chatter on Facebook but I weeded my FB garden of most of that so my feed is mostly filled with folks who feel an awful lot like me these days. In other words, awful.

Get over it. Move on. I hear you but I’m not there yet. Not even close. This wasn’t like my favorite team losing the big game or not getting the house I put an offer on. This was a rejection of almost everything I’ve spent most of my adult life working for – equality – for women, the LGBT community, people living with HIV/AIDS, people with disabilities – you get it, people.

Yesterday there were several disturbing stories circulating on mainstream and social media about post-election bullying and intimidation that seemed to be empowered by Trump’s election. Students in a middle school in Detroit chanted “Build the wall” to Latino students who were seen crying. Some of these incidents cut close to home. In Durham, a wall was spray painted “Black Lives Don’t Matter and Neither Does Your Votes.” The Ku Klux Kan announced a Trump victory parade in Pelham, near the Virginia border. And very near my home in Winston-Salem, a lesbian couple with children came home to find a sign on their door that said, “Lesbian Bitches You Are Sick Get Out Of Our Neighborhood – Trump Train.”

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A sign of the times.

So this wasn’t from some “libtard” website – this really happened to people I really know.

And just an hour ago my sister told me that one of her oldest friends, a woman who grew up right next door to us in our little hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, was riding her bike this morning on a path in Boston when a man wearing a Make America Great Sign and holding a bullhorn pulled right in front of her and screamed in the bullhorn: Have you read Hillary’s emails? She almost fell off her bike. This happened today in Boston. Boston! Not Podunk, USA.

So forgive me if I’m not ready to move on just yet. On Tuesday, our nation empowered this dangerous extremist behavior by electing a man who ran on a platform of misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia and racism. No one should be surprised or shocked.  What we saw during the campaign is exactly what we are getting in this new America.

Is this the change some of you were looking for? Not so great if you ask me. And sadly, anyone who is “different than” may pay dearly for any of your buyer’s remorse. (See moral bankruptcy.)

I’m not naïve enough to think that if Hillary had been elected everything would be sunshine and roses in America today. No, it would probably be even more dangerous had she won since Trump had already planted the seeds for a contested election. It’s irrelevant anyway because this toxic genie was let out of the bottle when  Republican voters made him their nominee for the most powerful office in the land.

There have been some really well written pieces about post-election grieving but I came across one of the best on The Huffington Post website yesterday – I am Sitting Shiva for America written by Vanessa Zoltan, a chaplain at Harvard University.  Shiva is the Jewish practice of grief. It is a seven-day mourning period where family members gather in one home to receive visitors. Zoltan is sitting shiva for a lot of beliefs that died in the wee early hours of Wednesday.

You can read her blog here but here’s a bit of it:

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We’re going to need more than seven days, folks.

I will take action. And man oh man, will I. But for a week I am going to wear my, “Nasty Woman” shirt because while sitting shiva you are not supposed to change your clothes. And for this week I am going to refuse— patently refuse hope. Hope (for me. I am only speaking for myself) this early will be a denial of all that has been lost. Hope this early will be because it’s easier than being mad and reckoning with all that is lost (hope for environmental policy reform, peace for millions of my fellow-countrymen who now fear being deported, what I believed the American experiment stood for, friendships that I can no longer take seriously because of their vote, and on and on).

I wish I could sit with her.

I did sort of sit shiva yesterday with a dear friend from Israel. She’s been an American citizen for about 10 years and voted for Obama twice and was a Hillary supporter. She’s my age but she’s always had a very maternal aura with me – loving and nurturing.  She’s a mother and a grandmother and she’s my Jewish sister/mother. She knew I was hurting and she took both of my hands in hers and looked me straight in the eyes and said, in her marvelous accent, “Everything will be okay.” And when we said goodbye, she said she was going to kiss me like her mother used to kiss her – a series of very rapid pecks on the check. She smothered me with those kisses and told me she loved me.

And it was the safest I have felt since early Wednesday morning.

On my drive back home from seeing her – about 40 minutes in the car – my phone “pinged’’ several times – notifications of messages coming in. (Chill, I did not text and drive.) I often listen to MSNBC in the car on my XM radio but since that’s radioactive now, I turned to old faithful – NPR. Don’t you know they were doing a story on the election. I’m glad I didn’t shut it off immediately because it was an interesting piece about a couple in Massachusetts. The wife is an attorney who voted for Hillary and the husband is a fireman who voted for Trump. They, like most of America, are trying to find some peace in all of this carnage. They didn’t have any pearls of wisdom to share and honestly, at one point, it sounded like the wife wanted to sock the husband. Anyway, it made me feel less lonely for a few minutes.

When I got home I looked at my phone. I had a FB inbox message from one of my dearest friends in the world – a gay man who I have loved for 20 years. We have the most wonderful “odd couple” relationship and we’ve always said that if we weren’t both gay, we would have made a great couple. We both are yellow dog Democrats who love sports and sarcasm. Yep, we’re a match made in Provincetown. Anyway, he has been beyond inconsolable this week and thought getting together for dinner would be good medicine for us all. Only he said it in his uniquely charming way that seems to almost always make me laugh and tear up at the same time. He wrote, “I love you so much and this shit show is reminding me to take stock of the things in my life that are important and you are high on that list.”

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My gay husband, Jeff.

Now you see why I adore him. And he’s right – it’s time to be with people who nurture and restore us.

 

The next FB inbox message was from a friend who is a young mother of two pretty fantastic daughters. She always takes her girls to vote with her and they were all super excited about the historical prospect of voting for the first woman president this year. When she told her girls on Wednesday morning that Hillary lost, they both cried. Her youngest daughter then immediately asked her about marriage equality. I told you these girls are fantastic.

“Will the marriages for everyone stop, Mommy?” Gulp. Then this little supershero said, “If they do, I will make beautiful art and I will give people marriages.” Sign me up.

My friend shared all of this with me to reassure me that as she said “love seeds are planted everywhere and our family plans on increasing the active ways we love others.” Gee, I wonder why those girls are so fantastic. (Their dad is pretty great, too.) She closed her message with some words that actually penetrated the veil of despair that I have been wearing since early Wednesday morning. She wrote, “You are loved. We will stand by you.”

Maybe all the hallelujahs aren’t broken. I’m clinging to them today.

 

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These two make me feel less scared for my country’s future. And they may officiate my next wedding.