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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For the love of Edie

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Edie Windsor

Preface: I first learned of Edie Windsor when I read her wedding announcement in The New York Times in 2007. Little did I know then that she would become the gay-rights pioneer whose Supreme Court case would eventually lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage. Edie Windsor changed my life and the lives of so many gay Americans and their families. Edie died yesterday at the age of 88 and I hope that if heaven exists, Edie and Thea are once again dancing together.  I honor her life and legacy by posting my column that originally appeared in the Greensboro News & Record on July 5, 2007.

Same-sex commitments worth celebrating

I started getting home delivery of the Sunday New York Times a few years ago. It’s a small luxury that I can afford, and it gives me a thrill on Sunday mornings to see that blue plastic bag at the end of my driveway.

I could try to impress you and tell you that when I tear into the Sunday Times, I read the Opinion pages first. I do read them (sometimes) but only after I’ve devoured the Sunday Styles section and, specifically, the Weddings/Celebrations pages.

Five years ago, the Times started printing reports of same-sex commitment ceremonies. That’s when the paper changed the heading of the pages from “Weddings” to “Weddings/Celebrations.”

Howell Raines, then the executive editor of The Times, explained, “In making this change, we acknowledge the newsworthiness of a growing and visible trend in society toward public celebrations of commitment by gay and lesbian couples – celebrations important to many of our readers, their families and their friends.”

The Times printing gay wedding/celebration announcements was important to me for obvious reasons. Any time gay relationships are treated equally – not for better or worse, not for richer or poorer, but equally – is an affirmation for all gays.

Nick Gottlieb and his partner, Macky Alston, were one of the first gay couples to appear in The Times in 2002. Gottlieb recalls wanting to make a political statement that a gay couple could be just as successful, loving and committed as a straight couple. Gottlieb made his point, but he also got a thrill seeing the picture of himself and his partner in the paper.

“It was really nice to feel held up by your community,” he said. “We were made to feel very important, which is exactly what you want on your wedding day.”

I must confess that reading the gay announcements in The Times is one of my favorite guilty pleasures.

My friend, Andrew, gets The Sunday Times, too. And for the first few years of the announcements, we had a standard Sunday greeting to each other which went like this, “Any good gays in The Times?”

I know. That makes us sound really shallow, but the reality is that to make it into The Times’ wedding pages, you have to pretty much possess three things: rich parents, an Ivy League degree or two or three and an important position that includes the words chief executive, managing partner or vice president in your title.

So, reading The Times’ wedding announcements is really entertainment for me, almost like a good beach book. I scan the pages looking for the gay couples first. There are usually one or two gay announcements each Sunday, and not to sound petty, but you see way more gay men than lesbians.

Maybe that’s why an announcement a few weeks ago immediately caught my eye. It was about two women – two older women – even more of an anomaly.

The first line of the announcement read: Thea Clara Spyer and Edith Schlain Windsor were married in Toronto on Wednesday.

I went on to learn that Dr. Spyer, 75, is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, and Ms. Windsor, 77, is a retired computer systems consultant. Spyer and Windsor met in in 1965 in a restaurant in the West Village.

“Everyone lived in the closet,” Windsor recalled of lesbian life in New York in the 1960s.

Spyer and Windsor went to a friend’s apartment that first night and danced so much that Windsor danced a hole in her stockings. The pair didn’t cross paths again until two years later at a Memorial Day weekend in the Hamptons.

They’ve been together ever since.

My column, not unlike the Times’ Wedding/Celebrations section, is an entertainment vehicle, not the outlet for a political debate about gay marriage.

Maybe we can just agree that many of us – straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender – grow up dreaming of falling in love and spending the rest of our lives with that person.

Thea Spyer and Edith Windsor had that dream.

One of the last lines in their Times announcement revealed that Spyer has become a quadriplegic as a result of advanced multiple sclerosis.

The announcement ends with a sentence more powerful than any argument that I could ever make for gay marriage:

Dr. Spyer had the help of three aides who traveled with her to Canada to officially marry Ms. Windsor, ending an engagement that began in 1967.

I have another confession to make. I almost always cry at weddings.

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Thea and Edie

 

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My wedding day. Thank you, Edie.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Marry Month of May

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Wedding anniversaries are usually intimate affairs for two, but I recently celebrated my first one with my wife and six men.

I thought that might get your attention.

The celebration took place at a dinner party gathering of The May 5th Club. You see last May, four gay couples from the Triad all got married on the same day – a Monday no less – across three time zones.

They say there’s no place like home but thanks to Amendment One, we all had to leave NC to marry the person we want to spend the rest of our life with. The four weddings were as different as the four couples but over the course of a wonderful evening together we learned that we all agreed on one thing – being married just feels different. 

And we love it.

So I give you Four Weddings and a Squirrel (I’ll explain later.)

David and Mark

Mark and David

David and Mark

They got “maui’d” in Maui on the beach at sunset. I would say it was the wedding of their dreams but they would admit that they planned the vacation first. A few months before their trip, they were sitting at dinner in Asheville one Saturday night and Mark said, “You know, we should get married when we’re in Hawaii.” And that was that.

David has a dear friend who lives in HI who helped them arrange the details and served as their witness. They had a traditional Hawaiian wedding including the blessing of rings sprinkled by a Ti leaf dipped in ocean water gathered from a Koa wood bowl. Koa is a treasured hardwood that represents integrity and strength – a fitting reflection of David and Mark.

They both confessed to tearing up “a little bit” at the blessing at the end of the service but their favorite part was the “after”– a celebration dinner that went on for hours.

“Mark feels like home to me,” said David.

As we sat around David and Mark’s table at our dinner that night, I think all of us felt at home.

Mark and Kem

Mark and Kem

Kem and Mark

Some trips down the aisle are longer than others and that was certainly the case for Kem and Mark. They had been fast friends for years and after Kem divorced his wife of 32 years, they eventually started going out. “It just kind of made sense to start dating my best friend,” said Mark.

I asked them when they knew it was getting serious between them and Kem smiled his gentle smile and softly said, “When the first thing I thought of every morning was him.”

Mark is the analytical one in the relationship and when the Edie Windsor ruling came down in 2013, overturning The Defense of Marriage Act, he began to think strategically about getting married. “The possibilities became real and I knew we had to get ahead of what was happening here in NC,” he said.

They were married in Seattle because as Kem noted, “We wanted to get as far to the left of NC as we could.” They chose a beautiful B&B in the Gaslight district and were touched by the warm reception of so many strangers at the inn. “Everyone wanted to come up and hug us,” said Kem.

After the ceremony, they drove two hours to Vancouver for their honeymoon and that’s when it hit Mark. He turned to his best friend and said, “This has been a perfect day. We’re married.”

Joey and Chad

Joey and Chad

Chad and Joey

I work with Chad and when he was interviewing for the position a year ago this past February, he told me he was engaged. When he accepted the position, he reminded me that he would need a little time off for his wedding. I said, “Sure, when is it?” “May 5th,” he replied.

The rest of the conversation went like this:

Me: (shriek) Oh, my God, I’m getting married on May 5th!

Chad: (shriek) Oh, my God, that’s crazy!

Me:  We picked May 5th because it’s the anniversary of our first date.

Chad: (louder shriek): Oh, my God, that’s why we picked it, too!

Me: Where are you getting married?

Chad: DC.

Me: (louder shriek) Me, too!

Chad: (even louder shriek) Oh, my God!

I’m sure my staff thought we were being taken hostage in my office with all the noise.

It took two proposals for them to seal the deal. Chad proposed to Joey over dinner out one night in a very casual way. He simply said, “So, I think we should get married. What do you think?” To which Joey replied, “No, that is not a real proposal.”

For Joey, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that bling. He wanted Chad to put a ring on it.

Fast forward to the summer of 2013 and Chad and Joey were walking around DC, one of their favorite cities, when they stopped in front of the White House and Joey said, “I think we’re ready, let’s get married.” They were going to do it on the spot but soon learned about the three-day waiting period for a license in DC.

Chad and Joey's best squirrel

Chad and Joey’s best squirrel

So they decided to wait and do it up right on the anniversary of their first date. They were married in a wedding chapel in the morning and then took a long walk around the city. They once again found themselves in front of the White House and staked out a private space in a nearby park and exchanged their own vows with each other. Their witness was a lone squirrel who chewed loudly on a nut while they poured their hearts out to each other.

Chad’s favorite memory of the day is watching Joey methodically getting ready for their wedding in their room at the Mayflower Hotel. He watched his soon to be husband delicately lay out his shirt, tie and suit – stopping to wipe his eyes after he placed each item on the bed.

I love this story.

Oh, and by the way, Joey got his bling and then some.

Joy and Addy

Joy and Addy

Addison and Joy

I wrote about our wedding in a blog post last summer and although I never tire of hearing the story, I can understand that you might.

Joy and I had been planning a blessing at our church for months. We knew we didn’t want any part of a “pretend” wedding in NC but when it became apparent that legally married same-sex couples would be afforded federal benefits, we decided we should have a civil ceremony. We thought we would go to DC and have our dear friends, Phyllis and Tom, DC residents, be our witnesses at the court-house.

Phyllis would not hear of it and insisted that we be married in her fabulous apartment near Dupont Circle. Phyllis is my mentor and one of my dearest friends on earth and I learned early on that you never argue with her. And really, why would you?

And so we had a beautiful and intimate wedding surrounded by a few dear friends and approximately 2,000 cherry blossoms. Seriously, Phyllis and Tom’s living room looked like the Tidal Basin in May.

And we were both astonished by how completing overwhelming the moment was. We knew we would be happy but to be held in the center of a circle of so much love and to say words to each other that we never dreamed we’d ever be able to was utterly thrilling.

We really did feel different. We felt more. More connected, more loved, more permanent.

More.

The irony is not lost on me that as we all look forward to celebrating our first anniversaries with our spouses, the Supreme Court is weighing the decision on same-sex marriage perhaps once and for all.

I lost all patience on this issue a long time ago and I can only hope that love will indeed finally win when the Court’s decision is revealed in June. Whatever happens, I know of eight sweet hearts who will forever take the Fifth.

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The May 5th Club

Legal Equals

This is happening now!

After all the many years of waiting for marriage equality, I never imagined I would learn that I was legally married in my home state of North Carolina from a Facebook post.

But that’s how it happened last Friday, October 10th. My wife (we were married in the District of Columbia in May) and I have a Friday ritual of going to a late matinee. It’s a perfect way to wind down the work week and kick off the weekend.

skeleton twinsSo there we were sitting in a/perture cinema with a handful of folks waiting for “The Skeleton Twins” to begin when we checked our phones one last time. We had, of course, been following the events of the day via live streams, texts, and yes, Facebook.

The word was that Judge Osteen’s ruling would not come down until sometime on Monday, leaving lots of hopeful same-sex couples standing at the proverbial altar – or more precisely, the Register of Deeds office.

And then the frantic announcement came down – a judge in Asheville had bitch slapped Amendment One to death and same-sex marriage was now legal in the Old North State.

I had always dreamed that the moment of being equal would feel like the scenes from the end of World War II when people ran into the streets and strangers embraced to celebrate.

Instead, my wife and I exchanged no words – we simply looked at each other’s tears streaming down our faces and gently kissed. It was as intimate and reverent and perfect as one moment can be.

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My Facebook post celebrating marriage equality.

We thought for a minute about abandoning the movie and finding some friends to celebrate with but we stayed and held hands in the dark for 90 minutes.

No wonder those poor misguided folks were so afraid of same-sex marriage.

Afterwards, we went out for dinner and caught up on the Facebook frenzy. I remarked that I hadn’t seen such a gay FB feed since Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime performance.

It was like the best roller coaster ride ever seeing all the posts, photos and videos of couples getting married – simply thrilling.

My friends Michelle and Karen - with the Rev. Julie Peeples officiating - were one of the first couples to wed once the ruling came down.

My friends Michelle and Karen – with the Rev. Julie Peeples officiating – were one of the first couples to wed once the ruling came down.

Earlier in the day, I was interviewed by a local reporter about the anticipated demise of Amendment One and she asked me if I had any regrets about not waiting to get married in North Carolina. I told her, “Absolutely not.”

We were ready and damn tired of waiting.

I’m just so profoundly grateful that history has finally caught up with our hearts.

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After 48 years together, these iconic sweethearts (Pearl and Lennie) are finally legally married in North Carolina.