State News

Together 48 years, couple fights NC marriage ban

Posted August 14

— On the summer night Ellen Gerber and Pearl Berlin committed to spending their lives together, the No. 1 song was "When A Man Loves A Woman."

Lyndon B. Johnson was president. NASA had just landed the first unmanned probe on the moon.

"We're still in love, after 48 years," Gerber, better known as Lennie, said recently. "We still can't begin the day without a good cuddle."

June 2, 1966, is engraved in Roman numerals on the identical gold bands the women exchanged during a religious wedding at their Greensboro synagogue last year on the anniversary of that long-ago night. They followed three months later with a civil ceremony in Maine.

But under North Carolina law, they might as well be strangers.

That's why Gerber and Berlin are the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the state's voter-approved constitutional amendment banning legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

"They can see that in us, that being gay or lesbian is just the same as being straight," Gerber said. "You just love somebody of your own sex. Otherwise, there's no difference. ... We want to be recognized for what we are – a married couple."

Last month, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals – with jurisdiction over five states, including North Carolina – struck down Virginia's same-sex marriage ban. On Wednesday, the appellate panel refused to delay its ruling, possibly clearing the way for gay marriages to begin next week in the Old Dominion.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has said it would be "futile" to continue defending his state's similar law. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP legislative leaders urged Cooper, a Democrat, to continue the fight, but gave no indication they will defend the ban themselves.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Gerber and Berlin, on Wednesday asked a federal judge to find that the 4th Circuit's ruling set a legal precedent that North Carolina must follow, essentially invalidating the state's constitutional and statutory bans on same-sex marriage.

"Virginia had a marriage ban. The 4th Circuit struck that marriage ban down. North Carolina's marriage ban is legally indistinguishable. Therefore, it should be struck down, and it should be struck down now, said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU's North Carolina chapter.

Many North Carolinians in same-sex relationships are waiting until marriage is legal in the state before they make their unions legal, even though same-sex marriage is legal in other states.

"We didn't want to have to actually leave the state to get married and then drive back into the state and have it completely unrecognized. What's the point of getting married?" Brian Johnson said.

There are real-world worries that come with being gay and growing older, and time is not on the side of Gerber and Berlin, who live in High Point.

Berlin, 89, fell down some stairs before Christmas, hitting her head, breaking three ribs and enduring her third hospital stay in two years.

Gerber, a 78-year-old retired lawyer, long ago drafted Berlin's health-care power of attorney. But a piece of paper is no guarantee hospital staff would immediately afford her the same spousal rights that would be automatic if she were married to a man.

"It's very scary, that something could happen to Pearl and I could be kept from her," Gerber said. "They might not let me in the emergency room with her. They might not let me help make decisions. ... It would be just horrendous if I wasn't able to be there with her, holding her hand. I would die if I couldn't do that."

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, same-sex marriage proponents around the country won nearly two dozen legal victories. Such marriages are now allowed in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

Legal experts predict North Carolina's first same-sex marriage licenses could be issued within months, depending on the legal process.

But Gerber and Berlin worry they might not have much time. Their lawyers plan to file a brief asking a federal judge in Greensboro to grant immediate recognition to same-sex marriages.

"Marriage is a statement that you make in front of your family, your friends, your community. It has a meaning that tells the world who you are. It's a very fundamental part of someone's identity," Gerber said.

The walls of the home they built in High Point are covered with art and photos from their adventures. They visited all seven continents, even mingling with penguins on an Antarctic ice shelf.

Berlin is a perfectionist. Gerber admits she's something of a slob.

They met in 1964, when Gerber visited a friend in Detroit who invited Berlin for brunch. Berlin taught at Wayne State University. Gerber was headed to graduate school at the University of Southern California.

It wasn't love at first sight, but they had a lot in common. They both taught physical education. They were both "nice Jewish girls from Brooklyn." They'd never had much interest in boys.

"I had a crush on every female camp counselor I ever had. On every Girl Scout leader. On a couple of my teachers," Gerber said. "I came home from my first summer where I was at camp for a month, and I wrote, 'I love Sandy,' on every page of my diary."

Over the next two years, with frequent calls and visits, their friendship evolved into love. Gerber landed a job at Berlin's college.

On the long drive moving Gerber to Michigan, they stopped at a motel. Conversation turned to where Gerber would live. That night, they decided to move in together.

They didn't tell their families they were a couple, but didn't hide it. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Gerber's mother offered to buy a second bed. They declined. She started buying Berlin pajamas.

"She said, 'We will never condone this,'" Gerber recounted. "But she got to the point where she could laugh when I said, 'But Mother. You always said all you cared about was that I marry a Jew, and I did.'"

Berlin had inadvertently outed herself years earlier, mistakenly sending her mother a love letter she had written to a woman. Her mother called.

"And she says, 'Pearl, I just want to tell you something. I just finished reading today's mail, and I just read your letter to Marian. It was very well written. I know you did not intend it for me. I want you to know your father will never see it and never hear a word about it.'"

Eventually, even Berlin's father accepted their relationship, telling Gerber: "Lennie. If you were a man, this would all be perfect," Gerber recounted.

Berlin moved to a college in Massachusetts, and Gerber got work there too. Then, in 1971, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro asked Berlin to run a new doctoral program.

Gerber said school administrators made it clear they would never hire her.

"They said we were 'too open,'" Gerber said. "You were supposed to pretend."

So Gerber went to law school and became a legal aid lawyer. Later, she helped gay and lesbian couples draft wills, powers of attorney and fill out tax returns.

Still, no legal document can provide the same protections as a marriage certificate. Gerber recounts cases where relatives fought deceased people's gay partners over their estates, or excluded them from funerals.

While that isn't a concern for Gerber, she worries Berlin's death certificate will list her marital status as single.

"I think anybody who had lost a spouse would be devastated if somebody said, 'Eh, this isn't your spouse.'"

Berlin chuckles at talk of her demise. She already has picked the font for invitations to their golden anniversary party — on June 2, 2016.

___

Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at https://twitter.com/mbieseck .

180 Comments

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  • Pepe Silvia Aug 15, 9:38 a.m.

    If marriage is allowed for all groups, saying 'I'm married' will not help make a distinction... View More

    — Posted by jeffjohnson123

    First of all, NC doesn't allow 'civil unions' for gay or straight couples.

    Secondly, 'separate but equal' is never equal, nor constitutional, and even in places that allow civil unions vs same sex marriages it has been proven that its not recognized the same way.

    Third, WHO CARES? You want to tell people they can't define their relationship the way they want because you're afraid you'd have to 'defend yourself' that you're not gay? Is that it? I'm straight and married. If I'm talking to someone and mention being married, the odds are that my husband is going to be mentioned either as my husband or by his name. If I'm checking box on a form for "married" I don't care if the person looking at that form doesn't know if I mean to a male or female, just like I don't care that they don't know the color of my husbands skin or anything else because its irrelevant to our relationship and some stranger.

  • dwntwnboy2 Aug 15, 9:29 a.m.

    "we live in a country that allows to people vote on issues"- correct, we vote on issues. We don't however get to vote on rights. Was there a vote for civil rights for blacks? Was there a vote for women to even GET to vote? NO, there wasn't. Just like there should never have been a vote on marriage equality. No one yet can give any valid, legal, rational reason to deny marriage equality. Still waiting for that ONE valid, non-religion based argument against it.

  • Grand Union Aug 15, 8:51 a.m.

    For those that argue that a majority of people in NC voted for Amendment 1, therefore it should... View More

    — Posted by snakeman65

    what's that have to do with the people of NC voted to have this Amendment in place. Say what you... View More

    — Posted by kennedy63

    Except a majority are in favor. Amendment 1 was pass by a mere 20% or so of the electorate (The Tea Party bigots ran it in an off year primary cycle so turn out was tiny).

    All polls recently make it quite clear the majority of people in NC do support SSM.

    But it doesn't matter either way.....the rights we have are not decided by majority rule. They are decided by the US constituition and the SCOTUS.
    Don't like that, go live in a theocracy like ISIS or Iran. because you are not getting one here!

  • Tony Snark Aug 15, 8:51 a.m.

    They can have a civil union. Marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

    — Posted by alwaysconcernedmom

    1) separate but equal has been ruled unconstitutional.

    2) why?

  • Tony Snark Aug 15, 8:50 a.m.

    New Federalism, as advocated by Ronald Reagan, called for social issues to be decided locally.

    — Posted by conservativecop94

    That doesn't work when it is a constitutional issue.

  • jurydoc Aug 15, 8:21 a.m.

    They can have a civil union. Marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

    — Posted by alwaysconcernedmom

    Apparently you haven't read Amendment 1. It states, "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts."

    Thus, marriage and only marriage is the ONLY legal union; NO civil unions allowed.

  • LittleDragon Aug 15, 8:06 a.m.

    Enjoy the next 48 ladies.

  • alwaysconcernedmom Aug 14, 7:45 p.m.

    They can have a civil union. Marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

  • Tony Snark Aug 14, 7:36 p.m.

    For those that argue that a majority of people in NC voted for Amendment 1, therefore it should... View More

    — Posted by snakeman65

    what's that have to do with the people of NC voted to have this Amendment in place. Say what you... View More

    — Posted by kennedy63

    Constitutional issues are not settled by majority vote. Under the US system, they are questions for the Supreme Court.

  • jeffjohnson123 Aug 14, 6:46 p.m.

    Then lets all

    "Respect my choice"- yet you don't want to respect the choice of those who wish to join together... View More

    — Posted by dwntwnboy2

    Their choice is civil union.

    — Posted by jeffjohnson123

    Again, for the record, under the NC constitution civil unions, regardless of whether the couple... View More

    — Posted by Pensive01

    Then let's all agree to allow civil unions for gays. I'd buy that.

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