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Together 48 years, couple fights NC marriage ban

HIGH POINT, N.C. (AP) - 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 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.

There are real-world worries that come with being gay and growing older. And time is not on the High Point couple's side.

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.

Join the discussion

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Scooby August 14 2014 at 12:55 PM

All you "Christians" blabbing about sinners and why these people shouldn't be allowed to get married should realize something.

This is America. We do not base our government and laws on religion. To insist we do, sounds real familiar.... hmmmm lets see....a group of people who virulently oppose something that they believe to be against their religion.... Aha!

You all sound just as bad as the Muslim extremists. Trying to force everyone to abide by your own personal religions views? sound familiar at all? Trying to impose religion upon everyone and saying that because it is your religion it should be law?

Best analogy yet. Saying 2 people can't marry each other because it is against your religion is just like a muslim extremist. Trying to force people to abide by your religious "laws".

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6 replies
Kathie August 14 2014 at 9:34 AM

They have been together a lot longer than most "Bible" marriages so I say God Bless you both.

Flag Reply +19 rate up
3 replies
lorismomoftwo August 14 2014 at 10:16 AM

I don't care how "accepted" this becomes...it's still gross to me.

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13 replies
danbckls August 14 2014 at 7:58 AM

So this is mrs and mrs. God help this Nation that perverts the laws of the Creator. Sin is one thing, but to demand the right to commit the sin.

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11 replies
Bluedane August 14 2014 at 7:48 AM

Beautiful love story. Wish you all the best ladies! Keep strong.

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2 replies
Dan Bluedane August 14 2014 at 9:21 AM

They can always go to another state to get married. ♣

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2 replies
accsport Dan August 14 2014 at 9:33 AM

You seem to have your history backward. The Church told the government to stay out of the Church's business and not the other way around. If you are going to shoot off your mouth at least be accurate.

Flag +1 rate up
Beverly Doyle Dan August 14 2014 at 12:27 PM

If you had actually read the article, you would know that they already did that - they are now asking the state of NC to recognize the marriage.

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Roy Bluedane August 15 2014 at 12:03 AM

Yeah, divided we stand!

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Richard August 14 2014 at 8:16 AM

Absolutely, disgusting. Strange, they want to have a same sex relationship and one of them always has to look like they are a man.May they repent of their sin before they die. Else they will burn forevere.

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6 replies
Bennie August 14 2014 at 10:08 AM

Don't you lily perfect Christians get tired of hating. You hate black, latino, border kids, the president, liberals, single mothers, minimum wage earners, the poor and the gays. Did I miss anyone?

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9 replies
mgt0331 August 14 2014 at 9:29 AM

This couple are probably the most disgusting looking perverts I have ever seen. Looks like Ellen and Portia 40 years from now. Shut it already. Gross.

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8 replies
mouse August 14 2014 at 12:12 PM

Their marriage is a civil issue not some outdated Bible Thumping rite. They have stayed together lots longer than most married couples. Even the "marriages" "blessed" by some church go off the rails and end in divorce, more often than most want to think. There is absolutely no reason for some religion-based notion of marriage to be allowed to interfere with them. The Constitution expressed separation of the two. If you don't agree, no one is going to make you marry someone of the same sex but you don't have the legal right to force them to bow down to your religion.

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Dan August 14 2014 at 9:20 AM

Of course as state after state gives same-sex relationships legal recognition, the real hurdle will be when they finally get recognition at federal level with regard to such things as SSA spousal benefits. Then it'll officially be the law of the land. ♣

Flag Reply +7 rate up
1 reply
Meh... Dan August 14 2014 at 1:04 PM

you're kidding right? The reason these "gay marriage" bans are being overturned is due to the federal laws allowing them to be married and recognize this marriage for insurance, burial rights, tax benefits, next of kin benefits, SSA benefits..... it's the States that are trying to work around the federal laws. It's Federal judges that are saying the bans are unconstitutional. The Federal gov't says they can marry and be viewed as a married couple with all the benefits of a "traditional" married couple. That is what the "problem" is that the states have about it.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
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