Ruthie Berman was in her 40s when she kissed her best friend, Connie Kurtz, for the first time. "I was in another world. I was in another space in the way I was behaving. It was totally different than anything I had experienced." This was the 1970s, with both married to men, both mothers, both members of the same small Jewish community in Brooklyn.
But Berman felt something she realized she'd never felt before: she was falling head-over-heels in love. After the kiss, Berman asked her, "Can't you do better than that?" They kissed again and they kept kissing for the next 40 years.
"There was a connection that was extraordinary. It wasn't only a loving connection. It was a political connection. It was a private connection. It was knowing each other's families. It was knowing our history of growing up and everything that we had gone through. We knew each other."
In the fourth episode of LGBTQ&A's new LGBTQ+ Elders Project, Ruthie Berman shares the details of her epic, decades-long love story. She talks about their activism, including successfully suing the New York City Board of Education for domestic partner benefits in 1988, adjusting to living alone for the first time now in her 80s, and reflects on how much has and hasn't changed for LGBTQ+ people since she came out almost 50 years ago.
"I deserve better in my golden years than what I have now. The world sucks. America is in the worst place in my history that it's ever been and I'm concerned about my community."
You can listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts and read excerpts below.
JM: You and your wife were originally close friends in the 1970s. What was the moment when you realized you wanted to be more than friends?
RB: Connie and her husband decided to move to Israel. It was a difficult goodbye, but we managed. And then she came in for a visit, she and her husband. I was coming home from work and I suddenly felt a falling-in-love experience that I hadn't experienced and it was for Connie.
One night, we went to a show. It was Off-Broadway. And one of the scenes was a lesbian in a red gown singing, and I felt something. Something happened to me. And that night I got dressed in a red dress and I asked Connie to kiss me, and that was the beginning of our relationship.
JM: And so you made the first move?
RB: Yes, which was very wild. I had no idea that I could feel this way. I had a wonderful marriage, a wonderful family, a wonderful career, everything was falling into place in a very positive way, and all of a sudden, I'm in love with a woman.
JM: This was not a platonic kiss. It was a big, romantic kiss.
RB: Yes. In fact, I said to her afterward, "Can't you do better than that?"
I was in another world. I was in another space in the way I was behaving. It was totally different than anything I had experienced. I couldn't even think about it until it reached a point where I went to visit her in Israel for my birthday and we went away for two weeks together and just made love. It brought the relationship to a really wonderful place. You have to remember, we already had a friendship. We were now having a love affair.
JM: Did you have to also consider that this might mean that you were gay? When did that come up?
RB: I didn't even think about being gay until we got together and I had to make a decision about divorce. At that time, the lawyer said, "You have to be very careful with what you're going to do. You'll lose custody of your children." My late ex-husband was in such a place of shock and sadness that he didn't give me any room.
I decided to leave because the community was gossiping terribly. We lived in the community together for many years. My mother lived there. It was very difficult for her. As soon as she walked out and they saw he: talking, talking, talking. It was not easy.
JM: What made you decide to sue the New York City Board of Education in 1988?
RB: What happened was I was very conscious that Connie did not have a health plan and she needed one because she had health issues. After hearing that my colleagues had their wives on and their husbands on, I said I wanted Connie on my health plan. So I went to the clerk. She gives me the application and I write Connie's name. And "Connie" looked like a man's name, right? She later hands me a piece of paper back from the board of education, Verboten. You're not married.
The phone rings; it's Lambda Legal Defense, Would we join the lawsuit for domestic partnership with the New York City teachers? Of course.
JM: How did they find out that this happened to you?
RB: We belonged to the Gay Teachers Association. We were active immediately in organizations. The Gay Teachers organization wanted to have their partners on their health plan, but they needed people who would really go into it. So there were three couples and the other two couples wanted to be anonymous. We didn't care.
JM: There’s a clip online of your appearance on The Phil Donahue Show talking about this. You get pretty heated.
RB: You know why? Millions of people around the country were going to see this. They had to hear the truth. They had to hear what we are going through. So did my community of LGBTQ people. They had to hear that we could speak up, speak out, we deserve. That was important to me.
Connie wanted me to come out. Once she said to me...she said the following sentence, "Ruth, you're not respecting the relationship." That was it. I was out because she was right. That was more important than if people pointed a finger at me or whatever it would be.
JM: You were ultimately successful with the lawsuit.
RB: Dinkins, who was the mayor at the time, went for domestic partnerships for all city employees. That's what the end result was. It was for straight people. So every time I was at a meeting or whatever — because they would mention that they had a domestic partnership — I would say, "You have to thank me and Connie, lesbians, for getting the domestic partnership for you straight people." Once domestic came, straight people could do the same thing.
In fact, the lawyers that we had had, from Lambda Legal Defense, at the end of our first meeting, knowing what would happen, Connie said, "Why aren't you going for marriage? Why are you just going for domestic partnership? Why don't we go for marriage?" And they said, "We don't think we'll get this." So the six of us, the three couples, at the end of the meeting got together and said, "We're going to get this. We're going to work for getting this, and we will." It took a few years, but it was really the beginning all over. We were opening up all over the states for things like this.
JM: As you came out and started meeting other gay people, what surprised you the most about the community?
RB: It wasn't so much a surprise as a sadness of how poorly they were treated when they came out by their families, how alone so many of them were, being together so long and not having children, not being accepted in a community, always watching themselves, not having a picture of the one they loved on their desk when they were working. It was difficult.
And that has a lot to do with shame, embarrassment, because we so focus in on the sexual and not the person. And it's beyond. It isn't just the sexual. It's the person. And I applaud, in many ways, the way gay men bounce around with each other and accept that. I'm going to use the word, you can f*** around and it's OK. They have a freedom.
JM: Did you crave that freedom?
RB: Not really. Not really. If I wanted to, I think I could. Yeah. I think there is some of it in the lesbian community but we don't know very much because they're even more silent. The lesbians are much more silent because they still are women and they know that women are secondary citizens in this country, everywhere really.
JM: How did having sex with Connie the first time compare to the sex you'd had previously in your life?
RB: Oh, it was overwhelming because it wasn't only orgasmic. It was in every part of my body. It was extraordinary.
JM: Did that passion exist throughout your marriage?
RB: Yes. Yes.
JM: You're smiling big.
RB: Because we really... There was a connection that was extraordinary. It wasn't only a loving connection. It was a political connection. It was a private connection. It was knowing each other's families. It was knowing our history of growing up and everything that we had gone through. We knew each other, even if issues came up.
JM: How have you been doing since Connie's passed away in 2018?
RB: Lousy. I have pictures of her. She was an artist. And I have a picture of her with hundreds of pennies, nickels, dimes, dollars because we were both poor kids in Brooklyn, and we would walk in the street. And if there was any money in the street, we would pick it up, and I'd say, "It's a message from the goddess. All will be well." When she passed away, I started finding money when I was thinking of her.
JM: When was the last time you saw a woman and thought, Damn, she's hot?
RB: Not interested. I could say, Damn, she's hot, but I don't experience anything in the way I would if I really were interested. I'm not interested. You know why? It's too hard. It isn't just going to bed or sex. There's conversation, there's family, there's interference, there's politics, there's too much. I don't want it.
JM: Do you miss sex?
RB: I can take care of myself. I do. It's healthy. Very healthy. That's why I do it.
JM: Is this the first time you've lived alone in your life? What’s that been like?
RB: Oh yes. That's very difficult. Very difficult. I can sleep, but being alone is difficult because we talked a lot, about everything. It didn't matter whatever. If she were watching a TV show and I came home from shopping, we would talk about the music that was on the TV show.
It was extraordinary, the relationship. It wasn't to say that there were days we had such fights we want to say goodbye, but we would begin to laugh when we thought about that.
JM: What has surprised you the most about grief and grieving?
RB: Sometimes I don't agree that it's a process because the grief is there with the loss, period. What you do with it, what you do with your life, how you handle it, how you take care of yourself... there's been times where I would like to say, Goodbye. I'm done.
When I go, it's fine. Because I believe in...I'm using the word hereafter. We don't know enough about it not to know that we may meet. Who knows? We don't know. And it's such a secret. We don't deal with death very easily. We don't deal with aging here. Aging is put aside. The least people our government takes care of are the elders and the youth.
JM: You’re turning 88 in two weeks. Is there something that you wish we knew or paid more attention to when it comes to LGBTQ+ elders?
RB: A lot of our elders have no family. Their money is very, very sparse. There's little community that pays attention to them. And it's difficult. My community has helped America grow. LGBT people, the work that they do, the careers that they have, have helped America grow, and they're treated like s***. We should not have to be in the closet. We should be very proud. I'm proud of my community. And that I learned by meeting people across the country and what they were doing with their lives.
I deserve better in my golden years than what I have now. The world sucks. America is in the worst place in my history that it's ever been and I'm concerned about my community.
You can listen to the full podcast with Ruthie Berman on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
This is the fourth episode in LGBTQ&A's new LGBTQ+ Elders Project. You can listen to our interview with the trans elder Barbara Satin here.
New episodes come out every Tuesday.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay.