Lennie Gerber is best known as one of the plaintiffs, along with Pearl Berlin, her partner of 52 years, in the landmark 2014 gay marriage case Gerber et al. v. Cooper. As a result of the case, U.S. District Court Judge William Osteen ruled North Carolina’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional. The life of Gerber and the life of the couple, however, is much more expansive than their involvement in the long legal battle for gay marriage. Over the course of her life, Gerber led a storied legal career, fighting for housing justice, consumer protection and the right of incarcerated women to be involved in their children’s lives. Following Berlin’s death in 2018, in the bed where they slept together every night they were home, Gerber has honored her wife’s tenacity and drive by continuing her own activist career and ensuring that the lessons of their life are shared.
If you could gather everyone you love in one place for one night, what food would you serve and what music would you play?
We gathered all of our loved ones together for our 25th, 40th and 50th anniversaries, and Pearl’s 90th birthday. On each of these occasions, we had about 40 to 50 people. So, we had them all catered. Food was heavy hors d’oeuvres, desserts and lots of wine. With crowds like that, we didn’t play music. If we had done so, it would have been classical.
You are a hero to many gay, lesbian and bisexual people across the country. What young LGBTQ activists or public figures inspire you today?
I don’t know many young people, let alone young LGBTQ activists. But, I greatly admire this trans kid I met when he was awarded the first Pearl Berlin Scholarship at the annual Guilford Green Foundation dinner. [From Guilford Green’s website: “Anthony Davis-Pait has demonstrated tremendous leadership in the LGBTQ community by presenting at conferences across N.C. about his experience as an openly trans student, helping organize the annual Alternative Prom for LGBTQ youth, and serving as a liaison to school administration on trans inclusivity.”]
At that same dinner, the speaker was a young trans-woman in her 20s whom I greatly admire. Sarah McBride is the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign. I sat next to her that evening, and we talked a lot. I also read the book she has written, “Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality.”
The past decade has been a complex one for LGBTQ progress in the United States. Of course, gay marriage has been legalized in all 50 states, and public approval of LGBTQ people is higher than ever. However, there are also troubling developments: the post-2016 rise in hate crimes against LGBTQ people, especially transgender people of color, and the Trump administration’s attack on gay adoption rights and transgender service people. Do you worry we are losing ground in the fight for LGBTQ rights and dignity?
No! I find that the fight for gay and lesbian rights is over. Done! Finished! Seriously, the acceptance these days is almost miraculous. Note the Pride flags flying all over the place, including from several U.S. embassies. People finally have learned that being gay is not just about two men having sex. I believe that because of the fight for marriage equality, people finally came to understand that being gay or lesbian is all about who we love. “Love” is a very positive picture.
But, the focus has shifted to trans people. That is where the fight is now, and I believe it will take some time for people to accept them. They have to meet trans people, and we need some TV stories about trans people, so people can see how normal they are.
What would 12-year-old Lennie be most surprised to know about current Lennie’s life?
Not much! I always was a tomboy who had crushes on female teachers (and, later, counselors). Maybe the biggest surprise would be that I have lived in the South for more than half of my adult life. Also, that I do not live in a big city, but have a house on a river, with woods between.
You and Pearl were together for more than 50 years and legally married for almost five. What advice do you have for maintaining a long, healthy relationship?
Live in the overlap. Pearl created that concept as she mused that we were both independent and dependent. She also wrote: “Respect each other. Always look for and choose the overlap — the area where your tastes, desires, interests, likes, beliefs coincide.” Also, if you can, travel together. When you are away from your normal routines, you have many extra decisions to make, every day. If you learn to make them together, your bond will deepen and it will carry over to everyday life. Finally, it is OK to have fights (audible, not physical). Just be sure to make up by bedtime. No carrying disagreements over to the next day.
One of your forms of service in recent years has been to encourage and advise LGBTQ seniors on creating advance directives to ensure that their wishes are followed if they become unable to advocate for themselves. Why do you think this issue is important? Did your own experience with Pearl’s health problems before and during the court case inform your decision to help other LGBTQ seniors with this process?
I started doing such documents for the community in the early 1990s (when we both were healthy). Partners were not as accepted then, as they are now. And, there were no legal spouses. So, in times of sickness and, perhaps death, family took over and insisted on making the necessary decisions. Now, legally married couples usually can make decisions without these documents. However, a Health Care POA [Power of Attorney] still is a must. And, if you are not married, then the Health Care and Durable POAs are still a must. And, so is a will. When Pearl was sick near the end of her life, there never was any question that I had the right to be informed, make decisions, etc., because I was the legal spouse. MDs, nurses, everybody, accepted my presence at all MD visits, etc., and willingly conferred with me.
Who are some of your favorite LGBTQ authors and/or poets?
My friend, Janet Joyner, is my favorite LGBT poet. Virginia Wolfe and Rita Mae Brown are two of my favorite novelists. And, of course, Radclyffe Hall.
What is your perfect lazy day?
Get up, read the paper, go for a walk, sit around reading, or, playing on my computer, have a nice nap in the afternoon, take a swim (we have a pool), watch TV beginning with the PBS NewsHour at 6 p.m.
What do you believe is the next frontier for LGBTQ rights in the United States?
Winning many elections, putting us openly in state and federal legislative bodies, governerships, judges, etc. Establishing more LGBT communities, especially for retired people.
What do you hope to accomplish next?
I’m an old lady, so I’m now leaving the accomplishments to others. For myself, I very much need to figure out how and where to spend the rest of my life.