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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.
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