Ruthie + Connie's Story
Ruth Berman and Connie Kurtz, who have come to be known collectively as "Ruthie and Connie," were friends and community activists who became lovers and lesbian activists. Meeting for the first time in 1957 a married woman with young families in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, they didn't know that their personal lives would become very political during the next 50 years.
When living in the Contello Towers Co-Op, a largely Jewish community in Brooklyn, Ruthie and Connie were friends and neighbors, and seen as "pillars of their community" and of their temple for their community activism.
In this interview with an unnamed reporter from 2001, Connie discusses their early activism which began with marching on City Hall to petition for a new traffic light as the neighborhood got busier and they didn't feel safe crossing the street:
"Ruthie and I were at the forefront as two friends, consciously aware of what the neighborhood needed. We gathered the community and marched on city hall. We needed a Junior High School, well, you march on city hall again, what's the big deal?"
It was clear from the beginning that these women had an innate sense of justice and interior need for equality which grew to later encompass issues outside of their small community and family lives.
In 1971 Connie moved to Israel with her husband and her two children and Ruth stayed in Brooklyn going about her married life. In 1974, Connie returned for a visit around the same time of Ruth's 40th birthday where she decided that she wanted to live more authentically as she always encouraged others to do in her job as a Guidance Counselor.
The two friends spent a lot of time together on that visit and after many late nights of talking, shared a first kiss. They both felt changed. Connie had to return to Israel but the two shared many clandestine phone calls and letters, each terrified of being found out but not being able to deny their feelings. The story of their eventual coming together is complicated, emotional, and winding – In later years they talked about that period of time at length, and every interview they have done includes details of their coming out process. To learn more, explore the collection of their materials at LHA. Eventually Ruthie and Connie moved in together, although it was under the guise of platonic rather than a romantic relationship. Finally, they felt comfortable enough to be out and to engage with the LGBT community at large.
The points they emphasize throughout all their later work was that they wished they had come out sooner, and that they grieve the time they lost to staying in the closet and feeling fear and shame.
This audio from a National Organization for Women (NOW) Confernce in San Deigo, CA includes an impassioned speech by Ruth about the importance of coming out and supporting each other as a lesbian community.
“You’re not only doing it for yourselves, you’re doing it for humanity, you’re do it for peace on earth, you have been chosen for that responsibility. And I need you to come out, because I am willing to open up my mouth but not march alone, I need you behind me."
The house they shared after coming out in the Marine Park neighborhood in Brooklyn is part of the NYC LGBT Historic Site Project which "documents historic places connected to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in New York City" you can read more about that here.
In 1988, once Ruthie and Connie were both out and living together, Connie began to have health problems and Ruth attempted to get Connie on her health insurance plan she had as a NYC teacher. While filling out applications for the healthcare, Ruth serendipitously received a call from Lambda Legal Defense, which was planning a pro-bono lawsuit with the Lesbian & Gay Teachers Association of New York City to sue the NYC Board of Education for Domestic Partner Benefits. The records of the Lesbian and Gay Teachers Association of New York are held at The Gay Center and can be accessed here.
Two other couples were part of this suit, but they weren't out, which put a lot of attention and publicity on the only two willing to speak publicly about the lawsuit, Ruthie and Connie. Famously, Ruthie and Connie appeared on the Phil Donahue show the year the lawsuit began to publicly make a stand for their rights to the nation.
A landmark moment in the case was in 1991 when a New York Judge ruled that gay and lesbian employees have the legal right to sue for Domestic Partnership Benefits. This was the first time "a state trial court judge has upheld a series of claims alleging sexual orinetation and marital status discrimintion for failure to extend benefits to unmarried domestic partners." You can see the press relseas from Lambda Legal Defense on the ruling here.
The lawsuit went on for almost 6 years, and in January of 1993 New York City Mayor Dinkins confirmed Domestic Partnership Benefits for NYC employee's partners, regardless of sexuality. By that summer, New York Govenor Mario Cuomo had decided to extend these benfits to all state employees. You can read an original New York Times article on that decision here.
In this recording from September 2002, Ruthie and Connie speak at an event put on by Pride NY, the employee network group for LGBT individuals at JP Morgan Chase with Out and Equal Metro New York and the NY Bankers Group.
They talk about details of the lawsuit as well as the collective power that queer people and their allies have, and the importance of holding politicians accountable during their time in office, and demanding full legal acknowledgement and recognition of rights and personhood.
In 2002, Director Deborah Dickson made a film about Ruthie + Connie's Story called "Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House." The film was released to wide priase for its framing of two ordinary, working class, Jewish grandmothers who had such a deep impact on peoples lives. Ruthie and Connie appeared at over 40 film festivals to promote their film and speak with audiences about their experiences. In this interview, Deborah Dickson talks about how she wanted the film to appeal to both straight and gay people, and how she wanted to show how Ruthie and Connie and to fight so hard to be themeselves when they wouldn't have had to.
Other Activism, Marriage, and Beyond
Over the years, Ruthie and Connie have helped found Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New york “the world’s largest gay and lesbian synagogue,” worked with their local Black Lives Matter chapter, and advocated for gun reform and immigration rights. They have helped organize PFLAG (Parents, Friends, and Family of Lesbian and Gays) chapters in Florida and New York, and founded The Answer is Love Counseling Center which they ran out of their home. They recived the 2016 SAGE Pioneer Award and in 2019 the Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (O.L.O.C.) named them Winners of Del Martin Old Lesbian Pride Award in recognition of all their work which has impacted the lives of Older Lesbians.
On July 26, 2011, two days after gay marraige was legalized in New York, Ruthie and Connie were legally married.
Connie Kurtz died in 2018 after a battle with liver cancer. Her life and work was celebrated after her passing, and Ruthie continues to be an activist and speak about her and Connie's life and love. You can see Connie's New York Times Obituary here.
Most recently, in May of 2022, Ruthie was on the LGBTQ&A podcast, telling her story.
If you are intrested in doing more reserach about Ruthie and Connie, Smith College Archives holds the Ruth Berman and Connie Kurtz Papers.