Cindy Hill was drawn to the political issue of marriage equality.
“For somebody trained as a journalist, I always gravitate to stories of human rights and social justice,” Hill says.
But for Mary Dalton, it was all about the love story.
Dalton’s mother read it aloud to her over pancakes: the story of how Ellen “Lennie” Gerber and Pearl Berlin, partners for 45 years, were speaking out against Amendment One, which defined marriage as a union solely between a man and woman.
The story, which ran in the News & Record Feb. 12, 2012, propelled the couple into the spotlight. Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed them on his MSNBC show, “The Last Word.” An Italian journalist took a detour from the Democratic Convention in Charlotte to interview them for the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera. Closer to home, Dalton and Hill of the Wake Forest School of Documentary Studies began filming a documentary about them.
Their film, “Living in the Overlap,” will be shown for the first time June 1 at UNCG. But Dalton will bring out the cameras again shortly afterward to film one more important moment: Lennie Gerber and Pearl Berlin are finally getting married, on their 47th anniversary. MSNBC will be there as well, filming a follow-up story.
The ceremony won’t be legal in the eyes of the state, which ratified Amendment One last year, but it will be in the eyes of Jewish law.
Why did they finally decide to get married?
“It took me 47 years to make up my mind,” Berlin jokes.
She can sum up her vows in four words: “More of the same.”
It only takes Gerber four words, too: “You are my beloved.”
That demonstrates their personalities, and their love story, better than a mountain of words. And that’s what attracted Dalton to them as a documentary subject.
“I think they have the kind of relationship I’d like to have,” Dalton says. “When they talk about their relationship, it’s quite profound. I have not really encountered a couple who had that kind of relationship, and could articulate what that connection means in their daily lives.”
The title comes from their own description of their relationship. There is Lennie and there is Pearl, each independent and separate, but they live in the overlap of their lives, where they share interests, values, backgrounds.
“Living in the overlap means not compromising, because they can always find things they both want to do, things they both agree on,” Dalton says. “They are both independent and interdependent.”
They lived fairly openly as a lesbian couple in an era long before it was widely socially acceptable. Sometimes, it cost them. Berlin moved to Greensboro in 1971 to take a job at UNCG, but they were eventually told that Gerber wouldn’t be hired there because the couple was too “open” about their relationship.
“They lived authentically when it wasn’t easy, and served as trailblazers for others,” Dalton says.
Dalton is especially glad that the graduate school at UNCG, where she earned a master’s and PhD, is hosting the film’s first airing. After all, it was UNCG that first brought the couple to the Triad, where they have become icons in the gay community.
The campaign against Amendment One made them well known far beyond the Triad. People they don’t know or barely remember donated money to the Kickstarter campaign to support the film.
“I think it’s interesting how they’ve been strong and taken on the fight with understated grace,” Hill says. “That’s something that’s in short supply these days.”
Though they lost the fight against Amendment One, they feel they may have won the war.
“Yes, it was terrible,” Gerber says. “But the support we got from the straight community was so great that it mitigated — maybe even outweighed — the defeat.”
It gave people permission to talk, they say. For straight people to see that gay people weren’t so different from themselves.
That’s one reason they decided to do the documentary, and why the filmmakers believe it has the potential to open minds.
“I hope they walk away from the film thinking about what commitment really means and what marriage really means, and why would we deny anyone that right,” Hill says. “I would like for people to get to the stage where they are at least grappling with the issue instead of shutting it down and not having any discussion.”
Berlin hopes it provides inspiration to the gay people who have spent years hiding their lives.
“The stories we tell give us the limitations and possibilities of our lives,” Dalton says. “That’s how we figure out who we are and what we can be. I hope this expands our notions of what roles are open to us.”
Dalton says it should inspire anyone, gay or straight, about the possibility of finding a deep and abiding love. It did that for her.
“I want viewers to understand that there are good relationships and bad relationships, and sex has nothing to do with it,” Dalton says. “Some people are meant to be together, and Lennie and Pearl are meant to be together.”