Connie Kurtz, Lesbian Activist, Artist, Dies at 81

Connie Kurtz, 1936-2018. | COURTESY: CBST

Connie (Constance) Kurtz, a lesbian activist and an artist who works included paintings, collage, and quilts, died in the home she shared with her beloved spouse, Ruth Berman, in West Palm Beach on May 27 after a long illness. Kurtz would have turned 82 in July.

Kurtz was born on July 19, 1936 in Brooklyn and, in 1970, with her husband and two children, moved to Israel, where the family lived for four years. When she returned to the US, she reconnected with her longtime friend Ruth Berman, who had lived in her apartment building in Gravesend, Brooklyn. They fell in love, divorced their respective husbands, and became a couple. They remained together until Kurtz’s death. Everyone knew them as Ruthie and Connie.

In 1988, Kurtz was working as a bookkeeper and eating disorder therapist while Berman was a guidance counselor and physical education teacher at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. With two other couples, they sued the New York City Board of Education for domestic partner benefits, eventually winning such rights for all New York City municipal employees in 1994. Coming out of the closet on “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1988, the couple talked about the case there and on “Geraldo.”

With spouse Ruth Berman, Brooklyn-born rights pioneer at forefront of LGBTQ, feminist activism

Kurtz and Berman started branches of Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in New York and Florida, and in 2000, began serving as co-chairs of the Lesbian Rights Task Force of the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Recipients of the Pioneer Award from SAGE, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, the couple, both certified counselors, also founded The Answer is Loving Counseling Center in West Palm Beach, where they worked for more than 20 years.

Ruth Berman and Connie Kurtz. | COURTESY: CBST

“Connie and her soulmate Ruth have been iconic leaders of our community for decades, which is why the federal legislation SAGE has introduced in Congress on behalf of LGBT elders is named after them,” said Michael Adams, the CEO of SAGE, referring to the Ruthie and Connie LGBT Elder Americans Act. “Words can’t explain how sad we are that Connie has passed. We send our love and condolences to Ruth. And we celebrate and honor Connie’s fierce and passionate legacy, which has made the world a better place for so many of us.”

The legislation, introduced in the past several sessions of Congress, would identify LGBTQ older adults as a “vulnerable population,” establish the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging to provide support and assistance to agencies and organizations serving the community, collect data on the senior LGBTQ population, and prioritize research and development of programs to serve them.

Commenting this week about the legislation — and its impact on the care of elders in senior housing and nursing homes — Berman told Gay City News, “It would be so helpful because there are people who are separated from their family and treated horribly, and in a place where they shouldn’t be because they are supposed to be getting care. This will go a long way to make sure these agencies learn they have to treat people decently.”

On May 20, 2000, when same-sex marriage was not yet legal anywhere in the US, Kurtz and Berman were religiously married in a Jewish wedding officiated by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi of Manhattan’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. They were legally married on July 26, 2011, two days after marriage for same-sex couples became available in New York State, and Kleinbaum officiated at that ceremony as well.

Ruth Berman and Connie Kurtz with CBST Senior Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum. | COURTESY OF CBST

“Connie was a force of nature,” Kleinbaum said. “Everyone who encountered her — even for the first time and even briefly — felt her passion, her love, her fierceness, and her humor. Connie and her love Ruthie changed the world, and never lost the love of life, of art, and of all of her people. I am sending my love to Ruthie and all who are in grief over this terrible loss. A great light has gone out in our world. May her memory forever bless us and may our lives be forever a blessing to her memory.”

The story of Kurtz and Berman’s love and activism is captured in Deborah Dickson’s award-winning 2002 documentary “Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House.”

“Ruthie and Connie’s story as told through Deborah Dickson’s beautiful film has been a life-changer for many of my students in lesbian and queer history,” said Smith College Professor Kelly Anderson, whose Documenting Lesbian Lives course makes use of the documentary as well as materials from “The Ruth Berman and Connie Kurtz Papers” housed in the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History at Smith College and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. “We can’t help but fall in love with them again and again. To be able to then go into the archives here at Smith and see those same scrapbooks and photos and hold their vivid and colorful history in our hands has been invaluable. They are heroes to so many, but for the Smith students and other researchers who get to view their collection up close it’s pure magic. Their life story is a wonderful portal to the whole range of joy and loss in our lives. My deepest gratitude for their openness and courage and for leaving their stories with us.”

Deborah Dickson's 2002 documentary. | AMAZON.COM

The couple retired to Palm Beach County, Florida, where they were continuously active in Democratic Party, LGBTQ, feminist, and #BlackLivesMatter politics. Kurtz was passionately devoted to the causes of women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and the environment, and she is also remembered for her humor, her energy, and her dedication to pursuing justice and her art. She began to focus particular attention on her art — vividly colored paintings, collages, and quilts — in 1996.

In addition to Ruth Berman — her partner, her love, her spouse, her wife, and her co-conspirator — Connie Kurtz is survived by her sister Sally Silverman, her daughter Eileen Ben Or and son Moishe Kurtz, both of whom live with their families in Israel, her 14 grandchildren, and 27 great-grandchildren as well as by Berman’s children and grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her parents Elias and Rose Levy.

Rabbi Kleinbaum will officiate at Connie Kurtz’s funeral at Star of David Cemetery of the Palm Beaches, 9321 Memorial Park Road in West Palm Beach, on May 30 at noon.

Ruth Berman will sit shiva at their home on May 20, following the funeral, and May 31, 1:30-8 p.m. with the minyan at 6 p.m.; June 1, 1:30 – 5 p.m. with minyan at 6 p.m.; June 2, from 1:30 p.m. on with minyan at 6 p.m., and June 3 and 4, from 1:30-8 p.m. with minyan at 6 p.m.

Tzedakah/ donations in Connie Kurtz’s memory may be sent to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (cbst.org); Compass LGBT Center in Lake Worth, Florida (compassglcc.com/support-compass); Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, or OLOC (oloc.org); and BLAST: Bi, Lesbian, Straight Women Together (meetup.com/BLASTwpb/).

Thanks to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and Congregation Beit Simchat Torah for providing information and photographs for this article.

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