Connie Kurtz, who turned her coming out as a lesbian into a lifetime of activism with her wife, Ruth Berman, including serving as plaintiffs in a lawsuit over domestic-partner benefits for New York City school employees, died May 26 at her home in West Palm Beach, Fla. She was 81.
The cause was liver cancer, said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who officiated at a religious ceremony uniting the couple in 2000 and then at another in 2011 after same-sex marriage was legalized in New York state.
Ms. Kurtz and Berman were married to men when they met in the late 1950s while living in the Contello Towers development in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn. They socialized together, and their children played together. Then Ms. Kurtz and her family moved to Israel. When she returned to visit in 1974 and met up with Berman again, things were different.
“Connie came back from Israel, and I felt joy,” Berman said in “Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House,” a 2002 documentary about them by Deborah Dickson. “Such a full, open breath of joy. And I hadn’t experienced that since my children were born.”
They became a couple, and then they became advocates for gay rights and ultimately a whole range of LGBTQ causes. Their stature is reflected in the name of recent legislation introduced in Congress to enhance the Older Americans Act: It is called the Ruthie and Connie LGBT Elder Americans Act.
Their decadeslong story was a case of the personal becoming political.
“The coming out of both of us was the key to what we have done for the community,” Berman said at a funeral service Wednesday, “and we had no clue we were doing it for the community.”
Constance Levy was born on July 19, 1936, in New York and grew up in Brooklyn, to Elias and Rose (Laufer) Levy. Her father was a cabdriver, and her mother sold women’s clothing.
In 1958, she married Bernard Kurtz. They had two children, at the same time that Berman and her husband were having three. That made their coming out even more anguishing.
“I walked out on my own kids,” Ms. Kurtz told The Chicago Tribune in 2002. “No amount of money or gifts I can give them now will ever change what I did to them.”
She and Berman were tentative at first about becoming romantically involved. In the documentary, they describe the day when Ruth asked for and received a kiss.
“It wasn’t as a friend,” Berman says in the film, “and it wasn’t this movie kiss that you see tongues hanging out either.” Ms. Kurtz then takes up the tale: “Ruthie, in her way, said, ‘Can’t you do better than that?’ ”
They gradually became more confident in their decision, and then more determined to help others in their position. One of their first efforts was to organize a forum called Women in Discovery, aimed at helping lesbians, especially mothers married to men, to find their way.
“We didn’t counsel women to come out of the closet and dissolve marriages — unless that happened to be their goal,” Ms. Kurtz recalled in 2002. “We simply wanted to help them be physically and mentally comfortable in whatever they chose — after exploring their options.”
Ms. Kurtz worked as a bookkeeper, and Berman was a counselor at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. It was Berman’s career that led them in 1988 to become plaintiffs, along with two other gay couples, in a lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education seeking domestic-partner benefits. That suit helped lead the city to extend health benefits to domestic partners in 1994.
The couple also began speaking out for gay rights, including a spirited appearance on “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1988. Increasingly, Ms. Kurtz found herself well suited to the role of advocate.
“I’m more than proud and out,” she told The Palm Beach Post in 2007. “When I whisper, you can hear me a block away.”
Her advocacy, though, was also often of the quieter variety, in small groups, which Ms. Kurtz advised.
“As a counselor after she ‘retired,’ ” Kleinbaum said by e-mail, “she helped hundreds from all walks of life come out and live with dignity and supported families to treat their LGBTQ members with equality.”
In 2016, when Ms. Kurtz and Berman received an award from the advocacy group SAGE, The Miami Herald called them “perhaps the nation’s best-known senior lesbian couple.”
Ms. Kurtz was also an artist, known for her paintings, collages, and quilts.
In addition to Berman, she leaves her children, Eileen Ben Or and Moishe Kurtz; a sister, Sally; and Berman’s three children. Together, she and Berman have 20 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.
In the documentary, Ms. Kurtz tried to explain the leap she and Berman took back in the 1970s.
“Why the hell would we go and make such a tremendous change in our lives, and certainly in the lives of those that we loved?” she said.
“It wasn’t going from bad to something good. What we went for — what I went for — was a completion.”