(JTA) — LGBT activist Constance Kurtz, whose lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education led eventually to domestic partner benefits for all New York City employees in 1994, has died.
Kurtz, known as Connie, died in the West Palm Beach, Florida, home that she shared with her life partner, Ruthie Berman, on Sunday. She was 81.
In 2017, then-U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida reintroduced the LGBT Elder Americans Act, which he renamed the Ruth and Connie Act in honor of Kurtz and Berman, in recognition of the battle they fought for LGBT rights for nearly 30 years.
Kurtz, a Brooklyn native, moved with her then-husband and two children to Israel in 1970, and lived there for four years. When she returned to the United States, she reconnected with Berman, her longtime friend. They fell in love, divorced their respective husbands and became a couple.
Kurtz, a bookkeeper and eating disorder therapist, and Berman, a guidance counselor and physical education teacher at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn, along with two other couples, sued the New York City Board of Education for domestic partner benefits in 1988, eventually winning such rights for all New York City employees six years later. The couple went on “The Phil Donahue Show,” where in 1988 they came out, and “Geraldo” to talk about the case.
The couple, who are both certified counselors, started branches of Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, in Florida and New York, and in 2000 they began serving as co-chairs of the New York State NOW Lesbian Rights Task Force. They founded The Answer is Loving Counseling Center and worked there for over 20 years. In 2016, they received the SAGE Pioneer Award presented by Services & Advocacy For GLBT Elders, the country’s largest and oldest organization for LGBT seniors.
Kurtz and Berman were married in a Jewish ceremony on May 20, 2000, when it was still illegal for lesbians to marry in a civil wedding. They were legally married on July 26, 2011, two days after marriage for same-sex couples became legal in New York state. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, officiated at both ceremonies.
The couple were featured in a 2002 documentary about their lives titled “Ruthie & Connie: Every Room in the House.”
Kurtz and Berman retired to South Florida, where they have been continually active in Democratic, LGBT, feminist and #BlackLivesMatter politics.
Kurtz began to focus on art in 1996, including painting, collage and quilting.
“Connie was a force of nature,” Kleinbaum said in a statement. “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.”
Kurtz is survived by Berman; a sister, Sally Silverman; a daughter, Eileen Ben Or, and a son, Moishe Kurtz, who live with their families in Israel; 14 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.