This time last year, Barrett L. Brick was being honored by Immigration Equality with the group’s Global Vision Award as a ”consistent voice in speaking out on behalf of LGBT immigrant families.” From the former Soviet Union, to Argentina, to the State Department, Brick was a consistent voice, indeed.
That voice, however, was silenced Sunday, Sept. 22, when Brick, 59, died of cancer, his husband Antonio Ruffini at his side. It had been a long-term illness that Brick often mastered, still making appearances and otherwise taking part in Washington’s LGBT community, which he did so much to build. Brick’s interest in global LGBT issues, after all, was only one interest of the man who had a great enthusiasm not only for social justice, but for science fiction, soccer, the stars and his Jewish faith. And the Immigration Equality honor was hardly isolated, with Brick recognized as a Rainbow History Project ”Community Pioneer” and by the nonpartisan Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C. (GLAA), with its 2000 Distinguished Service Award, among other plaudits.
Ward Morrison/File photo
”He was really multidimensional,” says Ruffini, a South African, whom Brick met at the 1999 World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne, Australia. Until Brick’s illness began to dictate the couple’s plans, there was hope of the two settling into retirement in Johannesburg, where Brick would often visit. ”Coming to South Africa was getting away from D.C., a break from the politics. We’d go and see local soccer matches. He had his little telescope that he used to bring over.”
With that telescope, in Ruffini’s garden, Brick enjoyed new celestial vistas of the Southern Hemisphere. The two also explored the country together and Brick, past president of D.C.’s Bet Mishpachah congregation for LGBT Jews and past executive director of the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations, found more intimate ways to express his faith.
”It’s all fairly Orthodox,” Ruffini, also Jewish, says of South Africa’s Jewish community, noting there is no equivalent of Bet Mishpachah in Johannesburg, but that the two marked the High Holy Days together, making new traditions. ”I think Barrett enjoyed that, the different experience.”
Still, so much of Brick’s life, with much of his career spent working as an attorney with the Federal Communications Commission, was focused on getting things done. His activism surely occupied as much time as his other interests, as evidenced by his three years as GLAA president, for starters.
”Barrett stepped forward and did things,” says current GLAA President Richard J. Rosendall, a regular opinion writer for Metro Weekly and longtime friend of Brick’s. ”He transformed belief and advocacy into direct action, approaching people and getting the ball moving. Barrett focused on the issues and would work with whomever he had common ground. He was always building bridges. GLAA is very significantly one of his legacies.”
Rosendall shared some thoughts he penned shortly after Brick’s death, writing, ”Barrett’s contributions were many and varied. He was an early voice for inclusion of the faith community in LGBT movement strategizing – decades before that was a key part of our strategy for marriage equality in D.C. As a science-fiction fan, he helped organize a Gaylaxicon convention. As a soccer fan, he helped organize a gay football world cup. He often led services at Congregation Bet Mishpachah, and worked to build bridges between gay Jews and Muslims.
”Just in the early 1990s, he pressed successfully for gay inclusion in the State Department’s annual country human rights reports, pressed for gay inclusion in the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and intervened personally with the president of Argentina on behalf of a gay rights group there.
”At a personal level, he was a close collaborator and sounding board for virtually every issue I worked on as a leader of GLAA. He was smart and wise and funny, and was very good at keeping things in perspective.”
Rosendall adds that Brick did much of this work in a signature style that was unassuming, yet impressively effective.
”He didn’t particularly promote himself. He was so stoical and uncomplaining,” says Rosendall, recalling a quote that seems to fit perfectly: ”There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t need to get credit for it.”
Ruffini also points to that sort of modesty that leaves many thinking of Brick as refreshingly gracious, mentioning that few knew Brick graduated Columbia Law School as ”one of the top graduates, if not the top.”
That was just one of the things Ruffini got to know of Brick as the two began a long-distance relationship following the 1999 conference. After that Australian week, during which Ruffini found himself immediately attracted to Brick’s intellect, he was entirely uncertain there was more to come. Back home in Johannesburg, however, he received a card from Brick, was sparked an email correspondence of sometimes several messages a day. Then, some months later, a trip with the American Bar Association had Brick headed to London. Ruffini was able to coordinate work travel of his own, and the two reunited and realized that there was something deeper than simply an intellectual attachment. That love led to the two being married in South Africa in 2009.
Ruffini says that while the two made plans for Brick to retire in South Africa, illness demanded otherwise. Still, today, as Ruffini executes his responsibilities as widower, his many trips to Washington to visit Brick have helped to build a supportive circle of friends.
”I’ve been traveling to D.C., so I’ve gotten to know a couple of people,” Ruffini says on his way to New Jersey for Brick’s funeral, traveling with a few of them. ”Some of them have become friends of mine, as well. People are really being great.”
UPDATE, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 4 p.m.: Bet Mishpachah will hold a memorial service for Barrett Brick Sunday, Sept. 29, at 5 p.m., in the party room of the Van Ness East Condominium, 2939 Van Ness St. NW. All visitors must enter at the reception desk. Ruffini suggests that those wishing to honor Brick’s memory with a gift direct such donations to Bet Mishpachah, via betmish.org.