By Andrew Gumbel
Originally published on Advocate.com July 01 2009 11:00 PM ET
On the eve of the first court hearing in the federal suit to overturn California's Prop. 8, Advocate.com interviewed the four named plaintiffs in the case. They are Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, a lesbian couple from Berkeley with four children, and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, a gay couple who live in Burbank.
Perry is executive director of First 5 California, a state agency that promotes education and health for children under 5. Stier is information technology director for the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services Agency. They have been together for nine years.
Katami is a fitness expert; Zarrillo is the general manager of a theater exhibition company. They have been together for eight years.
Advocate.com:Kris and Sandy, tell us how you first tried to get married five years ago.Kris Perry: We did get married at San Francisco City Hall in February 2004. It was really exciting. A little earlier in that year, I had proposed to Sandy. We were going to get married that summertime in Berkeley, and were already gearing up for that when the announcement came that Mayor [Gavin] Newsom was going to marry same-sex couples. So we went to City Hall with our kids. We still wanted to do the big thing with our family, but by that time the marriages had been stopped. We experienced a big high and a big low.
Did you think of getting married again during the window when same-sex marriages were legal before the passage of Prop. 8?Sandy Stier: We didn't have a huge amount of confidence the marriage was going to stick legally. And the roller-coaster experience with San Francisco in 2004 made us a bit more cautious. It was such an important issue we really wanted to have our next marriage completely and totally legitimate and for real, so it could not be taken away from us. Perry: We have four kids and two jobs, and on a practical level we couldn't figure out -- as much as we wanted this to happen -- how we could bring the whole family with us to that experience without feeling more confident.
What was your experience of the yes vote on Prop. 8?Stier: It was incredibly sad for us. We had both in different ways advocated for its defeat. We really felt defeated as a group of people, not only us but all the other families too. It was really quite devastating. Perry: I felt heartbroken in ways that crept up on me in the days that followed the election. Initially I was so pleased with the new president, it was hard to focus on what it meant. I still feel heartbroken about it.
How did you come into contact with Chad Griffin and the American Foundation for Equal Rights [organizers of the federal lawsuit]?Perry: I know Chad through the professional work I do as executive director of a state agency. He had a relationship to this office and knew about First 5 before I was here. We had a conversation about First 5 one day toward the end of April, and after we completed that conversation, he shared with me that he belonged to this foundation and was looking at supporting a project that would help with the gay marriage fight. In the course of our discussion it became clear our situation was a story the Foundation wanted to tell, and needed to tell to help advance the cause.
Was it difficult to decide to put yourselves forward as named plaintiffs?Perry: Sandy and I spent a considerable amount of time looking at this and asking ourselves and the family if we could participate and support the effort. It took a little time -- our children are teenagers and getting time with them isn't easy. But we were able to work through each of their issues and interests. We must have spent a week or two thinking about possible outcomes, good and bad. But then went back to the board and Chad and said if you'd like us to participate we'd really like to help.
Did you consider the specific value of being a gay couple with children, something that will help rebut the argument from your opponents that marriage has to be between a man and a woman because that is the only way to bring about procreation?Perry: For us, it was more about being an individual family and figuring out we could do this. We left it up to Chad and the board to decide if we could be useful to them. Stier: Let me say also, many of our gay friends have children. For us a gay relationship that has children is the norm. We do not feel unique.
Were the children apprehensive, or accepting, or excited about the role you are playing?Perry: I'm the one who brought the twins to our marriage -- they are 14 now. They don't know any other lifestyle than the one we are in. They have a very unconditional response to the idea that we should have more rights. They said: Of course it should be better and of course you should help. They are very trusting. The older kids, who are 18 and 20, are in a very different place in the world, they are adults. Stier: My children lived their first years with a heterosexual married couple as parents. They see what they have now more as a stepfamily. But they both said immediately and quite strongly that they really support equal rights for all people including gay people. I told them this could put us under some scrutiny, with people wanting to know more about us, and about you. They feel the issue itself was an important one, and agreed to support us. I don't know that they could completely take that in. Perry: My kids had a similar reaction. At their age, part of this is exciting to them -- they are hopeful and almost a little wide-eyed.
How are you feeling about the legal process, starting with this opening hearing?Perry: We have cautious optimism. We want to be patient -- it's going to take some time -- but we also want to be excited and hopeful. Stier: We are certainly looking forward to making progress and we have tremendous confidence in our counsel.
How big a factor was it that you would be represented by Ted Olson and David Boies?Perry: To know that the issue was being handled by some of the most preeminent attorneys in constitutional law and equal protection -- that was such a vote of confidence. It felt like our suit really has a chance because of their involvement and their leadership. It really helped.
Were you concerned that pursing a suit in federal court was not a strategy initially endorsed by many of the LGBT rights groups who have worked to bring about same-sex marriage over the past several years?Perry: We have great respect and admiration for all the groups who are leading the way on gay marriage rights. I believe that without their leadership we would not be in this situation at all. It is a remarkable achievement on their part and they deserve tremendous credit. That said, the more we can be unified, going forward, the more successful we will ultimately be. I'm so pleased at how far things have come in just one month [since the suit was announced]. The groups have had to look at someone else's strategy and join in. That's hard to do, and it shows generosity and wisdom on their part. Stier: We all want the same thing, so we can respect our different perspectives in how to get there. We felt very confident our approach is very solid.
Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo
Jeff and Paul, how come you didn't get married before now?Katami: We've been together eight years and we've had the discussion on several occasions. What we always came back to was the feeling that we should wait until the fundamental rights and protections were there federally. Zarrillo: We both have jobs where we could at any point be asked to relocate. If we had taken the time to get married in California, we might have moved to a state where the marriage was not recognized. We didn't necessarily want to put ourselves through that. Katami: We had a little bet going on Prop. 8. We said, if it failed, we would plan a date. We did that mostly to keep friends and family at bay. We got the question so often in that period of time -- a lot of people were having quick marriages. But we didn't feel that was right for us. If there was any potential for our marriage to be invalidated, to have that taken away after all the emotional and financial investment -- we couldn't even imagine that.
How did Prop. 8 get you more involved in the issue?Katami: I had seen an ad that really angered me -- the one called "Gathering Storm." I took personal offence, that it was misrepresenting the truth, that it was cast with actors. It really struck a chord with me that there are a lot of good people in the middle still undecided on this topic could easily be swayed by a 30- or 60-second ad. I was angry, but I thought I didn't want to be angered, I wanted to be proactive. So we made a short public service announcement to voice our opinions. We had over 100,000 hits on YouTube in the first 24 hours and got calls from media outlets. Overnight, we went from being on the couch saying, Let's do something, to being in front of a lot of people. Zarrillo: One of our goals is to make sure people become informed. We wanted to make sure people saw non-actors talking about real issues. Once people become educated that it's not about religious views, it's not about being Democrat or Republican, but it's truly about understanding rights that are being taken away; once you inform them about the rights and benefits we are not privy to, like health care and Social Security, people say, "Wow, I didn't know that." Katami: When the anti-gay marriage ads first aired, I wrote a very long e-mail to my friends, just detailing my emotions point for point at the misrepresentations in these ads. The e-mail ended up being read at a PTA meeting somewhere in Northern California. I got responses saying, your e-mail made me think about this and change my vote. Another thing that happened before the election was a situation where someone yelled out at me: "Marriage is not for your people anyways." It was a random person with a "Yes on 8" sticker on her minivan. We were stuck in traffic on [Highway] 101 with our windows down. She looked over with an air of belligerence, to say "what?" to me and our car. She just screamed at me. She didn't know I was gay, she just made the assumption.
How did your work on Prop. 8 lead to your involvement in the suit?Katami: Through a series of concentric circles of people our PSA led us to Chad and Christina [Schake, his consultancy partner]. Zarrillo: We spoke at length with Chad and Christina and really felt now was the time to act. We agreed we would support anything.
Were you concerned that some LBGT rights groups were not in favor of going to federal court?Katami: It was an incredibly thoughtful process. Of course, we would not have this kind of momentum without the achievements that those organizations have fought for us to this point. That needs absolutely to be applauded. But when is the right time? The right time is now. Zarrillo: Knowing we had Ted Olson and David Boies and knowing their history really made us energized.
Were you surprised that Olson, one of the country's leading conservative lawyers, would join your cause?Katami: We were both surprised at Ted Olson. We had followed what happened in 2000 fairly closely. But two lawyers who fought against each other [in the Bush v. Gore fight over Florida's electoral votes] were now fighting for us because they knew in their heart of hearts that this was not about where they came from, but was about equality. Having Ted put his arm around me and say, "We're going to plan your wedding," that was amazing.
What reactions have you had to your involvement in the suit?Katami: We went out for a birthday party at a local pub recently, and someone I had never met came up and said: "You're that guy, I need to give you a hug." Really, though, it's the least we can do. We're just a small part of this.