Prop 8 suit emboldens plaintiffs
by Matthew S. Bajko
The indignities she faced growing up due to her sexual orientation often went overlooked by Kristin Perry. Rather than focus on the inequality and injustice that came with her being a lesbian, Perry allowed such discrimination to fade into the background.
"At a young age I learned to sublimate feelings of difference and inferiority and, instead, attempt to be positive and productive. It got me to this point where I wasn't as upset, angry, and dissatisfied as I should have been," said Perry. "My coping mechanism was to not focus on the bad things."
Today, the 46-year-old Berkeley resident is no longer so willing to be treated as a second-class citizen. Her inability to accept the status quo has been one of the outcomes from the decision she and her partner, Sandra Stier, made back in 2009 to become one of two plaintiff couples to challenge Proposition 8, California's ban against same-sex marriage, in federal court.
"I feel like my tolerance level is so much lower now to the discrimination I am facing," said Perry. "I was very good at letting it all roll off my back, and maybe, a little too good."
Three years into the ongoing legal battle, Perry told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent interview that she no longer so easily accepts being treated unfairly.
"The whole process has helped me to become less tolerant with the discrimination I have experienced my entire life," said Perry, a former child abuse investigator who is executive director of First 5 California, a state agency focused on child services.
The same is true for Stier, 48, the information technology director for the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services Agency. She, too, struggles with her family's sub par legal standing under the law.
"I never used to feel this aggravated. Now, I feel mad all the time," said Stier, who with Perry, is raising twin 16-year-old boys and two sons in their 20s.
Yet their indignation only goes so far. The women remain euphoric over the ruling issued last August by now retired U.S. District Court Chief Judge Vaughn Walker that Prop 8 is unconstitutional and are optimistic his decision will not be overturned on appeal. It is currently before a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and is expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court by late 2012 or early 2013.
"We are very optimistic people," said Stier. "Going into the case we were confident."
Nor has their relationship suffered, they said, despite the media glare on their lives and the public attention the case has brought to their family.
"Sandy and I really like each other," said Perry, noting they have been together for a decade now. "We are having a lot of fun in our relationship."
Since Walker issued his ruling, the women have made themselves more available to the press for interviews. They said they purposefully refrained from talking with the media during the nearly three-week-long trial in January 2010 and the eight-month-long wait for a ruling.
"We wanted the focus to be on the legal aspects of the case, not on the personal," explained Stier.
Perry added that their story is no different from the myriad same-sex couples denied marriage rights under Prop 8.
"We fell in love. We built a family. We went to work. We paid our taxes. And we were told we can't be married. That is our story," she said.
They remain protective of revealing their sons' names after being harassed by Gregory Lee Giusti, the person who pleaded guilty to also threatening House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and is serving time in federal prison.
"Nothing bad resulted from the trial itself with the kids," said Perry.
As for themselves, the women said they felt "a weight had lifted" once Walker released his ruling and felt freer to talk publicly about the case.
"We wanted the legal process to be the focus, not Sandy and I," said Perry, who along with Stier, now talks with reporters and sits down for interviews after the latest court proceeding. "I am sorry we did not feel comfortable enough to do that earlier."
Their main focus, however, continues to be on each other and their family.
"The lawsuit is a big deal but definitely not the biggest deal in our lives. Our real lives are about our relationship and the kids," said Stier. "We both have real careers. We have a lot to focus on. The case is very interesting but is not front and center. It was for those three weeks, for sure, but that is it."
They remain unsure of what their plans will be when they can legally marry in California.
"We will get married. But we have four kids and four colleges, we aren't going to have a big splashy wedding," said Stier.
They already had their own private wedding ceremony with family and friends on August 1, 2004. It was the second time they had exchanged vows. They first said "I do" to each other in February of that year at San Francisco City Hall during what was known as the "Winter of Love," when city officials flouted state law and married same-sex couples. The California state Supreme Court later annulled the weddings.
Having gone through that experience, the women opted not to remarry in the summer of 2008 prior to the passage of Prop 8. They did not want to plan another marriage ceremony only to see it too be later ruled invalid.
"We thought about it. We just didn't want to do it again until it was really permanent," said Stier.
As it turned out, the state high court ruled the marriages that took place in 2008 would remain legally recognized even though the justices also upheld the validity of voters to pass Prop 8 and ban any more same-sex marriage licenses from being granted.
"We were more focused on the fact it wasn't the right time in our family to have another wedding," said Perry. "We felt we should not have to get married on some now or never basis again. That is not the way other people have to get married."
Through her job, Perry knew several of the people involved with the new group American Foundation for Equal Rights that was preparing to file the federal lawsuit against Prop 8. Having already established relationships with AFER's founders, Perry said she and Stier felt comfortable agreeing to be one of the plaintiff couples.
They were not expecting to have to take the witness stand, however, during a trial or be deposed and questioned about intimate details about their lives. They and their attorneys assumed the court case would be handled via legal briefs, similar to the state lawsuit.
"When the case started we anticipated it being an administrative procedure," said Stier.
It came as a surprise, then, when Walker disclosed in 2009 that he wanted to hear expert testimony and see both sides present witnesses. Nonetheless, Stier and Perry said they didn't think to withdraw from the case.
"We made a commitment. We were committed to it and seeing it through the end," said Stier.
Perry added, "It never occurred to us to try not to be plaintiffs."
They each spent upwards of 30 hours preparing for their depositions with their attorneys. Theodore Olson and David Boies head the legal team.
"Your whole life is on the stand," said Perry. "I am not up there talking about a book I wrote; it is my life, it is all game."
They also made the decision to be present the duration of the trial, using up their vacation days in order to spend the nearly three weeks in court.
"We called it our staycation," said Stier. "Some people wear flip-flops, I wore heels for my staycation."
In addition to being riveted by the testimony given by all the witnesses, the women also joked that another memory sticks out from the trial.
"The benches," said Stier.
"They were so uncomfortable," added Perry.
At night they would return home to Berkeley and have dinner at various local restaurants. A few times other patrons would recognize them from the trial coverage and send them a round of champagne or treat them to pints of beer.
"It was just really sweet, quiet sort of nods," recalled Perry.
This coming Monday, August 29 they will be back again in a San Francisco courtroom. This time the hearing will focus on whether the federal district court should release the trial tapes to the public.
The anti-gay proponents behind Prop 8 have been successful, up to now, in keeping the trial from being aired publicly. They went to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to overturn Walker's initial decision to allow the media to show each day's proceedings.
Walker did record the entire trial, and he screened a portion of the tapes during a lecture he gave earlier this year. Now the media is asking for the tapes to be unsealed.
The couple hopes the public, especially high school civics classes, will one day be able to see the recorded proceedings, and in particular, the witnesses who spoke about the types of discrimination LGBT people experience.
"It is an absolute shame people couldn't see the expert testimony," said Perry.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his script about the late gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, has penned a new Broadway play based on the trial transcripts. It will debut next month and the women plan to be in the audience.
"We are really excited. The play is a good creative solution to the problem it wasn't televised," said Perry, adding that she "couldn't begin to imagine" who would be cast to play herself. "Who looks like me in Hollywood? Nobody."
Stier joked that she has sent Black notes that the actress playing her role should be "younger, thinner, and prettier than me."
As for the final act in their legal drama, the women are not only confident that Prop 8 will be overturned but also believe the case will have an impact outside of just California.
"Our hearts desire is this gives some great social progress in every state in the country," said Stier.