Catching Up With Kris Perry and Sandy Stier
By Shannon Liao
Kris Perry and Sandy Stier represent one half of a publicized plaintiff team that fought to uphold gay marriage in California in the wake of Proposition 8. They’re also two of the key figures to appear in The Case Against 8, an HBO documentary that saw a limited theatrical release June 6, and premieres tonight on the cable network at 9 p.m.
For the film, directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White got fly-on-the-wall access—for five years—to an ordeal that touched on both the legal and the personal. Perry and Stier elaborated on both with Out while discussing their experiences.
Out: How have your lives changed in the aftermath of the trials?
Sandy Stier: For us, the biggest change in the aftermath of the trial—and, of course, subsequently, the rulings—is that we are now a married couple. We both feel much more secure in that knowledge and it’s also wonderful—we feel great that we can hold ourselves out as married to our family and friends and society.
Kris, in the film, you talked about how during the trial Perry v. Schwarzenegger you had this “aha!” moment where you realized that all this discrimination has been a kind of “blanket of hatred” for you, keeping you from living a fulfilling life instead of just getting by. Could you speak more on this?
Kris Perry: Well, when you decide to be the plaintiff in a case, you have to understand exactly what it is about the law that you want to change, that is harming you, or interfering with your life in a way that other people will understand, particularly judges and other lawyers. What we set out to do, in particular, was to talk about the instances every single day where we feel like people treat us differently because we are different.
I spoke about growing up, knowing I was different, and not expecting good things to happen to me as a result of being different. I later learned it was because I was gay. I’ve never felt that the things that other people just took for granted and would have in their life, like being married, would be anything I could ever have.
I just always suppressed my own dreams, my own hopes so that I wouldn’t feel disappointed. I didn’t really understand that about myself until we were working on this together, and really when I went up to testify in the trial did it suddenly dawn on me how hard it had been.
And adding onto that last question, could this trial and other trials like possibly pave the way for LGBT youth and children of LGBT people to enjoy lives with less discrimination?
Sandy: When your government supports you, when the government says that you are equal, that your rights are equal--that’s the most powerful message you can send to the people living around us in our society. It says a lot to children growing up, even if it’s not common in a community, even if you don’t know somebody who is gay and married, that you understand that it’s legal to get married if you’re a gay person. That baseline acceptance is everything; it’s incredibly powerful for youth growing up in California and throughout the country. To the extent that our case played a role in that, and it, of course, played a role in California, it’s hugely impactful for children in California, for future generations. And we’re really proud of that.
Kris: I mean, there was no other point. We wanted to get married but we had sort of figured out how to go beyond with our lives even if we wouldn’t be. But what seemed really untenable was that generations of people growing up in California and falling in love would feel the same excluded feelings we had. And that was where it just felt like, well, it may be possible for us to tolerate it, but why should everybody else tolerate it?
The wonderful combination of knowing that other people won’t have to deal with it, but also then getting to be married, were more than we dreamed of. We thought it might not, any of it might not work out--but it all worked out.
Describe some of the most touching moments of this experience, and the film, to me. What were your thoughts?
When all four of us talk and read our testimony from the trial, specifically what we said, what we took to get there, that part’s really interesting and moving. And the day we win at the Supreme Court after so long, after so many trips, after so much worrying and feeling so responsible, is another moment. And of course, the best part of all, right, is being married, finally, and having so many people celebrate that and then to have that themselves. Those are the parts of the film that I’m always very emotional about and I can hear other people having that reaction too, which is always nice.
And the journey overall, there were many, very emotional parts for us, I would say highly emotional; we were quite anxiety ridden. We had to testify, and that’s a difficult thing to do, you don’t really know what’s going to come up, what questions might be asked. You prepare for it, but it’s examining a very personal, intimate part of your life--your love for another person, that feels very personal. And so that was sort of difficult to get ready for and it went very well--our lawyers did a fantastic job, but that was one of the most emotionally draining parts of the entire experience.
How did you get along with the other attorneys? It seems like there was a lot of intimidating law stuff cut out of the documentary to not scare laymen away.
Sandy: You kind of have to have a lot of trust in your legal representation to have a comfortable journey. And we did have a lot of trust in them. We didn’t know them going into the case, certainly, but we became very close with them. It wasn’t only Ted and David, but an army of lawyers that were there with them that we got to know very well. While we didn’t always understand every legal step, they were never short of an explanation for us, and they made themselves very available to us. It was just very helpful, so it wasn’t as intimidating as you might think, because our lawyers were so accessible, friendly, open, and accepting that we weren’t lawyers ourselves and we needed a lot of help understanding the process. And they were always there to give it to us.
There’s a lot of talk of ‘the other side’ in the film. The other side says a lot of terrible things in there, such as quoting certain lines of the Bible, or William Tam’s writings about homosexuals. What were your reactions to that, and the hateful phone calls that you received?
Kris: Mr. Tam and everyone associated with Yes on 8 spent their entire time working on that campaign, coming up with the most negative information they could about people like Sandy and I. And to have that restated in the courtroom, and to have them take that on oath and repeat that it’s very, very bad for children for us to be married, that we are people to be feared--those were hard days. Those were really hard things to hear. To face these people in person is difficult to say the least.
But then on the flipside, what was obvious throughout the trial was that even though they were saying these things that clearly weren’t true, a judge could tell the difference between fact and fiction, and he did not end up ruling in their favor. Because what they were saying, they couldn’t back up with any evidence. And that is what happens in courtrooms--you have to provide evidence or what you say doesn’t stand. And that was the best part; it was no longer a political fight, it was a legal fight, and they couldn’t win.
But it was hard to listen to, hard for our children to hear bits and pieces of that, and to be subjected to those phone calls in our home was very stressful and it took a while to get that to stop. But we [had] expected something [like that] to happen. We didn’t know what it would be but when we made ourselves part of this, we knew something would be directed at us, and it was. It was hard.
It seems like Charles Cooper on the opposition didn’t have much evidence at all to back his side of the trial. He kept admitting he didn’t know. Do you take this to be a sign of changing times, times where the Constitution’s definitions can be widened for greater equality?
Sandy: We live in great times of change, certainly, and there was a major shift in public attitude during the nearly five years we were involved in the case and a major shift in people’s perceptions and support for marriage equality. And that was happening at the same time our case was moving through the court system, at the same time the DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) case was moving through the court system, and the same time 'don’t ask, don’t tell' was being struck down. So these were all happening and I don’t know if they reflect the change in public opinion or if public opinion trailed these legal actions. It’s kind of the chicken and the egg; it’s hard to tell.
But one thing that Ted said in his closing argument that I think is really, incredibly important and meaningful is that while public support changes are wonderful, we can’t rely on that as the basis to restore our equal rights. We can’t rely upon that as the reason to provide constitutional protections of equality to citizens because in fact that should trump public opinion. And so I feel like it’s a wonderful thing that public opinion changed but I also feel like the most important thing is that we legally went to court and they uphold our right to legal protection under the Constitution. That’s the most important thing. And to the effect that that impacts public opinion, that’s fantastic.
I was happy to see that Ted Olson, despite being a famous conservative, wanted to stand up for marriage equality. Do you think partisanship should even get into an issue like this, or can issues like these really transcend party lines? What was it like to work with Olson?
Kris: Partisanship and politics and beliefs actually do affect justices, individuals, they affect our family members and friends. So you can’t have a legal case outside of the context of all those other factors, but they shouldn’t play as big a part in what the outcome of a legal case is. And the law and the Constitution clearly state that we have due process and equal protection and that’s how it turned out. And Ted has been, frankly, probably the most successful lawyer in the United States of America in convincing the Supreme Court of that in many instances. So we felt we were in maybe the best hands, despite his political beliefs. That his ability to appeal and get to the Supreme Court and argue on behalf of people like us under the Constitution, we had a lot of confidence in him.
Sandy: And I think the fact that he chose David Boies to be his co-counsel. And they represent such different ends of the political spectrum, really helped us take our case out of the political spectrum, which has made it all the more powerful, our representation. Because, as Ted said, marriage is a conservative issue. This isn’t about politics, this is about equality and we’re all people of this country and we all deserve to have the same rights. And it has nothing to do with politics, really. So it’s not liberal, it’s not conservative, it’s just fair. And we’re hoping everybody could identify with that, that we want to have equality and it’s not political.
David Blankenhorn, an important witness for the opposition, changed his mind in the end of the film and decided that he had been “stunted” by a wall of “doctrine” that kept him from understanding other people. Do you hope that this trial can broaden people's minds?
Sandy: We absolutely do. The great thing about this film is that it’s a nice, very digestible piece of information for people who don’t necessarily want to read transcripts, or necessarily read books that go into much greater detail. It has the potential to reach into many American households. Maybe spend 90 minutes watching it to learn about our case and the trial and the most important points, the legal arguments. I think it does have the power to change hearts and minds as people examine their minds and their own belief systems, when they hear some of the systems, quite frankly, being dismantled, in the film. And the extent that it can do that, that’s the greatest possible outcome of the film really, is that it reaches into homes and changes hearts and minds across the country.
The Case Against 8 premieres June 23 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO.