Perhaps what is most surprising about the life of Kristin Perry and Sandy Stier is how normal it was, up until recently. The lesbian couple has been raising four children in a quiet Berkeley, Calif., neighborhood, one known these days more for its cozy bungalows and good coffee than for '60s-era radicalism. Later this month, they will mark their 10-year anniversary, a decade spent mostly focused on the ups and downs of domestic life, like helping with homework or surviving morning-rush-hour commutes.
But the name Perry may someday be as widely known as Miranda or Dred Scott, whose landmark cases were decided by the Supreme Court. Perry, 45, is now the lead named plaintiff in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, starting Monday in a San Francisco federal court.
Perry and her partner, Sandy Stier, 47, are accidental activists. The pair got married in 2004 in San Fransciso when Mayor Gavin Newsom told city officials to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Six months later, they were among some 4,000 newlywed couples who had their marriages invalidated by the California Supreme Court.
Dismayed, Perry went back to her family life and her work as a children's advocate for a state commission that focuses on newborns to 5-year-olds. "We get a lot of enjoyment out of our life as it is. The kids, like for all parents, kind of drive the agenda," she says. When the opportunity came to get married again after the California State Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in May 2008, they opted not to. Stier says, "We both felt so burned by our first exposure in San Francisco that we didn't have a ton of faith it would last. We told each other, 'We'll do it when it's for real.' We have jobs and four kids; we wanted things to be real." Perry felt no need to get involved again in the uncertain, politicized world of gay marriage: "It's a big thing to repeat that cycle with kids, so we elected not to do it."
The couple mostly stayed out of the political fray that had become the gay-marriage movement, focusing instead on their personal lives. Even in the lead-up to Prop 8, a 2008 ballot proposition that amended California's Constitution to declare marriage as being only between a man and a woman, Stier admits, "We weren't terribly involved. We held up NO ON 8 signs with some other folks," but otherwise they had their hands full at home. And besides, they didn't think Prop 8 would really pass.
But Californians voted to eliminate marriage rights for gay couples, and that changed everything. "I felt an odd sense of outrage, disbelief, and humiliation," recalls Stier. "It's humiliating to know so many people in your community and your state have such a strong reaction to you and to your lifestyle." For Perry, her elation at the election of Obama led to a delayed reaction to the passage of Prop 8. It was two days later, she says, when she was overcome with the understanding of what had just happened: "I was so upset, driving home in my car, I just started crying."
But the passage of Prop 8 may have done more to spur the gay community to action than anything since the Stonewall riots, which 40 years ago effectively launched the gay-rights movement.
Davina Kotulski, a psychologist, gay activist, and author of Love Warrior: the Rise of the Marriage Equality Movement and Why It Will Prevail, says that the passage of Prop 8 galvanized people who previously weren't especially involved in the political process: "They didn't think that something like this could happen, that other people could take away rights."
"It's one thing to work toward something," she says. "It's another thing to achieve something and then have it taken away, to have the rug pulled out from under you." Gay-marriage advocates argue that the campaign for Prop 8 also radicalized the opposition to gay marriage, resulting in increased reports of homophobic incidents, which likely also played a role in the mounting distress in the gay community.
Kotulski has been involved in the gay-marriage movement for more than a decade. "But what I saw after November 4th," she says, "was a whole new generation of people speaking out: young people, straight people—especially college kids—progressive Christian clergy, and families like the plaintiffs in this case." She also noticed new faces at the post-election anti-Prop 8 rally she went to in the Bay Area, including her straight next-door neighbors: "They are a heterosexual couple with kids, but they grabbed that stroller and showed up to protest with us."
While rallies were attracting crowds, Chad Griffin, a 36-year-old political strategist, and leading liberal activist Rob Reiner were hatching a different plan: to take the issue to the courtroom. Soon they had the country's leading conservative attorney, Ted Olson, and his former adversary in the case of Bush v. Gore, David Boies, on board. They just needed to find the right plaintiffs. Years earlier, Griffin and Reiner and their teams had succeeded in instituting a tax on cigarettes that would fund early-childhood health and education. Kristin Perry was one of their contacts in government who helped allocate the money to children. During a regular work conversation, Griffin broached the subject of the potential lawsuit. "I knew she was in a long-term committed relationship," says Griffin. "We sort of segued into a conversation about Prop 8."
Later that day, recalls Stier, "Kris asked me if I could come home right after work. It sounded mysterious." The couple discussed the case, how it might affect the kids and their lives, and also how each felt that "gay marriage had been handled so wrong, which is why we didn't get married again when we had the opportunity." They decided to go for it. "We knew this was big," Perry says. "But we decided to take a day-to-day approach and not speculate about what will happen. This is a really big responsibility."
Perry and Stier and another couple, Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, will be thrust into the spotlight Monday. The days and weeks leading up to the trial have been busy, but private, which will soon change.
"[Our children] are very interested, to the degree they understand," says Stier. "But they are also interested in going to the movies and over to friends' houses." For the past few months, both Perry and Stier have been preparing for what could be a three- to four-week trial, taking steps to make sure they can have time off from work without losing their jobs. Stier says she's been stockpiling her vacation days. If they win the trial, it will surely be worth it.