When Kris Perry and Sandy Stier agreed to become two of the plaintiffs in the legal challenge to overturn California’s Proposition 8, which specified marriage as only between a man and a woman, they saw themselves as just ordinary people.
The two women, who became a couple in 2000, lived in a house in North Berkeley with their four sons, who had been born when the women each had different partners. Their lives were busy with work, carpooling the boys to sporting and school events, watching them play video games and supporting them as they grew older and set out on their own.
That ordinariness was hard earned but cherished. Perry grew up in Bakersfield and knew by the time she was in junior high that she liked girls, not boys. But coming out in conservative Bakersfield was easy compared to dealing with the death of her cherished younger sister, Karin, who succumbed to a brain tumor when she was in her teens.
Stier was an Iowa farm girl with blonde hair and a spot on the cheerleading squad. Her large family went to Catholic mass every Sunday and Stier’s summer job was detasseling corn. Stier eventually ended up in Alameda, where she met and married a man at 25. They had two sons together before the marriage turned sour and Stier walked out – right into the arms of Perry.
The couple had a great life, except they couldn’t officially marry. That bothered them, according to a new joint memoir, Love on Trial: Our Supreme Court Fight for the Right to Marry. Perry and Stier will be talking about their story and signing books on Wednesday at Comal Restaurant, 2020 Shattuck Ave. from 5:30 pm to 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. They will also be at Book Passage in Corte Madera at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
“Our marriage is an expression of our love, so it was our love that was on trial when we went to the courts in California in 2009 and 2010 to win the right to marry, and when we went to the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. in 2013 to defend our marriage,” the pair writes in the introduction.
The fight to get the right to marry – a fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court – lifted Perry and Stier out of their ordinary existence into one of the country’s biggest spotlights. Countless television news shows and newspaper and magazine articles featured them. At least two books were published that focus on Prop. 8 and the fight for marriage equality.
The HBO documentary, The Case Against 8, featured Perry and Stier prominently and showed scenes of them at home with their children, out in the community, at court, and their legal marriage in San Francisco City Hall on June 28, 2013. The new visibility, also, unfortunately, brought them harassing phone calls and hate mail.
Love on Trial is told in alternating chapters with each woman taking a turn describing important moments in their lives. We see Perry in Bakersfield living in a house on Harmony Lane before her parents’ divorce forced her to move to much less glamorous circumstances. We see Stier fixing up her Victorian home in Alameda. We see the two of them meet a mandatory computer training class at the Alameda County Department of Social Services. Stier was the teacher and Perry a pupil. We see them blend their families and finally find the love and community they each had been seeking.
The pair felt it was important to show how they developed as people and as gay Americans. Even though Berkeley and the Bay Area are mostly supportive of gays, lesbians, transgender and gender queer people, other parts of the country are not, they said.
“It perhaps provides some level of comfort to other folks in terms of what it’s like to have the coming out experience,” said Stier. “We tried to set the stage for our early childhood and talk about how our parents, our families, and friends responded to us coming out and choosing a life they didn’t expect us to have.”
The second half of the book describes the legal battle.
Even though gay marriage is now a right, the battle for justice for the LGBTQ community continues, particularly since President Trump already has taken away some civil rights, said Perry.
“I don’t think the marriage equality ruling did everything that needs to be done to protect LGBTQ individuals,” she said. “It’s a major step forward but there are people who are getting married on Sunday in some states and are getting fired on Monday because they live in a state with no employment protections.”
After the Supreme Court ruling on Proposition 8 – and the 2015 ruling that instituted marriage equality throughout the United States, Perry and Stier went on with their lives. The couple moved to Washington D.C a few years ago (although they still have their Berkeley home) so Perry could take a job as executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood education. Stier is an advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
They still come back to Berkeley often as three of their four sons are here. In fact, Perry will be one of the commencement speakers at Merrill College at UC Santa Cruz later this week when their son, Elliot, 22, graduates from there.
If there is one takeaway from Love on Trial, it’s that ordinary people can do things they never expected.
“There is something specially important about ordinary citizens having an impact on what goes on in daily life, what goes on in the policy space,” said Perry, who was in Chicago on book tour when she talked to Berkeleyside. “We won because we were regular people, not because we spent our lives trying to be in a historical legal case.”