BERKELEY, Calif. — Inside Kristin Perry and Sandy Stier’s cozy, hillside bungalow, the signs of a typical domestic life are everywhere: photos of vacations and their four sons on the mantel and walls; snacks of Naan for their hungry teenager in the kitchen; “Moms Rock!” and “You can’t scare me — I have children” magnets on the refrigerator.
But resting visibly on a coffee table are powerful reminders that this tableau of family life is unsettled, and that this same-sex couple of 13 years made history this week as the legal battle over California’s Proposition 8 headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
There’s a wedding album brimming with blissful pictures of their 2004 marriage at San Francisco City Hall — a marriage voided when the courts quickly blocked then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s rebellious, short-lived move to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. And next to the album is a bound legal brief filed earlier this year in the Supreme Court, signed by their famous lawyers, Theodore Olson and David Boies.
Getting married is unfinished business for Perry and Stier. And as the historic legal brief bearing their names suggests, they are now one of two couples at the center of the most contentious civil rights battle to reach the Supreme Court in decades, lead plaintiffs challenging California’s right — and any state’s right — to ban same-sex marriage.
As they prepared to jet to Washington, D.C., for Tuesday’s arguments, Perry and Stier said they are ready to gain the right to marry and make another wedding album — this time one that will stick.
“It is a historic, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Perry told this newspaper in an interview with Stier nestled by her side. “We’re very fortunate to be there in person to witness it.”
The Supreme Court will hear about an hour of arguments over Proposition 8, reviewing a federal appeals court’s decision last year that found the state’s 2008 voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
It is the latest, most significant development in their four-year quest to topple Proposition 8, which began when the Los Angeles-based American Foundation for Equal Rights, then a newly minted gay rights organization, enlisted Perry and Stier to be one of two couples to challenge the law. In short, they were recruited to be the face of the legal fight for same-sex marriage.
Their role was no accident. Perry had known Hollywood actor and director Rob Reiner for many years, meeting him in the late 1990s while working as a children’s advocate. He was a leading backer of the new organization and the decision to sue to overturn Proposition 8, along with political activist Chad Griffin.
Perry and Stier recall now they were ready to take their fight to the courts, frustrated by the revocation of their marriage license in 2004. They chose not to marry in 2008, in the brief window when gay marriage was legalized in California in the months before Proposition 8 was approved, because they worried, as Perry puts it, their marriage rights “would unravel again.”
Once their four boys, now ranging in age from 18 to 24, gave a thumbs-up to the decision to take the very public family step, Perry and Stier signed on. Stier now points out that it helped that they could devote time to the cause, past the baseball, soccer and school stage for at least their two oldest sons.
Now, if they win in the Supreme Court and can marry, Perry jokes they’ll be “newlywed empty nesters” because their twin high school seniors will be off to college soon. “It’s changed us,” Perry says of taking on the role of poster-couple for gay marriage. “We do see things on a bigger scale now.”
Theodore Boutrous Jr., one of the lawyers in the case who interviewed couples with Griffin, said Perry and Stier provided the perfect story — a devoted couple with four children who’d already been stripped of a marriage opportunity.
“They understood what it would mean,” he said. “They were so natural at explaining how it was to be discriminated against.”
Gay marriage opponents have lined up against Perry, Stier and their arguments, saying states have a right to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples. Among other arguments, they maintain gay marriage conflicts with traditional marriage’s importance to child-rearing and procreation.
Asked what he would say to Perry and Stier, Randy Thomasson, president of SaveCalifornia.com and an outspoken gay marriage critic, replied: “No matter what one’s feelings or friendships, if you don’t have a man and a woman, you don’t have marriage.”
Perry and Stier say they’ve grown accustomed to such sentiments, having seen protesters waving placards outside courthouses for years. Stier concedes “it’s hard not to feel upset by it,” but says at this point they are focused on the larger possibility of helping gay and lesbian couples marry.
“Our number one goal is overturning Proposition 8 in California,” she said. “But the more people who can be positively impacted by this case, the better.”
As the arguments draw closer, Perry and Stier have been readying for the Supreme Court appearance, including one recent visit to the court, while also juggling their everyday lives. Perry, 50, continues to work for a children’s education group, while Stier, 48, is a technology staffer for a government agency.
They’re in the midst of a nettlesome bathroom remodel. And on a recent day, Perry seemed to have more of a mom’s customary worries about her 18-year-old being a bit late home from high school, jokingly dubious of a saxophone repair explanation, than about the Supreme Court maelstrom that lies ahead.
But the couple are certainly feeling the fast pace of events since they triggered their lawsuit with a trip in 2009 to the Alameda County clerk’s office, where they were, to no one’s surprise, denied a marriage license.
“Anticipation, vigilance, excitement, tension,” Perry says, describing her emotions before the big day in the Supreme Court. “The end is in sight. This is finally, really, the final chapter.”