INTERVIEW: Meet the Mothers Behind a Modern-Day Civil Rights Story
Tonight, HBO will premiere a documentary called The Case Against Prop 8 which traces the 5-year journey of two same-sex couples who took their case against California’s “Prop 8” marriage ban all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Filmmakers Ryan White and Ben Cotner chronicled the lives of the two plaintiff couples: Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, along with Paul Katami and Jeff Zarillo, and their lawyers Ted Olson and David Boies.
But before you dismiss this as another gay marriage story that you think you know, consider this: It was the first time in American history that marriage discrimination was considered unconstitutional. Even interracial marriage, a lightning rod for conflict in the 60s, didn’t have such far-reaching implications for the legal definition of marriage as the story of Prop 8.
“When we said ‘yes’ and became plaintiffs, we didn’t know how it would all unfold,” said Kris Perry, who originally thought their involvement might begin and end with signing their names on the legal briefs being submitted to court. But once the case turned into a trial with the two of them, along with Jeff and Paul, as witnesses, the attention shifted to who they are as people and it hasn’t let up.
If the names, Kris and Sandy don’t ring a bell, you might remember seeing them on MSNBC last June receiving a call from the President of the United States on the afternoon that the story broke about the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Prop 8 being struck down.
“It was one of those situations when you’re thinking ‘Don’t cry, don’t cry,’” said Kris. This wasn’t just a call from The President, but from the first black U.S. President.
“His place in history and his political capital was not lost on us,” said Kris.
The HBO documentary is mesmerizing, in part, because of the many angles that it covers including legal strategy, constitutional rights, personal transformation and people coming together across political boundaries. The movie drags a little in the middle when there is a prominent and a somewhat overdone love-fest between the activists who brought the case to bear, the plaintiffs and the lawyers, themselves. But the rest of it is captivating.
Just a few minutes into the film, Ted Olson, the former Solicitor General of the United States, agrees to lead the legal team and is simultaneously labeled “the most prominent conservative lawyer in American.” Before taking on Prop 8, one of his biggest days in the spotlight was defending George W. Bush in the 2000 election against Al Gore. Who would have thought that a man, who has presumably never voted anything but a straight Republican ticket, would win the Supreme Court case turning the legislative and political tide on marriage rights for gays?
The experience also enhanced Kris and Sandy’s personal and professional lives, they said. But they weren’t necessarily confident that it would in the beginning. Before being selected and joining the lawsuit, Kris and Sandy considered what the impact volunteering might have on their family, especially their four boys, two of whom would go all the way through high school while the trials proceeded.
“If our kids were younger, it would have been so impossible,” said Kris. But as it turns out, the boys were protective of their two moms and more engaged in school than ever because they were becoming part of American history.
“They were taking classes in government and studying Brown v. the Board of Education. This experience enhanced their ability to understand government and politics,” she said. Brown was a landmark Supreme Court civil rights case that forced the racial desegregation of public schools after justices found separate schools for black and white children to be unconstitutional.
“No matter what, parents should try to explain all types of social change efforts to their kids,” said Kris. Both Sandy and Kris said that being involved in this case not only had far-reaching implications for them, personally, but it touched many people in their extended family and friends of their children.
They both felt that being mothers and bringing their experience to the table as women, community leaders and parents ultimately mattered in the outcome of the case, as well as in their original involvement.
“We weren’t selected because we were parents or lesbians, but because we wanted to do something,” said Kris. Both of them strongly encourage other women to not hold back when it comes to making positive social change.
“There are plenty of other fights to fight. And who are the fiercest advocates in the world? Mothers.”