A joyous celebration occurred May 13 in Highland Park as lesbian and straight women artists and performers launched an exhibition of archived work from the historic Women’s Building, the one-time “feminist mecca” for women’s culture in downtown Los Angeles. Already marginalized by mainstream society, the artists refused to be invisible even unto each other.
Kris Perry and Sandy Stier would have loved it. One of the most famous couples in LGBT history as plaintiffs in the historic federal Prop 8 trial, they have nonetheless had their share of lesbian invisibility, even, as they reveal in their new memoir, “Love on Trial: Our Supreme Court Fight For the Right to Marry,” unto themselves.
In “Love on Trial,” Perry and Stier emerge from behind their famous “odd couple” lawyers Ted Olson and David Boies and trial leader Chad Griffin, now President of the Human Rights Campaign, and sidestep their fellow plaintiffs Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami to share how this “ordinary” lesbian couple came to represent same sex couples everywhere. But unbeknownst to them, the couple would each be forced to face unsettling deep dives into their own lives when that lawsuit was filed in May 2009.
Perry shares that she always felt “different” but didn’t know why until her late teens; Stier had always been straight until, inexplicably, she fell in love with Perry. That would be a point Brian Raum, the attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, would harp on until turning red with frustration deposing the former church-going Iowa cheerleader.
“I was not the lesbian he expected to see,” Stier writes, as Raum pummeled her for answers about her relationships.
“I answered truthfully. I performed well under oath, and, frankly, I have nothing to hide. Yes, I dated men, or rather, boys, in high school and college. Wonderful guys. Yes, I cared about them. Yes, I married a man in my mid-twenties. Yes, I had loved him. All true. The other thing that was true was that I now loved a woman, and I wanted to marry her; I was in love with Kris.”
Raum asked for intimate details. Stier would only say they were “romantic.” He started using baseball terms: “What ‘base’ was reached in each of those relationships?” she writes. “We have more of our parents in us than we may realize. I gave him my best Iowa deadpan stare and restated that the relationships had been romantic. And I stopped there. My people don’t talk about ‘bases’ to lawyers. It’s not dignified.”
Stier understood that she was being probed for the “immutability” argument. She finds the argument offensive. “Being gay is not wrong and it’s not bad. It’s not. Love is not harmful; hate is. Rejection is. Growing up immersed in religion and spending most of my career in the field of human services, nothing could be clearer,” she writes. “Love and acceptance are what matters and are worth fighting for.”
For Perry, pre-trial preparation was tough as she was forced to come face to face with coping mechanisms after her beloved sister’s death and how those fed into an endless cycle of self-protection from perpetual discrimination as the “other.” That included the pain and humiliation of knowingly refusing to even think of being happily married because, as a lesbian, it was not available to you—and everyone else knew it.
“After we had meandered around the core question for hours,” Perry writes, “Ted asked me, ‘How does it feel to be different?’ I burst into tears. All that heartache was closer to the surface than I had thought. I’d tried to put distance between myself and Bakersfield and how I felt there, but it hadn’t worked. I told Ted that ‘I knew who I was, and it had made me stronger,’ but I didn’t like that I had been forced into being strong by building walls or hiding my feelings. Hiding was a necessity, and it had changed me, permanently.”
The awareness hit her even harder on the witness stand. “I suddenly thought, ‘Enough. Enough coping. Enough settling. Enough making me easier for everyone else,” Perry writes.
“I could picture the three-year-old me, the eight-year-old me, the sixteen-year-old me, every one with a huge weight on her shoulders,” she continues. “Keeping a secret she didn’t know or understand, afraid of losing the love of her family, of being rejected by her friends. By fighting to be unseen and unheard, I didn’t grab love when others did. I didn’t hold my head high—I looked down. I didn’t see a future with my children and spouse; I thought I’d always be single and alone.”
Perry couldn’t even imagine what was possible. “I had covered up my embarrassment and humiliation for years, and it was painful for my loved ones to hear these experiences without censoring or sugarcoating,” she writes. “I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me—but I knew well there was still so much more to come.”
“Love on Trial” is a kind of catharsis for all LGBT people who haven’t realized the pain of internalized oppression. Additionally, it humanizes the “Prop 8 plaintiffs.”
“It’s as if we weren’t people until the trial,” Perry tells the Los Angeles Blade. “The world projected a lot onto us. We were one dimensional. But we knew we have very complicated lives.”
“The case was no way the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” says Stier, noting the difficulties they’ve faced and the losses they suffered. “Blending families is hard,” for instance, especially when her two sons didn’t accept their parents’ divorce and rejected Perry. It got better when “Kris took her foot off the gas and wasn’t so authoritarian, becoming more like an aunt than a parent.”
Television station KQED filed a motion April 28 with the U.S. District Court for Northern California to unseal the videotapes of the Prop 8 trial. It might be useful to read “Love on Trial” first to understand how much Perry and Stier’s love story matters in shedding light on lesbian visibility everywhere.