California Love Story

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Face in Dirt), C. 1990, silver print, 28 1⁄2 × 28 1⁄2". Edition of ten. Courtesy of the estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.

In November 2008, by a narrow margin, the voters of California passed the California Marriage Protection Act, popularly known as Prop 8. The law limited the state’s recognition of marriage to heterosexual couples. Six months later, two couples—Kristen Perry and Sandra Stier, and Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami—decided to challenge the law by applying for marriage licenses. Both were turned down. So the couples sued the state of California and its legal avatar, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, arguing that denying homosexuals the ability to marry violated their constitutional rights.

In the resulting trial, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which took place in the summer of 2010, witnesses were called to testify on a wide range of topics. Far from arguing narrow legal points, the lawyers for each side posed empirical questions about the nature of homosexuality, and considered angles economic, historical, and psychological. The Perry lawyers in particular seemed intent on rewriting the entire mythology of contemporary gay life: No more drooling fags grabbing each others’ crotches in bathroom stalls; no more swaggering dykes revving their Harleys and pawing at cherry-cheeked girls in petticoats; no more melancholy boys with mirrors trying on mascara and their mothers’ summer dresses. The plaintiffs’ witnesses introduced the court to a New Gay: hardworking, wholesome, and unambiguously gendered; adorably installed in a long-term relationship; too busy volunteering at church and attending children’s soccer games to have time for deviant behavior.

In the muggy last days of that June, while the trial was ending, I was busy wearing out the kindness of a boyfriend. When the boyfriend said affectionate things, I smiled and changed the subject. On Saturday mornings I’d slip out of his bed by nine thirty; on Saturday nights I’d return to my own bed and text him to say I was too tired to make the long subway trek back to his.

Before drifting off to sleep, I would read articles about the trial. One strategy of the prosecution was to let the plaintiffs themselves—their personalities, their histories—make a fresh case for the ability of homosexuals to form successful unions. The two halves of the male couple, Zarrillo and Katami, were affable and settled. Zarrillo had grown up in suburban New Jersey and attended the local high school. He’d worked his way up into the higher management of a movie theater chain. Katami was a fitness instructor and sold his workout videos online. In the transcripts, the two came across as sensitive and comfortably male. They wanted a family, they wanted children, but “Marriage first,” they said. There was an idealistic boyishness about them. They were young.

Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, the lesbian half of the plaintiff quartet, were similarly appealing, and even more family-oriented: they had been together for ten years and were the parents of four children. Perry directed a government agency that provided “services and support” to families with kids under 5. Stier was a farm girl from Iowa who worked in health care. She spent twelve years with an unsupportive, alcoholic husband before meeting Perry and falling in love. When asked how she ended up marrying a man she would later realize she never loved, Stier explained to the court that her mother’s advice about marriage had been unsentimental: “It’s hard work.” “And in my family,” Perry added, “that seemed very true.” According to the transcript, the joke went over well.

During questioning, each woman mentioned her age several times, unprompted. Statements like “I’m 47,” and “I’m a 45-year-old woman,” were a way to quiet skeptics and reassure uneasy listeners. Each of the women was too far along in life to change, and neither was so young as to seem dauntingly sexual. As with Zarrillo and Katami, their sexuality had to be situated just right relative to their gender: Zarrillo and Katami were the sensitive boys; Perry and Stier were the comfortable mothers.

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