Local Politics

Saturday, Jul 27 2013 08:00 PM

Kris Perry reflects on landmark ruling, growing up in Bakersfield

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    By Jessica Brandi Lifland / Special to the Californian

    Kris Perry and Sandy Stier sit next to each other in their family room after an interview at their home in Berkeley. The women were plaintiffs in the case challenging Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule on the merits of the case — essentially legalizing gay marriage in the state — Perry and Stier were the first same-sex couple to be married at San Francisco City Hall on June 28, 2013, by California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Perry is from Bakersfield.

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    By Jessica Brandi Lifland / Special to the Californian

    Kris Perry, left, and Sandy Stier, right, sit next to each other during an interview at their home in Berkeley. The women were plaintiffs in the case challenging Proposition 8, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court. After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule on the merits of the case — essentially legalizing gay marriage in the state — Perry and Stier were the first same-sex couple to be married at San Francisco City Hall on June 28, 2013, by California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Perry is from Bakersfield.

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    By Jessica Brandi Lifland / Special to the Californian

    Kris Perry, right, and Sandy Stier, left, discuss the multiple rings that Stier wears in honor of their marriage. Each ring was given at a significant point in their union with the most recent being the one Perry gave her the day they wed in San Francisco City Hall, after U.S. Supreme Court action led to reinstatement of same-sex marriage in California.

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    By Jessica Brandi Lifland / Special to the Californian

    Kris Perry, left, and Sandy Stier, right, sit next to each other during an interview at their home in Berkeley. The women were plaintiffs in the case regarding the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal in the case on procedural grounds and California reinstated same-sex marriage, Perry and Stier were the first same-sex couple to be married at San Francisco City Hall on June 28, 2013, by California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Perry is from Bakersfield.

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    By Jessica Brandi Lifland / Special to the Californian

    A pendant with the seal of the Supreme Court on it and several pro-Obama political buttons are among the memorabilia sitting in a dish in Perry and Stier's home.

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    Handout photograph of Kris Perry from high school senior portrait in 1982

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Last month, on the day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on two historic same-sex marriage cases, Kris Perry and the woman who is now her wife visited the Newseum, a Washington, D.C. museum of journalism that displays newspapers from across the nation.

"It was surreal to look and see our pictures on every front page in the country," said Perry, 48, who lives in Berkeley but grew up in Bakersfield.

She and wife Sandy Stier, 50, were the plaintiffs in a years-long court challenge of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that amended the California constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

"When this all first started, I thought our names might appear in some obscure legal brief and that would be the end of it," Perry said.

Hardly. They've been featured prominently in international news coverage of the case.

The couple wasn't always so visible. In fact, they would have preferred that someone else champion the cause. When the case was filed four years ago, three of their four children were teenagers and they didn't want to subject the youngsters to scrutiny or scorn.

But same-sex marriage advocates needed public faces for their challenge, particularly stable, loving couples who could show the human side of the issue.

Gradually, Perry and Stier eased into the role of activists, granting interviews, allowing access to a documentary film crew and speaking at fundraisers.

Perry's twin boys conceived with a donor during a previous relationship are now 18, and Stier's sons from a previous marriage are 22 and 24.

"We checked with all of them before we agreed to do press to make sure they were comfortable with it," Stier said. "If they hadn't felt comfortable, we never would have done it."

Childhood in Bakersfield

Perry partly credits growing up in Bakersfield for giving her the courage to take on such a controversial and emotional legal challenge.

"I'm a pretty tough, resilient person, thanks to Bakersfield," she said. "It's a tough place. It's hot, and when we played, we played in dirt. We threw tumbleweeds and rocks at each other."

Perry grew up in the northeast, which in the 1970s was the new part of town with a lot of undeveloped land.

"In the spring the sheep herders would bring sheep down from the Tehachapi Mountains to shear, and we could see them out the school windows," she said. "They would sing Basque songs to them.

"That's one of the things I miss most about home, the Basque food. That and the Mexican food."

By all accounts Perry was always a tomboy, but that didn't mean anything. She knew plenty of tomboys who were heterosexual and didn't think of herself as gay until years later.

Her childhood is filled with fond memories of the rugged outdoors, especially hiking in the Sierra Mountains, tubing and rafting in the Kern River, and water skiing on Lake Isabella.

Perry attended Eissler Elementary School, Chipman Junior High School and Highland High School, class of 1982.

Her parents divorced when Perry was 4 years old. Her mother, who remarried but divorced again, taught for 25 years at Beardsley Elementary School. Her father was a school administrator in Bakersfield, Delano and McFarland.

Her stepmother, a well-liked teacher at Eissler, gave Perry rock star status in elementary school.

"I was a total celebrity because she was a popular teacher," Perry recalled. "All my friends were like, 'That's your stepmom!'"

Not only that, she got a couple of cool stepsiblings out of the deal whom she played with on weekends at her father's.

But there was heartache, too. Her sister, Karin, died in 1986 from an inoperable brain tumor. Perry was 21 years old at the time, about to head to graduate school. Her sister was just 19.

"It helped that I was in school," Perry said. "It gave me something else to focus on instead of sitting in my room thinking about it."

Perry's mother now lives in Redwood City, but her father and stepmother are still in Bakersfield, "happy and proud" about their family's part in the court case.

Though both are avid supporters of same-sex marriage today, Jim Perry, 72, said his position on the issue evolved over time. The passage of Proposition 8 deeply upset him.

"It was a really negative thing for me because it made Kris unhappy," he said. "I wanted her to be happy."

Before Kris Perry came out to her family during her freshman year of college, stepmom Sydney Perry, 72, hadn't given gay marriage much thought either way.

"I think it changes your view when it affects someone you love," she said. "It becomes very personal to you."

The significance of full-fledged legal marriage hit home for Sydney Perry one day when she watched Stier try to explain to a stranger who Kris Perry was to her.

"Partner" sounded like a business arrangement, "girlfriend" sounded temporary and juvenile. There just isn't any word in the English language that conveys the same permanence and love as the word "wife," Sydney Perry said.

Falling in love

Perry double majored in psychology and sociology at UC Santa Cruz, then earned a master's degree in social work from San Francisco State. She went on to a career in social work, first in direct service and later advocating in the public policy arena.

Perry met Stier after a 12-year relationship had failed. Perry's previous partner still sees the twins regularly.

Stier was divorced and taught a computer class Perry was required to take for work-related training.

Today, Perry is executive director of a nonprofit organization that promotes early childhood education for disadvantaged children and Stier is director of information systems for an Alameda County public agency.

The two hit it off right away. With small-town upbringings (Stier grew up in Ottumway, Iowa) they related to each other, and, according to relatives and friends, balanced each other out. Perry, a former high school foreign exchange student in Switzerland, is the adventurous one. Stier is super organized and more cautious.

They tried to get married in 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom authorized the county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

On Aug. 1 of that year, the couple had a ceremony before friends and family and exchanged wedding rings.

But later that month, the California Supreme Court said Newsom had exceeded his authority and voided 3,955 marriages, including theirs.

In May 2008, the California Supreme Court overturned a ban on same-sex marriage.

Then came Proposition 8.

There was a lot of angst in the gay community about what to do next.

The ballot box had gone against same-sex marriage. Attempts to address the issue with legislation had failed. Before Gov. Jerry Brown took office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice vetoed bills that would have legalized the unions.

The best recourse, some argued, was the courts. But not everyone agreed.

There were conflicting rulings in both state and federal courts, so it was far from clear where a legal challenge would lead. The U.S. Supreme Court had only four liberal justices, meaning the fate of the case would likely hinge on a swing vote.

Even supporters of gay marriage, worried the Supreme Court wouldn't side with them, urged activists not to file a lawsuit.

Perry and Stier moved ahead anyway.

"We were working closely with organizations and legal experts who were smart people, and if they thought we could win, we trusted them," Perry said.

The decision didn't surprise Joe Naworski, a 49-year-old Bakersfield native now living in the Bay Area who has known Perry since the third grade. She helped him arrange a funeral and find child care when his partner of 16 years died suddenly of a heart attack.

Perry was a bedrock of strength in that crisis, Naworski said, and that same courage emerged again when it was time to go to court.

"When she makes a decision, there is no groping or waffling," he said. "She sets her mind to something, and that is that."

The legal fight

Perry and Stier were one of two sets of plaintiffs who challenged Proposition 8. The other plaintiffs were Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo of Burbank.

On June 16, the U.S. Supreme Court voided an appeal of the lower court ruling against Proposition 8, saying its defenders lacked legal standing in the case.

On the same day, the court handed down a decision in a separate case involving the federal Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that in states that permit same-sex marriage, gay married couples are entitled to the same rights as heterosexual married couples.

There was hardly time to celebrate.

Afterward, Perry and Stier were mobbed by media on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. They took questions for more than an hour at an improptu news conference.

"Then we had to take a call from the president," Perry said.

President Obama congratulated the couple and thanked them for their leadership and courage.

They flew home that week to a hero's welcome in California. The ruling just happened to fall about two weeks before San Francisco's annual gay pride parade.

There was just one hurdle left. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had to dissolve a stay it imposed on gay marriages while the lawsuit challenging Proposition 8 was resolved.

Nobody knew when that would happen, so the couple remained on standby. They got calls at work on June 28 saying it was likely to be that day.

Supporters wanted them to be the first couple married after the ruling, so they raced to San Francisco City Hall.

It was a lucky coincidence that they had worn the same color that day. Perry had on a tan pantsuit, and Stier wore a tan dress.

"It was just what we wore to work that day," Stier said. "No fancy hair or makeup. Romantic, huh?"

At the last minute, staff from the American Foundation for Equal Rights scrambled to get Stier a bouquet of flowers to hold.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris waited with them for the notification that they could go ahead, and was almost as gleeful as they were, Perry said.

"She was like, 'Isn't this exciting?" she said.

After word came that same-sex marriage was once again legal in California, Harris presided over the wedding vows, declaring them "spouses for life" in front of a throng of media. It was the state's first gay marriage in 41/2 years.

Things have quieted down a bit since then. They're finally settling into the routine they had before, juggling work and their sons' many activities.

"People keep asking us what anniversary we're going to celebrate," Stier said. "We'll probably stick with 2004. That's when we considered ourselves married."

Stier wears four rings on her left hand. There's her engagement ring and the wedding band she got on the day of her first wedding in 2004. Perry gave her a third ring three years ago engraved with the date Aug. 4, 2010, when a U.S. District Court judge declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional. A fourth ring commemorates the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

But last month's rulings only applied to 13 states and the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is sanctioned. In the majority of the country, the unions remain illegal, so there could be yet another legal milestone at some point. Could that mean a fifth ring?

"That was the last ring she's getting," Perry quipped. "She's running out of room on her finger."

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