This time last year, the nation held its breath waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on two major marriage equality cases—and on June 26, 2013, SCOTUS declared both the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional. In the months since that decision came down, support for marriage rights for lesbians and gay men has continued to grow, as ban after ban gets struck down, and couple after couple says, “I do.”
The documentary The Case Against 8, airing tonight on HBO, takes us behind the scenes to relive the drama of the historic Proposition 8 trial. As a devoted Prop 8 trial-watcher who compared following the case’s progress to reading gothic fiction and called it one of the greatest love stories of our time, I kept having to pause the film to dry my tears and savor the surges of joy I felt with each successive win. To say that I identify heavily with the plaintiff/protagonists is an understatement. Their story belongs to me—and to everyone who believes in the promise of democracy.
Even though we know the outcome, the movie manages to convey the suspense of the four-year battle to overturn Prop 8. Rolling back to the crushing defeat in November of 2008, when the ban’s passage made marriage equality appear to be an impossible dream, and presenting the turmoil that surrounded the lawsuit’s beginnings, the film reminds us that success was by no means inevitable. Chad Griffin and Kristina Schake recount hatching the seemingly Quixotic plan to cast David Boies and Ted Olson, famous opponents in Bush v. Gore, as the legal team who would champion gay rights. At that time, angry meetings took place in which LGBT leaders tried to stop the case from going forward, fearing that the timing was wrong and that a defeat could irreparably set back the marriage equality movement. We get to see early footage of the two couples at the heart of the case—Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo—preparing to take the stand in defense of their relationships, and struggling with the weight of their historic roles. We see the witness prep and the testimony rehearsals. Cameras capture intimate moments of anxiety, uncertainty, relief and jubilation as the case makes its way toward the Supreme Court victory.
Ultimately, as the film makes clear, the fight against Prop 8 revolved around love: the love shared by the plaintiffs and their families, the love of countless lesbian and gay couples whose right to marry is being denied and the love that everyone involved in the case brought to the table. Most surprising is the love and friendship between David Boies and Ted Olson, whose respect for one another’s courtroom skills and whose confidence in the justice of their cause come across as truly heroic. (Boies and Olson continue to fight for marriage equality in another lawsuit, the Bostic case, which seeks to undo Virginia’s marriage ban, and they have written a book together, Redeeming the Dream: The Case for Marriage Equality.) Fittingly, the movie ends in multiple marriages, and if you’re someone who tends to cry at weddings, you’ll be sobbing through the credits.
We reached out to Sandy Stier via e-mail to get her thoughts on the documentary.
Ms. Blog: The film is so personal, so much about the two of you—and Jeff and Paul—that I kept thinking, what an amazing wedding video! Congratulations, by the way! How did you feel seeing the full story laid out in two hours?
Sandy Stier: Thank you for the warm congratulations, we’re still pinching ourselves! The directors of the film, Ben Cotner and Ryan White, showed us a rough cut of the film several weeks before it was final, just to make sure that we were comfortable with it. They were unfailingly respectful of our opinion, and we are grateful for that. We first saw the final film together, after professional editing and the music added, at Sundance in Park City, Utah. We were absolutely gripped the entire time. To have a very intense and emotional journey chronicled in a documentary is simply such a gift to us, and of course to others. We love the film and are very moved by it every time we get to see it!
I was struck by how the two of you grew into spokespeople for marriage equality over the course of the film. Can you describe the changes that took place as your scope of influence grew wider and wider?
Through the course of the trial, which of course we never expected to have, we learned a lot about ourselves and even more so about the impact of discrimination, the “history” of marriage and how the political process has disfavored LGBT persons. We were so honored to be in the courtroom when our expert witnesses testified on these issues, and for the most part they were esteemed professors from the finest universities bringing forth their research. We were inspired and energized to bring those messages forward and try to help people understand the case and how discrimination hurts everyone.
In a particularly chilling part of the film, we hear the hostile voice mails you received. How long did that go on? Did it ever make you want to step away from the trial?
Those particular calls went on for several days. We simply stopped answering our phone to avoid them, and told the boys [the couple has four sons] not to answer any call if they didn’t recognize the number. Fortunately the authorities stepped up immediately and dealt with it appropriately. It didn’t make us want to step away from the trial, but we did step up security in our lives and in our home.
The film is remarkably suspenseful, given that we know the outcome. Did you get nervous watching it and recalling all the waiting and uncertainty?
When we watch the film and recall how the waiting impacted us, we’re struck by the passage of time and how much our own lives changed over those four years. We see our youngest sons go from adolescence to adulthood. It’s very poignant for us to see that transition and we are struck by how much has changed over that time.
You made history with the Supreme Court decision, and then, two days later, you were able to marry—and to have both your home state and the federal government recognize your marriage. After so much excitement, is married life everything you hoped it would be?
Married life is grand indeed! We actually feel a great sense of relief to have closure on marriage equality in California, but are acutely aware that we still need a national solution. There are couples and families suffering today in other states because they don’t have access to marriage and the many social and economic benefits that it provides. So the work isn’t over.
Anything else you’d like to say to Ms. readers about the film and your starring roles?
We hope people will watch this film with their friends and families and really talk about their own lives in the context of fairness and equality. We know many others have had similar experiences to ours, whether it’s because they’re gay, or female or any other characteristic. We all have a right to experience happiness and fulfillment in our lives, and we have opportunities all the time to help others have an equal shot at that!
Audrey Bilger (@AudreyBilger) is a professor of literature and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse at Claremont McKenna College. She is co-editor, with Ms. magazine senior editor, Michele Kort, of Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage, a 2013 Lambda Literary Awards finalist.