Under a balmy evening sky, on a shiny dark wood platform in the middle of a deep blue pool outside the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami exchanged wedding vows as about 250 family and friends looked on with swelled hearts. The plaintiffs in the historic Prop. 8 trial had hastily married exactly one year earlier, June 28, 2013, the day the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted their stay and allowed marriage equality to resume in California. Co-plaintiffs Kris Perry and Sandy Stier married the same day in San Francisco. As the crowd laughed and lifted their glasses of Moet toasting the long awaited wedding ceremony, few realized that the event coincided with another celebration, the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall riots—few in 1969 could have imagined this day.
“This is about Jeff and Paul—but also Kris and Sandy. I bet they’re tired of being called ‘plaintiffs,’” said friend and attorney David Boies, who, along with fellow attorney Ted Olson, officiated at the wedding.
Because of their status as the political partisan-busting oddest of odd couples, Olson and Boies had been the center of intense media attention—a fact that served the Prop. 8 challengers parallel public education campaign. As the plaintiffs, Zarrillo and Katami and Perry and Stier served as “the face” and stories of marriage discrimination, standing in for loving same sex couples who had been granted marriage rights in California in May 2008—only to have those rights taken away by a vote of the people at the ballot six months later.
But on Saturday night, June 28, 2014, they were standing in and standing up for themselves alone.
“This is really a celebration because everything else was so issue-oriented,” said award-winning producer Bruce Cohen, president of the Board and co-founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER) that brought the lawsuit and put together the team to federally challenge Prop. 8. “We had the case and we had the decision and Kris and Sandy’s wedding, which happened in San Francisco that day—it was all political. Our movement is personal and political and that was all together. But in a way, this is just the personal. Everyone from the case is here—and to just be celebrating marriage in California is really moving and exciting.”
Cohen and Gabe Catone were married at L.A. City Hall June 23, 2008 by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—five years before Villaraigosa would marry Zarrillo and Katami on his last day in office.
Cohen and fellow AFER co-founder Chad Griffin, now president of the Human Rights Campaign, sat next to retired District Court Judge Vaughn Walker at the wedding dinner. “That was the icing on a very rich cake, to get his thoughts on the whole thing,” Cohen said.
Walker’s decision finding Prop. 8 unconstitutional has been cited in numerous subsequent federal and state court decisions—for instance, the findings of facts documented in the trial about parenting, procreation and the role of tradition in law. (Walker is pictured aboce with David Boies and his wife Mary.)
Walker’s ruling was the culmination of a long, hard fight that began on May 26, 2009 when the newly formed AFER filed a federal constitutional challenge to Prop. 8. AFER introduced plaintiffs Zarrillo, Katami, Perry and Stier to the world the next day at an historic news conference that also announced that legendary lawyers Olson and Boies who joined together to overturn Prop. 8 and educate the public on the significance of marriage rights for same sex couples.
“It feels great [to be here]. It just feels wonderful. To see these people get married and to see them achieve what they were fighting for years to achieve—not only for themselves but for millions of people across the country—it’s just great,” Boies said before the wedding.
“To see all these people smiling—these are gay and straight people from all over the country, of every age—these are family members, these are friends, these are everybody,” echoed Olson. “There is nothing but joy and happiness here. This is what a marriage should be about. That’s what this kind of a marriage should be about. It is universal. It is beautiful and it is inspirational to be a part of this.”
The power of the moment didn’t escape the grooms, who’ve been together for 13 years, with their Prop. 8 lives detailed in Jo Becker's book Forcing the Spring about the trial and an HBO documetary The Case Against 8.
“This is why treating people equally is so important,” said Katami, 41. “Because falling in love and wanting to get married is a universal theme. People grow up want to fall in love and have a night like tonight. So really, beyond the law, beyond the fight for rights and treating people equally, it’s respect, it’s dignity, it’s freedom—it’s all those thing you fight for in this country. And the love in this room is incredible. Anyone who walks in here cannot deny that. I would love to have anybody who opposes marriage equality come and talk to everyone who’s here with their love and acceptance and the joy, and then try to turn around and say you shouldn’t be treated equally.”
I asked Zarrillo, 40, what he would say to Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, if Brown was standing there in front of him. It was NOM’s anti-gay video "The Gathering Storm” that so infuriated Katami that he and Zarrillo made a video in response. In asking for help with the video, his friends lead Katami to Bruce Cohen, who in turn brought the couple to the AFER team to participate in the Prop. 8 federal challenge.
Zarrillo thought for a moment, then said, "There’s nothing more normal than falling in love with someone, and it doesn’t matter who they are and how they identify. I love him and I would challenge anybody to come into my home and live with us for a few days and see how normal we are - and our lives are normal. Our lives are really boring, if you think about it. But love is love and why are you spending so much time focused on not letting people have this amazing access to love and what comes along with that love and the marriage and the rights? That’s what it’s all about and we’re so proud tonight to put an exclamation point on what’s been a very long sentence.”
The ceremony itself was simple, emotional and shared—as they were escorted to the center of the “stage” by their mothers and nieces and nephews put in appearances to present the rings. As if to illustrate the point he was making, Olson read off cards he was holding to note that marriage is not about perfection and not only about marrying the right partner but being the right partner.
Zarrillo also had to speak from notes since he was so emotional. “I love you,” he said, choking up, “I’m the lucky one,” thanking Katami for sticking with him through all his moods, especially “when the Cowboys lose” and endless episodes of The Golden Girls and Seinfeld. Then in a moment symbolic to them, he said: “There is no hand I’d rather grab on an escalator than yours.” Quoting a Honeymooners line from Alice to her husband Ralph Kramden, “I don’t mind growing old, as long as I’m with you.”
Realizing that the escalator line perhaps needed some explanation, Zarrillo said it was the first time they’d held hands in public. “It was our first PDF.” “You mean PDA, it was our first PDA, "public display of affection." Not PDF. That's a file,” said Katami as everyone laughed.
Then it was Katami’s turn. Instead of vows to Zarrillo, he decided to share a story about how he first knew Zarrillo was “the one.” 13 years ago, he and Zarrillo had gone on a first date where he found out a lot about the man who intrigued him—including that Zarrillo likes blue M&Ms.
Katami had then to go away for a family visit, during which time he went to a carnival. He kept asking for a “sign” that Zarrillo and he were meant to be together—and suddenly he spotted a blue M&M plush toy as a prize for winning a game. $25 later, with no prize, he joined his close friend who asked him to get her some cotton candy. One his second trip for the cotton candy, he spied a blue M&M plush toy in the back of a store. He asked to buy it but the store owner said they didn’t sell those, they were simply left overs from the game. Did he want one?
He took it home, presented it to Zarrillo and, Katami said to his soon-to-be-husband, “in that moment, I knew we’d spend our lives together.” As it turns out, the store where Katami bought the toy is “Under the Rainbow.”
When the couple completed the little vignettes that made their wedding special to them, Olson said, “It is our great joy to pronounce you married.” And they kissed.
Glee’s Darren Criss performed as Katami and Zarrillo danced with their mothers and then the other’s mother. “I feel like we all just got married,” Criss said.
And then it was time to eat cake and party.
The couple will honeymoon in Europe later this fall and then continue to fight for marriage equality until all couples have the right to experience the joy they felt that night.
Wedding photos courtesty Beverly Hilton Hotel/Getty Images. All others are mine.