Q&A With Kris Perry

Prop 8 co-defeater Kris Perry talks about her relationship with wife Sandy Stier, their new lives in Washington, DC, and her post-election thoughts on the future of marriage equality.

Sandy and Kris leading the San Francisco Pride parade. Photo courtesy Shutterstock/ Kobby Dagan.

Every marriage is important, but some can actually move mountains. Californians Kris Perry and Sandy Stier were first married during a brief 2004 window during which the city of San Francisco issued licenses to same-sex couples. That marriage—and some 4,000 others like it—was later voided by California’s Supreme Court, but Kris and Sandy weren’t about to give up so easily.

In 2009, the Berkeley couple, along with Burbank duo Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, became plaintiffs in a landmark case against California’s same-sex-marriage-banning Proposition 8, taking it all the way to the US Supreme Court. In 2013, the Court ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional, making marriage equality the law in California. The long and emotional road to that decision—and Kris and Sandy’s marriage just after it, officiated by then-California Attorney General and now US Senator Kamala Harris—was chronicled in a fascinating 2014 HBO documentary, The Case Against 8.

Kris and Sandy now reside in Washington, DC, where Kris, 52, is executive director of the bipartisan First Five Years Fund (which advocates for federal investment in early childhood education), and Sandy, 54, is a data systems expert for the Department of Health and Human Services. In February, they are playing themselves in Dustin Lance Black’s eagerly anticipated LGBT-rights ABC miniseries, When We Rise. Just days after the 2016 election, Kris shared with us the story of her relationship with Sandy, her thoughts on the future of marriage equality, and her advice for those now contemplating LGBT activism.

LWC: How did you and Sandy meet?

KP: It’s kind of a funny story. We were both working in the same organization 20 years ago—I was forced into a computer training class, and she was the teacher. I knew immediately that I was really, really, really intrigued, and we ended up becoming friends. We each had two young boys [twins Spencer and Elliott, now 22, and Frank and Tom, now 26 and 28], and we had a really great friendship for years. We could go over to each other’s houses and let the kids play together. Then it just changed, and we’ve now been a couple for 17 years.

Sandy and Kris with family. Image courtesy Kris Perry.

LWC: And then you were married for the first time in 2004.

KP: That’s right. That was an interesting year. I proposed at Christmastime at the end of 2003, and we were planning a wedding for August 2004. And then out of nowhere, Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco [now California’s lieutenant governor], announced that he would marry same-sex couples if they came to City Hall. So that was February, and we were six months away from our own wedding, which would’ve been a “pretend”  wedding. So we thought, well, we can’t miss the chance to be really legally married.

LWC: You’d been planning on just having a domestic partnership otherwise?

KP: We already had that….We just hadn’t ever had a public celebration. And this is the big challenge, right? There are weddings, and there are marriages. In our case, we were living like a married couple without ever having celebrated our relationship with our friends and family. And so that was the main goal of the wedding.

LWC: Did you still have the big ceremony?

KP: Yeah! We went ahead with our plans for the August wedding. We had 125 friends and family gather in the Berkeley Hills at a beautiful Julia Morgan–designed building, and we had the boys walk us down the aisle.

LWC: What about after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Prop 8?

KP: We had a huge barbecue gathering at our home in Berkeley on the following Saturday. We just sent out a message to every single person that had been kind or loving toward us—our friends, our kids’ friends’ parents, the city council, the board of education, our neighbors. All of these people had gone out of their way for years to be kind to us, and everybody came over. It was so great.

LWC: How’s life in DC?

KP: We live 10 blocks from the Supreme Court. (Laughs.)

LWC: Oh wow, that’s great!

KP: We are always, always, always taken aback. We drive by it on our way home from work, or we walk over in the morning sometimes, and we just can’t get over it. We just can’t believe how beautiful the city is, or how we were ever involved in anything that went on in that building.

A kiss after their ceremony at San Francisco City Hall on June 28, 2013. Image Courtesy Getty Images/Justin Sullivan.

LWC: Post-election, do you worry about the future of marriage equality in the United States?

KP: I do worry about it. Because it was done through the judicial branch, it can be undone. I think it would be very, very, very, very difficult, but I think about it a lot. We have dinner with the Olsons [former US Solicitor General under President George W. Bush, Ted Olson was co-head of the couple’s marriage-fight legal team], and we talk about this. They’re very, very confident it won’t happen.

It would have to be that someone in a state brings another suit, kind of the opposite of our suit—we don’t want to do this anymore, we shouldn’t have to do this anymore, kind of a Kim Davis situation—and it would be treated differently, that suddenly [courts] would rule in favor of religious freedom, and take away our marriage rights. This seems impossible, and I have to say, I really didn’t hear people campaigning on it very much. I don’t think it’s a winning issue anymore. That said, it just so happens that one of the people that was very clear that they didn’t like [marriage equality] was Mike Pence.

LWC: Do you have any advice for LGBTQ people who might now be considering getting more involved in activism?

KP: You know, my approach is, was, will always be: Live by example, advocate by example. I’m not always convinced you need to join a group or go to an event. I think if you can live a life with great integrity and honesty and compassion, you do a lot to change the minds of people around you, including your children, if you’re a parent, in a way that is powerful.

Some people are just innate leaders. They’re creative, they like to take risks, they have the constitution to do something more than living by example. I love when I see people break out as leaders in whatever way they want, but I don’t think there’s a right way to do it or a wrong way to do it. You know, we got activated around something we didn’t plan to be activated around, and it was impactful. But we’ve also worked on things that didn’t have much of an impact. You can’t expect that, I signed up for something, and therefore I expect it to change the world, or I’m going to personally change the world.

I think it’s a marathon, and you have to live your life to the fullest and lend your help where you can, and lead if you’re a leader.

LWC: Are you and Sandy enjoying being
empty nesters?

KP: It’s so great. I could not recommend empty nesting any more. (Laughs.) It’s the best thing ever. I mean, I really love and miss all of our boys, but we’re all so much happier on our own.