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'It Feels Different': Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, Prop 8 Plaintiffs, Talk Winning, Wedding and What Comes Next

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

When I call up Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, they're in the car -- as Katami puts it, "We're running around today."  He asks me to wait a second so he can connect the phone to the car's Bluetooth and warns me ("I always make this disclaimer") that I may lose him because, well, Verizon.

It's all remarkably ordinary in a way: the sweet, simple mundanity of day-to-day life, a marked change from the whirlwind June for the two men who, along with another couple, successfully brought Proposition 8 to its knees and restored marriage equality to California.

But that's just Jeff and Paul, really. I'm immediately at ease with these two kind and passionate men who have -- without much exaggeration -- made history.  If this isn't an example of those who have history thrust upon them, I don't know what is.

'We Weren't Trying to Make an Activist Statement'

When Katami and Zarrillo joined Sandy Stier and Kris Perry in 2009 to challenge the constitutionality of Proposition 8, California's ban on marriage equality, the two weren't looking to be public figures.  It began with a video the couple made called "Weathering the Storm," a reaction to the National Organization for Marriage's (NOM) now-infamous "Gathering Storm" ad, in which paid actors bemoaned the perils of allowing same-sex couples to marry over an ominous backdrop of menacing thunderclouds.

"We weren't trying to make an activist statement," Zarrillo says of the video.  "We did it for ourselves.  We said, 'Let's do something that's more cathartic for us, and use our friends and our family -- real people telling real stories.'" But the couple's message made waves at the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), a pro-marriage-equality nonprofit founded and helmed by Chad Griffin (now the president of the Human Rights Campaign).

Griffin was putting together a federal court challenge to Prop 8, one that would bring together David Boies and Ted Olson, the superstar lawyers who argued against each other in Bush v. Gore.  AFER knew it had a case, but the organization needed couples. "It was a very thoughtful process," Zarrillo recalls.  "We realized it was much bigger than us.  So any fears that we had putting ourselves out there kind of washed away when we understood how big the question was and how deep the need was for so many people."

This, above all, is the message that comes up again and again in our conversation: It was bigger than us.  For the couple, as for so many in California and across the country, Prop 8 was a shock and a wake-up call.  In 2008, only Massachusetts and California -- both deep-blue states -- allowed same-sex couples to wed.  If voters in California could vote to take marriage away from same-sex couples, the conventional wisdom went, it could happen anywhere.

"I think the Perry case changed the game," Zarrillo says, referring to the challenge to Prop 8 as Perry v. Schwarzenegger, its name in a San Francisco district court.  The involvement of Boies and Olson, he went on to say, "stripped away the partisan veil that's always been associated with this issue."

Katami credits the lawsuit with driving media coverage and prompting Americans to think about LGBT equality and the effects of excluding same-sex couples from marriage -- effects, he says, that were mischaracterized and manipulated by the Prop 8 proponents' arguments against marriage equality.  "When you put that on trial," he tells me, "it basically melts away.  You can't put a lie on trial.  The conversation changed."

'It Feels Different'

On June 28, a little over four years after the initial legal challenge against Prop 8 had been filed, Zarrillo and Katami rushed to Los Angeles City Hall to be married by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on his last day in office.  Two days earlier the Supreme Court had allowed the district court ruling invalidating the law to go into effect; that Friday, an unexpected move by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals meant that marriages could begin immediately.  The couple got stuck in traffic -- of course -- but along with the other two plaintiffs in the case, they became the first two same-sex couples to wed in the Golden State in five years.

"The moment you're married, it changes everything," Katami tells me.  "It's almost cliché to say that, but marriage is revered for a reason.  Everything that we were fighting for made sense in that moment and was resolved in that moment."

Zarrillo, for his part, echoes that sentiment.  "It feels different," he says.  "Paul and I have been together for 12 and a half years. I don't know what the word is -- we've always struggled to define what equal feels like.  But there's just a different feeling now.  There's a feeling of safety and a feeling of security.  It's taken our relationship to an even higher level now, if that was possible."

After their wedding the couple flew to San Francisco to take part in the city's Pride celebration.  Katami tells me about a woman who came up to hug him but pulled away crying.  When Katami asked her why she was sad, the woman told him she had to return to Arizona, where LGBT people are prohibited from marrying and provided few legal protections.  "It was a moment for Paul and I where we really looked at each other and said, 'Wow, there's still so much work to do.'"

Again, the same refrain: It's bigger than us.  "We went into this will no ego," Katami says.  "It's a collective feeling -- we are a community.  It doesn't make any sense to live in a place we call the United States when it's really not united at all."

And while the couple is happy to return to their day-to-day lives, they maintain that they will be back in the public eye. "We've felt a responsibility through the process to make sure that we represent the community well," Katami tells me.  "It wasn't just a question of marriage that we were fighting for; it was a question of rights.  And we'll do whatever we can to lend the voice of our story and our experience to help any other person or movement move forward."

'Back to Work'

I ask them if they have any advice for couples considering court challenges to other states' marriage equality bans, especially those in conservative states where public opinion toward LGBT people is more hostile.  "I would tell them, 'Think of the people that did it before us, when it was even harder,'" Zarrillo says.  "'At what point do you want to stop being treated like a second-class citizen and get involved?  The truth will always win. If you have the opportunity to be part of a lawsuit, know that the truth is on your side.'"

Of course, the legal wrangling over Proposition 8 itself isn't quite finished--the ballot measure's proponents have asked the California Supreme Court to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, arguing that Judge Vaughn Walker's district court injunction shouldn't apply statewide.  So far, the state court has declined the proponents' request for an emergency stay, but arguments over the injunction are planned for the next few months.

As for the plaintiffs, their response to my question about whether they worry that their marriage could still be in jeopardy is quick and final: "Not one bit."  They paraphrase David Boies' estimate as to the chances of success for the Prop 8 plaintiffs as "zero, zip, nada."

So what's next for the couple?  "We're letting the dust settle," Katami tells me.  "We are officially married, but we had to call a lot of friends and family and ask them to turn on the TV to watch.  So they insisted -- and we feel the same way -- that there needs to be a celebratory wedding and reception.  That is first on the plate.  And back to work, really!"

I take the question one step farther, and Zarrillo chimes in -- but barely takes my bait.  "If kids come down the line, they'll come down the line.  We're dealing with a sick dog at home, and I said to Paul tonight, 'Wow, it's tough dealing with a sick dog.  I can't imagine what it's like dealing with a sick kid.'

He pauses, then admits in good humor, "We need a little time to decompress."

This piece originally appeared on EqualityOnTrial.com.