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Plaintiffs Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami Talk About the 9th Circuit’s Ruling on Prop 8

Plaintiffs Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami Talk About the 9th Circuit’s Ruling on Prop 8

by Karen Ocamb on February 21, 2012

Perry v Brown plaintiff Paul Katami tearing up at the news conference after the 9th Circuit ruling in the Prop 8 case on Feb. 7, 2012 (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

This is an extended version of the Frontiers magazine story now posted on FrontiersLA.com.  Today, Protect Marriage attorney Charles Cooper told Metro Weekly that the Prop 8 proponents will seek a full 9th Circuit review of the three-judge panel’s ruling upholding District Court Judge Walker’s decision that Prop 8 is unconstitutional. Chris Stoll of the National Center for Lesbian Rights reports on Prop 8 Trial Tracker about what the filing (expected later today) means. This story is about AFER co-plaintiffs Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, who live in Burbank.

Standing at the podium at the back of the cavernous 19th century Cathedral of St. Vibiana in Downtown Los Angeles for the live Feb. 7 news conference on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Prop. 8 is unconstitutional, Paul Katami choked up.

“The breaking point for me was when I said, ‘Today’s ruling is important to millions of people across the country—but it was also important to the young me, who hid who I was.’ I didn’t allow myself the dream—to think that one day I could wake up and be open about the person I love, let alone marry the person I love. And here I am a part of this process where we are being affirmed by the law—that we are equal and that there is this day that is coming soon that I can do that,” Katami told Frontiers on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, which he and partner Jeff Zarrillo celebrated quietly. “And it’s overwhelming, because as part of the gay community, it’s easy to push things aside and say, ‘I don’t want to worry about that now,’ because you might have to dig so deep that you actually feel the true damage that is being incurred when there is inequality.”

Too often Katami, Zarrillo and their Northern California co-plaintiffs in Perry v. Brown—Kris Perry and Sandy Stier—have been ascribed by the media supporting roles in the important legal and courtroom drama starring famous attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies and produced with aplomb by political consultant Chad Griffin, co-founder and board president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, sponsors of the federal challenge to Prop. 8. But for Katami, Zarrillo, Perry and Stier, this reality show is their real lives. Indeed, they are regular people with regular jobs standing in for the hopes, dreams and longings of gay people everywhere.

Attorney Ted Olson at the podium at the AFER news conference on the 9th Circuit ruling (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

The ruling was 2-1. “Ted Olson sat down with us and explained what the ruling was and that it was more of a narrow ruling,” Zarrillo said. “[The court] didn’t necessarily find the right to same-sex marriage, but said that once you give a right to a citizen, then you can’t take it away. That means it’s unconstitutional.”

“We were very happy and very excited because a win is a win. You win in the district court, you win in the 9th Circuit. It is a winning record,” Katami said. “It still affirms that marriage is a right and you cannot prohibit people from rights in this country.”

Spencer Perry, 17, speaks as his brother Elliot, moms Sandy Stier and Kriss Perry and AFER's Chad Griffin look on with pride (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

For the first time since the Prop. 8 challenge was filed May 22, 2009, family members spoke publicly. Spencer Perry—the teenage son of Kris Perry and Sandy Stier who is running to be the 65th Youth Governor of California in a program sponsored by the YMCA—was eloquent. “When Proposition 8 doesn’t allow parents like mine to marry, it isn’t just defining their love as taboo or wrong. It says that my family—that my brothers, that my mothers—shouldn’t belong and we don’t get to be the same as my friends’ families,” Perry said. “With this ruling, in the eyes of the government, my family is finally normal.” (See video of his remarks here.)

Dominick Zarrillo, Jeff’s 66-year-old father, also spoke briefly at the news conference. Dominick Zarrillo and his wife of 43 years, Linda, 63, were in from New Jersey visiting their sons in Burbank when the ruling came down.

Jeff Zarrillo's father Dominick Zarrillo at the AFER news conference (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

“My father gave a very important message to parents and grandparents who may be living in families with gays and lesbians who don’t really understand and only know what they learned growing up—that it was OK to discriminate,” Zarrillo said. “Seeing my father up there saying he was proud of his son and proud of his son-in-law and that everybody should be treated equally whether they’re gay or straight sends the message to the older demographic, similar to the way Spencer sent the message to the younger demographic.”

Domick Zarrillo at the podium as his wife Linda, his son Jeff and his son-in-law Paul, as well as the rest of the AFER family, look on (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Zarrillo said they feel a sense of responsibility being part of the historic case. “One of our goals is being out there telling our story and the story of our community. Sometimes you see the light go on when you’re having a conversation with someone,” he says.

Katami also encouraged gay people to get involved. “Don’t stand for second-class citizenship. You can make a difference in more ways than you think you can.”

Jeff Zarrillo at the podium at the AFER news conference on the 9th Circuit Prop 8 ruling Feb. 7, 2012 (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Sometimes making a difference comes as simply as being out, honest and who you are. And sometimes there is a ripple effect. Zarrillo said:

I work for AMC Entertainment, the movie theater chain. I told my boss about this case a couple of months after we filed it. He was very supportive from the beginning. He subsequently told people in our corporate office in Kansas City and they did a feature story on Paul and I on the company Internet telling the whole company about what was happening and they’ve done follow ups. When I got back to the office on Thursday [after the 9th Circuit ruling], I had tons of emails – not just from people that are peers but people that are supervisors to me.  Executive people in the corporate officer were just wishing me luck and congratulating me. So they’ve been very supportive.

Katami, who is a fitness expert and a manger at the Equinox on Sunset, has a different experience:

I work in West Hollywood. Funny thing – I took the  opposite route. I didn’t make it an issue I brought up at work. I didn’t wear it on my sleeve at all. When I’m at work, I’m at work and really focused on the job at hand. We have a mortgage to pay and bills and that’s the primary thing. Some people who are surprised to find out are very congratulatory and have been very embracing and very supportive . What’s really great about it is how many straight allies have come to me at work and said, ‘I’m baffled by this. I really don’t understand why you have to have this fight. It doesn’t make sense to me.’

Jeff’s company has been really supportive. No one has not been supportive in my company but I’ve also kept kind of compartmentalized. I’ve really focused on my work – and that’s a good thing for us.

You know, there’s no ego in this for us, at all. The only benefit we really seek is our equal rights – the right to be married and have those protections. So it’s nice to be able to go back to work and have a ‘normal life. And then once a ruling or something comes up -  like the ‘8’ play coming up on March 3 – we plug back in and celebrate and enjoy the blessing of being around the people who are helping us win these battles. And then we plug right back into every day life.

Linda and Dominick Zarrillo with Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Zarrillo said that sense of responsibility being a part of the case makes the conversations with people more poignant.

Sometimes it’s not that they were against you – they just weren’t even aware because they might not be effected by gays in their every day lives.  Having a conversation changes the thought process and hopefully gives them a better understanding because the goal is to make people understand that all Americans should be treated equally and if you’re going to go to the ballot box, you need to be an educated voter. You need to know what you’re pressing a lever for. If you’re going to take away someone’s rights, you should make sure you understand because that should never be on the ballot to begin with.

There is also personal pressure on them. “We make sure we do the right thing at all times,” Zarrillo said.

Katami concurred. But his initial motivation was seeing the antigay National Organization for Marriage video while he was sitting on his couch at home.

His outrage over the video lead to a series of meetings with friends and friends of friends who eventually lead him to the folks behind what would become the American Foundation for Equal Rights. Even today, his outrage still surfaces.

We never set out to be poster boys of a movement. What we set out to do is say, ‘We’re tired of being treated second class. We’re tried of not having the same rights. We’re tired of hearing about kids killing themselves and kids being bullied because they’re gay.’  It comes to a point where apathy doesn’t work any more. It’s so easy to be apathetic to think, ‘Well, what can I do to make any change?’

If you had asked us three years ago if we’d be sitting in this position today, I think we’d both chuckle and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It wasn’t our intention to create a persona for ourselves that was going to be representative of ‘activism.’ It was like I stood up off the couch and said, ‘Enough is enough!’ I am an American citizen who happens to be gay, who pays my bills and may taxes, I own a home and I’m in a relationship for almost ten years now – almost eleven – and enough is enough! I am tired of being treated this way! I am tired of being told I need to be treated differently because you treat different things differently – as NOM’s Maggie Gallagher has said. It is so unAmerican!

The backbone of our country is based on the Constitution and regardless of your religious belief, regardless of your moral belief and regardless of whether you think we have a big ego about this – we all come to the center and agree. We have to. This is what America is about. You come to the center and agree that the Constitution is the backbone of the country and it includes the Bill of Rights, it includes the Amendments, it includes every single American.

Paul Katami at the podium at the AFER news conference (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

So beyond the burden and the pressure, we know that we did something – regardless of how this works out. We did something. We got tired of being treated like second class citizens and we said, ‘You know what? Regardless of where this arc takes us – we know that we have to do this. So there is a burden – but I know that we can be a voice for other people. We are living the happy accident of being these plaintiffs in this case because then, like Jeff said, we can just go out and be ourselves.

Our intention and our goal is simple: we just want to have equal rights. We just want to be treated equally. You know we’re not going to have a Kardashian wedding. It’s not going to happen. When you touch into the point of yourself when you realize you are treated differently and that the government is sanctioning discrimination against you – there’s going to be a breaking point where you stand up and say, ‘I have to do something, as little or as big as it is, I have to do something.

Zarrillo noted Katami’s initial fears about possibly losing the case. “I said to him, ‘If we lose, at least we did something. We can go to our graves knowing that we weren’t going to stand for second class citizenship. We were going to do something.”

Katami also talked about his journey digging deep into his own soul to allow his own authenticity to flourish:

Honestly, the last few years of my life, – the joke is I can’t make a speech without crying. I’ve been able to mine deeply into those places where I really put a wall up and I’ve accessed that damage and I feel it on a day-to-day basis. I really do feel ‘less than’ for the first time and the damage in my life as each year passes with Jeff to think that we could lose everything if one of us were to pass.

Katami said he was particularly moved by the story of the Palm Springs couple Ed Watson, 78, and his partner of over 40 years, Derence Kernek. In March of 2011, the Courage Campaign helped publicize that Watson had Alzheimer’s and all the couple wanted was for the 9th Circuit to lift the stay on the District Court’s ruling on Prop 8 so the couple could marry before Watson could no longer recognize his beloved. Watson died on Dec. 7, on the eve of oral arguments in the Prop 8 case.

Katami:

You see these stories and I am unable to control my emotions because that’s what this is really about. It’s about good people who deserve to be treated equally. Who deserve protection – who are being denied this to their dying day. I understand that now. I actually feel that now. That emotion is so real. When I was introducing Jeff [at the news conference] I broke down. We shouldn’t have to do this. We shouldn’t have to put our lives out there. We should be able to go back to our every day lives and be treated equally. It’s a simple as that.

And if you start the conversation with that – if you take the potential bias out of the equation by asking a simple question bluntly: Do you believe that everyone under the Constitution should be treated equally? You’re going to get a ‘Yes.’ And then if you introduce something that categorizes a group of people like our community –  that changes someone’s mind….[If not,] what we can do is we can disagree. You think my life is one way, I know it’s another but what we shouldn’t be able to do – like Jeff said, we shouldn’t be able to go into a ballot box and remove rights from people, damaging their live. Our lives are damaged by this. We shouldn’t be that America.

Jeff Zarrillo, Domick and Linda Zarrillo, Paul Katami after AFER news conference Feb. 7, 2012 (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

AFER co-founder and board Presidenti Chad Griffin flanked by Gibson Dunn attorneys Ted Olson (l) and Ted Boutrous (rt) (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Jeff Zarrillo at podium with everyone pulling for him (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

AFER co-plaintiff Sandy Stier (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

AFER co-plaintiff Kris Perry, for whom the case is named (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

AFER's Chad Griffin says the organization will continue to fight for marriage equality for all same sex couples (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

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