On the morning of January 11, 2010, before he testified as a plaintiff in the case then known as Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Jeff Zarrillo addressed the press.
"Good morning and thank you all for being here. My name's Jeff Zarrillo; this is Paul," he said indicating the man he wanted to marry, Paul Katami. He went down the line, introducing their fellow plaintiffs, the lesbian couple Kris Perry and Sandy Stier. "We're all Americans who simply want to get married, just like everyone else." He mentioned their collective belief in the Constitution and equality and said thank you. No questions were taken.
Just what "just like everyone else" means in this context remains elusive. People have different reasons for wanting to get married, and not everyone seeks to validate their relationship with a legally binding contract. But "just like everyone else" is a story that the plaintiffs have stuck to throughout their tenure as public representatives for the gay population, chronicled in the documentary The Case Against 8, which premiered on HBO last night.
It's especially true of the men. "The day after the court ruling, the Supreme Court ruling, I was mowing the lawn, that just sort of underscores that fact that we were just regular guys who, if we didn't have our jobs we couldn't pay our mortgage," Zarrillo told The Backlot. They are regular, everyday guys, who are regular, regular, and regular. Sometimes they add that they want no special rights, that they aren't trying to redefine an institution. Their legal unions will not disrupt the status quo.
"Chad [Griffin] always told us throughout the process, 'you're just regular guys, you're not activists,'" Zarrillo told the Los Angeles Times, referring to the president of the Human Rights Campaign and board member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which filed the suit to challenge the validity of Prop 8 on behalf of Zarrillo, Katami, Perry, and Stier. "But I think now we're no longer regular guys. We're more activists."
That to me sounds like Zarrillo was given a talking point by his lawyers, and he did his job of repeating it at a rate rivaling the best politicians. He and his fellow plaintiffs came into the case late—director Rob Reiner and his wife Michelle Singer approached AFER's Kristina Schake about filing suit to challenge Prop 8. Then lawyers David Boies and Ted Olson signed on (the latter was a controversial choice given his status as a conservative and history with President George W. Bush, for whom he served as Solicitor General and represented in the Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore). Then, this crew had to find its gays.
In The Case Against 8, Boies says they were looking for "people who were just like everybody else, and who were obviously just like everybody else." Schake goes on to describe, with frustrating brevity, the vetting process for the potential plaintiffs, which included the deploying of private investigators and opposition researchers, as well as the poring over of photos, records and taxes. "We looked at everything because we wanted to make sure that they were absolutely safe choices to put them in the spotlight that we were about to put them in."
AFER executive director Adam Umhoefer called Perry and Stier's relationship "so remarkably normal in a way, and I think that's what's so powerful about it."
I hear the subtext: these are not the deviant gays your mother told you to protect your children from, the ones who deserve all the diseases they have coming to them. I'm still unsure of what "just like everyone else," "regular," and "remarkably normal" means. In fact, I suspect that it means a withholding the imperfections that make humans human for the sake of appearances. These people are not normal, because there is no such thing as normal. They are outwardly perfect, and we all know that's not possible either.
It may be helpful to refer back to what Michael Warner wrote in his 1999 book The Trouble With Normal, essentially a long-form response to Andrew Sullivan's extremely influential 1995 book Virtually Normal, which advocated for marriage equality when it was unthinkable and for the dissolution of Don't Ask Don't Tell soon after it was enacted. Though he is gay, Warner argued against gay marriage (and marriage in general), fretting that it would further stigmatize queer relationships that didn't conform so easily. While this argument has been overwhelmingly rejected, the book is relevant and insightful today, especially when it comes to the "normal" label:
If normal just means within a common statistical range, then there is no reason to be normal or not. By that standard, we might say that it is normal to have health problems, bad breath, and outstanding debt. One might feel reassured that one is not the only person to have these things, but the statistics only help with one's embarrassment; they say nothing about the desirability of the things themselves. It is not normal to be a genius, die a virgin, or be well endowed. That, again, tells us nothing about what one should want.
Moreover, to be fully normal is, strictly speaking, impossible. Everyone deviates from the norm in some way. Even if one belongs to the statistical majority in age group, race, height, weight, frequency of orgasm, gender of sexual partners, and annual income, then simply by virtue of its unlikely combination of normalcies one's profile would already depart from the norm.
"Regular" is such an empty modifier, and yet The Case Against 8's directors, Ben Cotner and Ryan White, seem happy to uphold it. Their documentary suffers as a result, because it's unable to characterize the four plaintiffs at all. It's rare to encounter four humans for whom there is absolutely no there there, especially on screen. Throughout the doc, the plaintiffs are empty vessels who simply exist to love their respective partners.
Zarrillo and Katami are dog-owners who trim their Christmas tree together. Stier and Perry, who have a slightly more interesting although, again, glossed-over back story (Stier was married to a man for several years before she met Perry in her mid-30's and realized that she's a lesbian), have a Brady Bunch-style family (both have to biological sons). They walk their kids to school, they deal with the bittersweetness of their children graduating from high school and going off to college. As she cooks breakfast one morning, we hear Stier say, "I really don't think about it very much that we're a gay family. I just…I don't know, it seems so secondary to everything else."
Stier's mention of her physical attraction to Perry during her court examination is about as close as any of the four have come to publicly admitting that they have sex with these people they want to marry. To hear these people tell it, sex is what they are (as in members of a same-sex couple), not what they do.
I don't know why these people love each other, just emphatically that they do. Said Stier of falling in love with a woman:
I felt that feeling of being completely taken over by my emotions in just such a life-shifting way that it's difficult to even explain, but something that I felt like this is so big and powerful and wonderful I can't ignore it and I won't ignore it, and at 37 years old I discovered something about myself that I hadn't known before.
On the stand, Zarrillo resorted to a block of words as stock as traditional marriage vows to describe Katami:
He's the love of my life. I love him probably more than I love myself. I would do anything for him. I would put his needs ahead of my own. I would be with him in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, just like vows. I would do anything for him. And I want nothing more than to marry him.
Watching The Case Against 8, I didn't doubt the love these people had for each other. And certainly, they deserve the ability to publicly express that love in whatever language they chose. These people essentially had to be a dummy's guide to gay people, to show the world that gay people were capable of loving, and they did that unmistakably. Even though they effectively represent me as a gay person, I'm not their audience.
But I wonder how badly we skew perception when we steer clear of specificity—the sometimes difficult nuances that accompany real lives—for the sake of equality. This brand of activism strikes me as fundamentally passive. Should the heterosexual couple that enjoys swinging be barred from getting married? Is the gay guy that sucks several dicks a night in public restrooms less human than the one who sucks one dick once a week? Universal rights are founded on universality—their force comes from their extension to the marginalized, the powerless, the abnormal.
We gays are, though, closer to "normal" than homophobes claim, which is to say that we vary just as much as straight people. "Normal" and "regular" are reductive ways of defending ourselves against the standard, age-old attacks. The image of gay people as predatory, deviant sex fiends is distorted, but so too is that of gay people as monogamous Ken dolls without genitals. Even worse, at times Zarrillo and Katami mirror the rhetoric of the right so closely it's scary: in effective agreement of the anti-gay "marriage is for procreation" argument, both members of the couple claim that they didn't want to start a family until their union was legitimized through marriage. And of course, when you claim to be normal, what exactly are you claiming about the others? Here's Warner again:
What could be a better way of legitimizing oneself than to insist on being seen as normal? The problem, always, is that embracing this standard throws shame on those who stand farther down the ladder of respectability. It does not seem to be possible to think of oneself as normal without thinking that some other kind of person is pathological. What could have been seen as healthy variation is now seen as deviant.
I don't think that Zarrillo, Katami, Perry, and Stier thought very much about this. None of them seem particularly invested in queer theory or gay culture for that matter (not that they'd let on if they were). But just like they lead by example, so did others before them who got them to the point of even being able to enter a courtroom to argue for their ability to marry. As a gay person with the modicum of freedom that you enjoy in 2014, you are bound to gay culture, whether you like it or not.
You're also bound to homophobia and abuse. The plaintiffs are courageous and they took a lot of heat in the form of direct bigotry to advance a cause—Perry and Stier were hit with anonymous voicemails harassing them for their sexuality. "Ya stinkin' dykes," we hear some asshole say in Case. "Marriage is between one man and one woman only. God set it up that way and that's the way it's gonna be!" Haha, you incorrect, stupid prick.
And ultimately, there is an incredible amount of personal pressure on them to maintain the perfection that they've projected. "We make sure we do the right thing at all times," Zarrillo has said. That's an unenviable, if not flat-out impossible task. The burden to behave and act like good gays to be treated like equal citizens only reinforces how intensely unequal things remain.
[Image via Getty]