'Case Against 8' Stars Reflect on "Enormous Step" of Gay Marriage Ruling

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Paul Katami (left) and Jeff Zarrillo

Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo were featured in the 2014 documentary as co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit over California’s Proposition 8.

For LGBT activists Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, Friday’s Supreme Court ruling overturning bans against gay marriage has been a long time coming.

As one of the two couples who served as plaintiffs in the American Foundation for Equal Rights’ lawsuit against the state of California over the passage of Proposition 8, their battle was documented in The Case Against 8, which premiered at Sundance before airing on HBO last summer.

Katami and Zarrillo, who do a weekly segment on Lance Bass’ Sirius XM radio show and can be found on Twitter at @KatamiZarrillo, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the significance of the federal ruling, the media’s role in changing the court of public opinion and the work that still lies ahead.

What were you guys doing when the ruling was announced today?

Zarrillo: Considering that it happened at 10 o’clock eastern time, we set our alarms for 6:50 a.m. and turned on the TV and went on the SCOTUS blog. At about 7:01 the ruling came out. We were overjoyed. We had been fairly optimistic over the last couple months. It’s great to see it all come together after decades of struggle. Finally, we are fully federal-equal with regards to marriage.

Now that you’ve had a few more hours to reflect, can you put into words the significance of this ruling?

Katami: This is a monumental step towards eliminating discrimination based on bias that has been used to [divide] the country. What today does is affirm our 14th amendment, that all people are due equal protection under the law. But we also see a major shift in the court of public opinion, because of people like [Ohio plaintiff] Jim Obergefell, who lost his partner and then his state would not recognize them as a married couple. These personal stories, beyond moving hearts and minds, help us to affirm the law because the protections are critically important as well. So even though there’s a whole faction on the other side who don’t agree with today’s ruling, we’ll have protection in place while we have those meaningful debates.

Why is the recognition of marriage more significant than a domestic partnership?

Zarrillo: I’m hopeful that going forward it now just becomes known as marriage. Not gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality  it’s just marriage. Domestic partnership relegates you to a level of second-class citizenship. It’s telling you that you’re equal by signing these documents, but tell me someone that celebrates a domestic partnership anniversary. Marriage is a global term. When you say you’re married, when you introduce your husband or your wife, you understand what that couple is. You understand that there’s a level of commitment within that couple that they want to share with their family, friends and the community.

You live here in Los Angeles, which is considered a pretty progressive area. How have you seen attitudes shift since you first filed the lawsuit in May 2009?

Zarrillo: Los Angeles, yes, is pretty progressive, but let’s not forget that 52 percent of this population in California in 2008 voted in favor of Proposition 8. Over the course of the case, while we were spending time in the court of justice, we knew that it was important to also be out there telling our stories to friends, neighbors and co-workers so that we could also win in the court of public opinion. You’ve seen significant shifts in polling in the last three or four years that now puts America at 50 percent support of marriage equality, and for people under the age of 30, it’s just over 80 percent. So we’re really close and attitudes are shifting, and they’re shifting because people are out and proud. Like Harvey Milk said, you have to be out in your work and in your schools and communities, and be proud.

How much have media portrayals affected that court of public opinion?

Katami: It took us out of the realm of politics and an election cycle and into people’s homes as neighbors, co-workers, doctors and teachers. During our case, we didn’t know whether we would win or lose, so we had to create a public education campaign. We always had to be prepared to not win against Prop 8, but people all around the world wrote to say that regardless of the situation, [we were] putting a face to this fight. When you personalize it, and when those positive impressions are out there, it moves the needle. That tipping point was when the world realized that when you get to know a person, it’s hard to demonize them because of what you thought before.

What kind of impact did The Case Against 8 have?

Katami: There’s been so much praise for the documentary and rightfully so, in particular because of the filmmakers [Ben Cotner and Ryan White, who won the documentary directing award at Sundance]. Talk about four and a half years of following a story where you don’t have a third act! We were lucky to meet hundreds of people at each screening. We were in Park City for the Sundance premiere, and the Uber driver who drove us to one of the venues walked in to watch the film because there was an extra ticket and she had a couple hours to kill. After the film she approached us and said, “I came in here not really knowing what to expect, and when it first started I thought, ‘I’m on the other side of this. I don’t necessarily agree with marriage equality.’” She said at the end of the film, it had changed her mind. It gave her everything she needed to know about the damage that’s done to people’s lives when they’re discriminated against legally. She said, “We should never enshrine this sort of discrimination in law. We can all believe different things, but you guys deserve the right to have equal access.” That to us was a profound moment, because we preach to the choir quite a bit, but when someone has that kind of transformation by media, it reiterates to us that we would redo this over and over again if we could keep having that type of interaction.

Have you pored over the SCOTUS decision?

Zarrillo: All you need to do is look at the last paragraph. Justice [Anthony] Kennedy has invoked the term “equal dignity” in multiple LGBT-favorable opinions that he has written and cemented a legacy as a jurist of the highest integrity and supportive of equal rights for all Americans. He will go down as one of the most important justices of this time because he helped bring equality to LGBT Americans everywhere.

What do you think of Chief Justice John Roberts’ claim that having the Court step in essentially robs voters of the right to decide on their own?

Zarrillo: I was one of the people that thought the Chief might come along with this opinion, in the sense that he will go down as being on the wrong side of history, and it’s his court. I thought he was a little conciliatory within the dissent, where he talked about “this is still a day for these individuals to celebrate and enjoy,” and I appreciate that. And I know [Justice AntoninScalia was involved in the dissent, but I wouldn’t even take the time of day to read that. We actually can be pretty thankful for Scalia’s dissents because multiple things he has said in his last two LGBT dissents have actually played an important part in this moment.

How so?

Zarrillo: In the Windsor opinion [United States v. Windsor, in which the Supreme Court in 2013 upheld the ruling of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional], when he wrote his really scathing dissent, he actually says that this opinion will ultimately lead to marriage equality. And that’s exactly what happened: [LGBT activists] used the methodology from the Windsor case and filed lawsuit after lawsuit, and there you go, we’re back at the Supreme Court two years later and we have marriage equality in the land.

A lot of people might think achieving marriage equality was the final frontier. If not, what’s next?

Zarrillo: This is an enormous step, but let’s not forget that in 29 states, which is a majority in the United States, you can be married on Saturday and fired on Monday because you got married. And you can be denied housing because of who you love in a majority of states. There are still many kids being bullied and taking their own lives around this country, so we need to continue to have the conversation. This is a huge win for the community and we need to celebrate it, and then on Monday we need to roll up our sleeves and go back to work.