VIDEOS/PHOTOS: AFER “heroes” Olson, Boies, Griffin, plaintiffs celebrate in West Hollywood on Decision Day
August 6, 2010
(Karen Ocamb posted another amazing example of her first-hand reporting on the equality movement last night on her LGBTPOV blog. It’s a treasure trove of sights and sounds from the Day of Decision, including several vignettes from the American Foundation for Equal Rights celebration in Los Angeles on Wednesday night. With permission, she has allowed us to cross-post it here for your enjoyment. Hard to believe it’s been less than 48 hours since Judge Walker’s historic ruling… — Eden James)
By Karen Ocamb
The court issued an advanced warning that U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker’s Prop 8 decision in the Perry v Schwarzenegger case would be posted on the court’s website sometime between 1:00pm-3:00pm on Wednesday. Normally chatty political listservs fell silent as LGBT people anxiously waited to rejoice or fume as the minutes sulked into the one o’clock hour. Panic set in as the link the court’s website refused to register. From Molly McKay’s Marriage Equality USA group outside the San Francisco Courthouse to cubicals at Yahoo in the San Fernando Valley, gays and pro-gay-straights alike were holding their breath. Even though the consensus after closing arguments was that Walker would rule Prop 8 unconstitutional – you just never know until you know. And no one wanted to be too optimistic, only to suffer another heartbreak.
One o’clock came and went. Now the only thing that mattered was that incoming Text. Around 1:27 Bil Browning from The Bilerico Project posted on a political listserv that about 11 minutes earlier New York Magazine had posted on their website: “Judge Vaughn Walker Hands Victory to Proposition 8 Opponents.” It was a rumor. People were afraid to believe it. Except the report had the exact number of pages in the decision. By 1:45 CNN confirmed the rumor. Walker overturned Prop 8! There were brief screams of excitement - then the mad scramble was on to get the actual decision.
About 35 minutes later, Chad Griffin, founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group that brought the constitutional challenge, was at the Bentley Reserve in San Francisco in front of a patriotic backdrop of American flags. CNN went to him live.
Olson bemoaned the fact that cameras were not allowed to broadcast what happened in the courtroom so real people could see real people talk about their love for each other and how they were harmed by Prop 8.
(NOTE FROM EDEN: Olson’s quote: “We felt from the beginning that it was unfortunate that every American could not have seen this trial, seen the experts talk about the value of marriage, the history of discrimination, the value of equality, and all of the things that this case involves, including love and commitment and respect and decency and honor.”)
After the news conference in San Francisco, the whole team flew to L.A. for a 6:00p.m. event in West Hollywood Park. LGBT activists mingled with same sex couples, some with families such as Frank and Jim Reifsnyer-Smith with Kaylee, 3, and Milo, 3. They were married the first day marriage was legal in California, June 17, 2008. Frank said he thought the ruling was “fantastic.” Jim said he was surprised that he was so excited, since they are married and “nothing is happening with us.” Nonetheless, Jim described the excitement as he was sitting in his Yahoo cubicle and he got a Text message at the same time as several people screamed with delight in their cubicles. He then got a call from his husband as his boss came over to tap on his window, excitedly waving a piece of paper. The decision touched so many more than it directly impacted.
Eric Garcetti, President of the LA City Council, said something similar. Hanging out with his close friend Marc Solomon, Marriage Director for Equality California, Garcetti told me:
“Personally, I’m ecstatic. Professionally, I think that this was the right and just ruling. I think it is such a powerfully written ruling – that somebody down the line has to undo facts, has to prove for the first time, not that sexuality might be fundamental but that they have to prove that it isn’t. They have to show a rational basis for why all people who get married don’t have children. And by setting these thresholds, I think this is one of the strongest decisions this judge could put out.
So I know we’ve got a long road but people forget to celebrate and I’m here to celebrate because even if there’s going to be two or three more hurdles to go, it’s important for those of us who believe in this from the beginning to actually enjoy ourselves tonight and just celebrate this amazing, amazing piece of history.”
Director Rob Reiner felt the same way. Reiner, who is on the board of AFER, worked closely with Griffin on the California initiative that created First 5 California, the state agency for childen under five, for which plaintiff Kris Perry is executive director. Asked by a local reporter about the ruling’s impact on morality, Reiner said:
“It’s about equality. It’s about making sure that every citizen in this country has the same opportunities as everybody else. There should never be any class of citizen that’s thought to be less.”
Dustin Lance Black had his own funny story about morality, telling me:
“I got the phone call from Chad Griffin late last night – I was on the East Coast. He said get your butt out here – the decision is coming down. So I booked a ticket and I walk on the airplane and who do I see – [Traditional Values Coalition head] Lou Sheldon sitting right next to me.
So I sat down and I thought: what would I do? What would I most want out of this situation? He didn’t recognize me – how about if I just pick his brain for five and half hours. And that’s what I did. I never denied who I was. I never said I was straight. He just rattled on and on and on. Mostly I learned that his views about gay people are incredibly outdated. I think his quote was, “The real problem is that homosexuals are shoving their lifestyle down religion’s throat.’ Which sounded awfully graphic coming from a reverend. I thought that’s a really outdated notion.
I said to him, ‘Don’t you think there’s a bigger problem for religion – if that’s what you’re interested in – that there are less and less people going to church now than in the past? And he said, ‘Oh no, No. That’s not a real problem.’ He was in denial of a lot of other problems and very, very focused on this gay issue. I think he’s a politician. He sees political gain in making this an issue. And it became very clear that he’s entrenched in a very outdated, black and white conservative view. My sense of him?
This might get me in trouble – but other than his view of me and our people – he was a kind of kind, old man who loves his wife. He’s a human being as well, you know. I just think he needs to learn a lot about who we really are.
He said several other things that sounded really, really outdated – like Anita Bryant era outdated and I thought – that’s really the problem. We still have so many people out there who don’t really know who gay and lesbian people are – that’s what our job is – starting tomorrow. Tonight’s to celebrate. But tomorrow at AFER we have to start the hard work to educate the rest of the nation.”
Indeed, it was all about celebration – which viewers of CNN and the Rachel Maddow show got to see in the background as Olson and Boies were interviewed live. But the show shifted to the stage as West Hollywood Mayor John Heilman – who was there 25 years ago when WeHo made history as the first city to elect a gay-majority city council – welcomed the crowd of several hundred people to the park:
“Until Prop 8 took away our right for equal marriage, we were so proud here in the city of West Hollywood to issue more than 1,000 marriage licenses and to preside over more than 600 marriages right here in the Park. So it is fitting we’re here tonight to come back and celebrate again.”
Heilman lead the audience in a huge and sustained “thank you” to the American Foundation for Equal Rights “who put together this challenge.”
Heilman then introduced Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, “the Mayor of our sister city.” Villaraigosa, whose cousin is openly gay Speaker of the California Assembly, John Perez, tossed an off-the-cuff retort: “Tonight, my friend, you and I are sisters.”
The audience went wild. So much for stigma. Villaraigosa said:
“Today, the sun shines a little brighter on the Golden State. Today, a federal judge affirmed what you, and I, and a majority of Californians know to be true: That love doesn’t discriminate, it knows no limits or boundaries, and it is blind to race, religion, color, creed or gender. Today, we recognize that marriage is not a privilege reserved for a select class of citizens, it is a right that belongs to all Californians.”
Villaraigosa was followed onstage by Frank and Jim Reifsnyer-Smith and another same sex couple, to which Olson listened intently.
And then Black and Griffin lead the plaintiffs and the legal team onstage and the park erupted in applause and whistles and overwhelming gratitude.
It was a far cry from the serious, more polite reception the team appeared to have received at the Bentley Reserve.
Black told his Lou Sheldon story – which prompted laughs since Sheldon is based in Orange County – before returning to the theme of helping LGBT people who couldn’t speak for themselves, as he had promised to do from the “big stage” during his Academy Awards acceptance speech after winning an Oscar for writing “Milk.”
“I told the young people out there that they would have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours. And today we enjoy our first victory. Today is an incredible day.”
Black then introduced his friend and his “hero,” Chad Griffin. Though Griffin delivered essentially the same remarks as in San Francisco – with as much poignancy – he was interrupted often with applause, especially after he said the two lead attorneys ”driven by that principle of justice. Ted and David, you are our heroes tonight.”
Speaking to those watching on television, he said, punctuated by applause:
“You realize that everyone has a stake in today’s ruling because any denial of freedom to anyone undermines the principles upon which this country was founded and undermines freedom for everyone, everywhere.
Today’s decision affirms that under the constitution, a government of the people, by the people and for the people cannot discriminate against the people.
And so today we begin the process of saying to the millions of people who are made to feel ostracized, besieged, bullied, and ashamed of how God made them – be who you are. Love who you love. And marry who you wish to marry.
As gay and straight citizens take to the streets in celebration, here in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, and New York – I know there are millions who must celebrate quietly in places across America. Places where merely taking the hand of a loved one still feels like a revolutionary act. To those quiet millions – to the teenager in Bakersfield who aches for acceptance, to the college student in Salt Lake who seeks liberty and equality, and to the couple in Topeka who longs to openly share their commitment and their love – this victory is for you.”
The plaintiffs also spoke briefly, clearly moved by the reception.
Kris Perry, who grew up in Bakersfield, said, “With this decision, the system worked. The courts are supposed to protect our constitutional rights – and today, they did….I want to marry the person I love.”
Her partner Sandy Stier noted that they have kids old enough to get legally married. The decision means that “tomorrow will be a brighter day for all of us.”
Jeff Zarrillo noted that he has been to West Hollywood Park and “I’m so proud to make history with you.” He talked about all the new friends he’s made via email and Facebook since the trial began and said, “We feel like we’re fighting for them, as well.”
Paul Katami talked about the support he and Jeff have received from friends and family and community. “We need that support because it’s going to be a long road to the Supreme Court.”
AFER intends to give the couples more visibility. Griffin told Variety Managing Editor Ted Johnson and I before the event:
“We’ve done everything we could in trial to put on the best case possible. And our opposition certainly put on a case – but in many ways, their witnesses helped our side more than it helped their side. So we were cautiously optimistic. But there’s no doubt this is an incredibly thoughtful and thorough ruling.
I don’t think there will be a backlash. What we will continue to do, as we have done over this last year, is show the human side of this story. We have the best lawyers one could assemble to represent us in court as this case is appealed. But we also have plaintiffs and they represent real live people across this country.”
But for all the tears and applause and cheers for the plaintiffs and the AFER team – this crowd wanted to hear from Ted Olson and David Boies. And they wanted to talk to the crowd. One would not think it possible in an open park in West Hollywood – but at times you could almost hear a pin drop.
Afterwards, recently out country singer Chely Wright – who is performing and signing books at Borders in Hollywood (Sunset and Vine) tonight at 7:00 – told me:
“This is a big deal. Everyone was looking to California today to see what happened. This is setting the tone nationwide. My phone is blowing out. My friends in New York and Chicago and Nashville are saying, are people dancing in the streets? And they are. This is a big deal and I have to tell you – being on the stage here, looking out at the crowd, I cried. Of course it’s historic to me being in West Hollywood today and California today as this is happening. I can’t believe I’m in California when this is happening. This is such a big deal.”
Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen, who is on the AFER board, also thinks it’s a big deal and is especially appreciative of the plaintiffs and the legal team:
“It’s hard to put into words – but hearing Ted Olson and David Boies addressing the crowd here in West Hollywood Park – personally, I could listen to them forever. But hearing David deconstruct the case – take three weeks of testimony and just distill it down into an explanation that’s very technical and precise and legal – but is so moving and so exciting. I mean part of what they were saying – and what we want to do – is get people more involved. If you thought you’d never read a legal opinion in your life – read this because it is so fascinating and educational and exciting. And it’s kind of like a sports event – it’s like the Super Bowl – and we won! And when you read it you’re like, ‘Oh – this isn’t boring, dry legalese. This is our lives. This is America and what it stands for.’”
I also talked to Cohen about the WeHo liberal crowd’s reaction to conservative Ted Olson- how they loved Ted Olson:
“Ted Olson is lovable I have fallen in love with him as a person, as a friend. He is an absolutely magnificent human being. He is more committed to this issue and determined to win this case then you can ever even imagine. And that, for the gay community, is the best news you have ever heard. Because he knows the Supreme Court – and he hates to lose.”
I asked Cohen about the money situation since some people think that Hollywood A-Gays are funding the journey. Cohen said candidly that they now need help – which is also a way to get engaged and invested in the effort:
“Initially, we went to a very small group of donors and they gave big checks and we at first thought it might cover us all the way to the Supreme Court. But what we were not counting on was the full evidentiary trial that Judge Walker called for. And thank God he did because now we all realize that was the best thing that could have possibly happened.
So we’re now in a situation where we have to go to the Court of Appeals and eventually to the Supreme Court and we need more money. We are broadening out – rather than just going to a few small donors. Now that everyone knows about the case – they know who we are and they know Ted Olson, they know David Boies, they know what we’re about – we’re asking individuals to contribute. If you believe in this – if you believe in what we’re doing, then be a part of it and help us get to the Supreme Court.”
Please check out Mark Hefflinger’s wonderful photos of the event.
AND SPECIAL THANKS TO PHILIP MINTON FOR THE VIDEO OF OLSON AND BOIES.