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Student, Family Fight for Equality in ‘The Case Against 8’
Monday's HBO documentary on historic same-sex marriage trial features sophomore Spencer Perry and his parents.
June 20, 2014
Rising sophomore Spencer Perry was sitting in the living room with his four brothers when his parents made the announcement. It was a lot to ask, and they would only go through with it if each person in the family was on board. But it was an opportunity to change history.
Mr. Perry’s mothers were going to be two of four lead plaintiffs in Perry v. Hollingsworth. The landmark case was sponsored by the American Foundation for Equal Rights and challenged Proposition 8’s ban on same-sex marriage in California. The couple had been denied a marriage license in 2009, and now they had a chance to represent a community that needed to be heard. They were bound to get attention with a surprising legal team made up of conservative lawyer Ted Olson and former Al Gore attorney David Boies.
That wasn’t everything—a pair of filmmakers named Ben Cotner and Ryan White wanted to follow their journey for a documentary titled “The Case Against 8.”
“It’s not so much that my family got involved with the documentary, the documentary got involved with us,” Mr. Perry said. “Ryan and Ben were there at every turn—in our lives, in our home, at every court appearance, at my graduation. There wasn’t much they didn’t see.”
After five years in the making, “The Case Against 8” will premiere Monday night at 9 p.m. on HBO. The film secured awards at Sundance, SXSW and Vail film festivals for detailing how Mr. Perry’s mothers, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and two other plaintiffs, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, fought for the right to marry. Their trial crawled along slowly at first and then exploded into public attention, eventually landing before the Supreme Court. The final decision went down in history when the justices’ ruling nullified the amendment and legalized same-sex marriage in California.
“We are thrilled with 'The Case Against 8' and the way it shows how two couples, with the help of two great lawyers, were successful in striking down Proposition 8,” said Kris Perry (left). Photo by FilmsWeLike.
Mr. Cotner and Mr. White became like a part of the family as they documented the Perrys’ day-to-day life. Their film roll captured the mundane occurrences as well as the scary moments. Same-sex marriage didn’t boast the public support it does today: A Pew poll from 2009 shows 54 percent of Americans were against gay marriage at the time. The topic was controversial, and the family became a target.
“Our numbers were still listed in the phone book, our emails could still be found online. All of us received death threats, were teased at school, were tracked down by unsavory characters,” Mr. Perry said. “I don’t think we underestimated the amount of heat we’d taken on, but it took us about a year to adjust.”
Throughout it all, Mr. Perry was growing up. He was in eighth grade when filming started. The case spanned his entire high school career, ending just before he came to the George Washington University. In fact, Mr. Perry had been waiting to hear if he could attend the Supreme Court’s closing statements when his acceptance letter to GW came. Minutes after he opened the letter, he got a call that members of the American Foundation for Equal Rights had given up their seats so that he and his twin brother could go see the case’s final oral arguments.
“It was the best I’ve ever felt emotionally,” Mr. Perry said.
Witnessing the LGBTQ movement gave him the drive to change the world, he said, and he plans to start doing so at GW. Mr. Perry and his twin brother split their time between two houses growing up: They lived with Ms. Perry and Ms. Stier during the first half of the week and the latter part of the week with their other mom, Adria-Anna McMurray. His parents each deeply influenced his career aspirations and his decision to come to the university. Once he came to campus, he opted to double major in public policy and economics. Internships at Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.)legislative office and the Democratic National Committee’s financial department solidified his passion for politics.
Mr. Perry also sought out Allied in Pride, a student-run gay/straight alliance on campus. He became one of the organization’s freshman representative last year. HBO chose GW to be the first university where “The Case Against 8” is screened, and Mr. Perry is working closely with Allied in Pride’s president, senior Robert Todaro, to organize a panel discussion and viewing of the documentary on the Foggy Bottom Campus this fall.
“Allied in Pride is committed to raising awareness on LGBTQ issues, and screening ‘The Case Against 8’ will provide GW students with a unique opportunity to learn more about the fight for marriage equality,” Mr. Todaro said.
Additionally, Mr. Perry has positions lined up as deputy vice president of legislative and judicial affairs for the Student Association and treasurer for the College Democrats next year. His leadership experience has helped him build support systems with other likeminded students.
“GW has been a blessing not just because of its location at the epicenter of legislative activity, but also because it attracts really dedicated and passionate individuals who all have something they love to do—whether its LGBTQ issues or something else. I’ve really found a community here,” he said.
Mr. Perry's family and the legal team in a scene from "The Case Against 8." Photo by FilmsWeLike.
When Mr. Perry watched the final cut for the first time, he cringed at how young he looked and how high-pitched his voice sounded. He marveled at how far support for same-sex marriage has come since the start of the documentary. But what struck Mr. Perry most was the way the film portrays the human side of the battle for marriage equality.
“This movie looks at what it means to have a same-sex family and same-sex love and shows that it’s really the same as anyone else. This doesn’t have to be a partisan issue; it doesn’t have to be marred by politics. It can be accepted as a basic human and civil right,” Mr. Perry said.