Kris and Sandy Stier made history when their case against California’s Proposition 8 went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2013 – paving the way for another historic decision two years later that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide. But their fight to be recognized as a married couple and family in the eyes of the law was long and often personally wrenching. In the below excerpt from their new book, Love on Trial, Kris Stier looks back fondly on their wedding – and remembers the devastating letter that awaited them when they returned from their honeymoon.
Sandy and I shared the news of our engagement with our parents, friends, and coworkers, most of whom seemed happy and less confused than we were. They all seemed to assume we would have a wedding just like any other wedding. We decided to follow their positive outlook: we picked a date in August 2004 and booked the Julia Morgan-designed Brazilian Room in Tilden Park, not too far from Indian Rock.
In February 2004, as we were drafting the “Save the Date” note, news broke that San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom had directed the city clerk to marry all couples, gay and straight. At first, I was dubious. How could he do that? Did the mayor and the city clerk even have the authority to declare that same-sex couples could be married? Yet, suddenly, the possibility existed that Sandy and I could be married legally. The evening news showed streams of happy couples getting married at San Francisco City Hall while reporters warned that this window of opportunity might not stay open long.
Sandy and I felt a sense of urgency to make our impending marriage legal, so I made an appointment at City Hall for Tuesday, February 17; we kept the kids home from school so they could accompany us. Luckily, my mom could come, too. Since the twins had been born, my mom, who now lived a few miles south of San Francisco, had come to our house every week to help with them. We’d come home from work to find dinner waiting, kids’ homework done, and cookies in Tupperware. We would laugh sometimes about her exuberance in doing chores at our house, such as folding our underwear into little balls, reorganizing the cupboards, or throwing away things she didn’t think we needed anymore. On February 17, she met us in the City Hall parking lot, where news trucks lined the curbs.
Kris and Sandy with their boys outside San Francisco City Hall after getting married for the first time on Feb. 17, 2004
As we approached the steps to City Hall, Frank asked if we were going to be on the news. “Of course not!” we replied. Once we were inside, however, we discovered that Rosie O’Donnell was just ahead of us on the schedule, there to marry Kelli Carpenter. When the camera crews got a glimpse of our contingent in line behind Rosie and Kelli, we became the focus of their attention. Two moms, four boys, and a grandmother – this particular configuration hadn’t been seen yet! We were on the local news that night, and a few weeks later, a 60 Minutes segment included a shot of us getting married. This would not be the first time we underestimated the media!
When we arrived home that afternoon, we were greeted by a bouquet of flowers and a huge card signed by every teacher at Spencer and Elliott’s elementary school. I had assumed our marriage would be met with the same indifference that our relationship had evoked over the past few years, so the outpouring of excitement and joy was astounding. I had not experienced this kind of public support before. Is this what happens to all couples when they get married?
I accepted the good wishes warily. I tend to be superstitious, and I didn’t want to sabotage our happiness. The tension between wanting to share our joy with friends and family and the dread that something would interfere with it was based on years of experience; good things don’t often happen to lesbians in love.
Kris and Sandy at home together in Berkeley, California, in 2009. Photo courtesy of Diana Walker.
Although we had been planning our wedding for months, we had actually been planning for a celebration of our commitment – we hadn’t expected to be celebrating our legal marriage. But on August 1, 2004, Sandy and I celebrated our legal marriage in front of a hundred loved ones. A string quartet played Head over Feet as I walked down the aisle with Spencer and Elliott. Sandy followed, Frank and Tom on each arm. She was radiant as she came toward me. The boys were beaming in tuxedos with tails – at their insistence – and black Converse high-tops. We were so happy to declare our love and commitment
to each other in front of our parents, siblings, and friends. However, when we returned from our romantic honeymoon, a very nasty surprise was waiting for us. Among the unopened mail that had arrived while we’d been in Italy was a letter from the San Francisco city clerk. The form letter informed us that the February marriage had been voided. To add insult to injury, the letter asked if we would prefer that our $32 marriage license fee be refunded or donated to charity. We couldn’t blame the city, though. The Supreme Court of California had ordered a halt to these marriages just one month after they started as a response to several groups that had sued the City and County of San Francisco.
On August 12, the court voided all the licenses that had been issued during that month. How could it be that we’d been married and unmarried in the space of six months? We were reeling from the emotional impact, and we felt a responsibility to all the teachers, friends, and family members who had supported our marriage, who had sent flowers, cards, gifts, and good cheer. Should we return the wedding gifts? Send everyone a note saying, “I know you thought we were married, now it turns out we’re not.” No etiquette book has a chapter on how to handle this kind of situation.
We were not legally married, but we had already owned two homes together, we had joined our finances, we filed and paid our taxes as domestic partners, we participated in each other’s family functions, we laughed and we cried together. We often felt forced to downplay our status as a same-sex couple, such as when we attended school functions. In situations like those, we feared that the consequences of being legally unmarried could cause someone to discriminate against us or against the kids. We couldn’t legally call ourselves married, but “being married” was the only phrase that described our relationship. Being the rule followers we are, we never said we were married. That was a long time to live a double life, imposed on us by a discriminatory law.