For lesbian activists Robin Tyler and Diane Olson, who have been a couple for more than 19 years, last week’s Supreme Court hearing on California’s Proposition 8 had a special meaning.
In February 2004, Tyler and Olson were among the first two couples to file a lawsuit challenging the California law prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying. The lawsuit led to the California Supreme Court’s decision in 2008 declaring that same-sex marriages must be recognized under the state’s constitution.
The two were among the 18,000 same-sex couples to marry in California before marriage equality opponents placed Prop 8 on the ballot that same year. Upon its approval by voters in November 2008, recognition of all subsequent same-sex nuptials ended. Marriage equality activists, however, responded by filing another lawsuit challenging Prop 8, which took the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As Tyler and Olson sat in the Supreme Court chambers on March 26 watching the attorneys argue for and against whether Prop 8 should be declared unconstitutional, each said they couldn’t help but recall how it all started for them 12 years earlier in Beverly Hills, where Olson was raised.
“What happened is starting in 2001 Diane and I would go…to the Beverly Hills courthouse every year to try to get a marriage license,” Tyler said. “And of course they turned us down.”
Added Tyler, “The first year we almost got arrested because MCC brought a cake and they said we couldn’t serve a cake on the sidewalk.” She was referring to the LGBT supportive Metropolitan Community Church, a longtime advocate for marriage equality.
Tyler, an out lesbian comic and entertainer since the 1970s, served as an organizer for the 1979 LGBT march on Washington and two subsequent LGBT marches on Washington in 1987 and 1993. At all three marches, Tyler helped organize same-sex marriage rallies outside the IRS headquarters in downtown D.C., in which hundreds of same-sex couples participated in marriage ceremonies they considered symbolic but that had no legal recognition.
With that as a backdrop, Tyler said the proverbial ‘last straw’ happened to her and Olson in 2004 shortly before she and Olson planned their annual ritual of going to the Beverly Hills courthouse to request a marriage license on or around Valentine’s Day. At the time, the two had been a couple for 10 years.
“I was going to be 65,” she said. “So I called the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists. I’ve been in the union for years because I was a comic. And I say, you know, I can purchase domestic partnership insurance for Diane,” Tyler recalled.
“But when I retired they said no you are not. And I said why not?” Tyler told the Blade. “And they said because you’re not married. And I said we can’t get married. And the woman said to me, ‘That’s just the way it is, hon.’ And she hung up on me.”
Tyler said she immediately called Gloria Allred, a nationally recognized civil rights lawyer based in Los Angeles, whose clients have been among some of the most famous Hollywood figures. Tyler said she and Allred had been friends for a long time.
“And the next morning she called and said you know what? I’m going to take the case. I’m going to sue for your right to get married to Diane and I’m going to do it pro bono,” Tyler said.
At Allred’s suggestion, Tyler and Olson agreed to invite Rev. Troy Perry, head of the MCC churches, and his husband, Philip De Blieck, who he married in Canada, to be a party to the suit.
Since Valentine’s Day fell on a Saturday in 2004, Tyler said the two couples and Allred decided to go to the Beverly Hills courthouse that year on Feb. 12.
“They handed us this little thing like they did every year – you know, you can’t get married because marriage is a between a man and a woman,” said Tyler. “Gloria was with us and we walked outside and had a huge press conference, and Gloria announced our right to marry.”
Allred said she informed the media that the lawsuit would challenge a state family code that banned same-gender marriage.
In a development that surprised them and their supporters in L.A., then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom that same week began performing same-sex marriages in City Hall in defiance of the state law banning such marriages. The first couple that Newsom himself married was veteran lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who were in their 80s.
“Someone called me and said Del and Phyllis, who were friends of ours, are getting married,” Tyler said. “I said what? And we turned on the television and there is Gavin Newsom Marrying Del and Phyllis.”
Allred said some have confused the role that Newsom and litigants like Tyler and Olson played in the marriage equality battle.
“The most important thing was that we were challenging the law, which prohibited them from being able to enjoy the right to marry each other,” Allred said. “What happened in San Francisco was slightly different. The mayor started marrying couples without getting a judicial declaration that the family code prohibiting such marriages was unconstitutional.”
Marriage equality opponents quickly obtained a court order halting San Francisco from performing same-sex marriages. Opponents next persuaded the court to invalidate all of those marriages on grounds that they had no legal standing.
Many of the couples whose marriages were invalidated joined the San Francisco County Attorney in filing their own lawsuits challenging the state’s same-sex marriage ban. The court later merged those suits with the suit filed by Tyler, Olson, Perry, DeBlieck and others.
After four years of litigation, the California Supreme Court ruled in early 2008 that the state’s same-sex marriage ban violated the California Constitution and that same-sex marriages must be recognized in the state.
Due to their role as the first to file suit over the marriage question, Tyler and Olson were given permission to be the first same-sex couple to marry in L.A. County – one day ahead of everyone else.
Tyler and Olson acknowledge that the joy of their wedding was dampened later in the year when Prop 8 passed, even though the state Supreme Court ruled their marriage and those of the 18,000 other same-sex couples who married prior to the approval of Prop 8 would remain valid.
But the two said their wedding on the steps of the Beverly Hills courthouse was a special moment for them and their friends and supporters.
“And I want to tell you the mayor of Beverly Hills offered us City Hall, which would have been my dream,” Tyler said. “But we decided to marry in front of the courthouse because that’s the same courthouse that had turned us down all those years,” she said.
“And this time when we walked in with Gloria to get our marriage license the woman behind the counter that gave us the license started to cry,” said Tyler. “She said I’ve wanted to give this to you ever since you started to come in.
“And we walked out and we had no idea that the press would be there from all over the world,” Tyler continued. “And a policeman came up to me and said I was the cop that almost arrested you in 2001 for serving cake, and I’m proud to be at your wedding. So it had come full circle for us when we got married.”
Nine years later, as Tyler, Olson and Allred watched with great interest as the Supreme Court justices asked sharp questions in Washington to the lawyers arguing for and against Prop 8, Tyler said the comments by some of the justices cause her great discomfort.
“I was so full of emotion and so angry having to sit in the Supreme Court and hearing them refer to us as an experiment and to compare us to cell phones and the Internet,” she said, referring to comments by Justice Samuel Alito.
In remarks she said he hadn’t planned to make before the C-SPAN TV cameras on the plaza outside the Supreme Court, Tyler said she expressed her outrage over the remarks by some of the justices.
“I said we’re a civil rights movement. We’re not an experiment. And we’re going to win,” she told the Blade. “How dare they…,” she added, before cutting short her own comment.