Spencer Perry takes after his parents.
The 19-year-old son of the lesbian plaintiff couple in the case against California’s Proposition 8 is straight, but as a freshman at George Washington University, he’s taken leadership roles in the school’s gay-straight alliance and LGBT graduate program.
In an interview with the Washington Blade at GWU’s Duques Hall, Spencer says he would pursue LGBT activism even if his parents — Kris Perry and Sandy Stier — weren’t plaintiffs in the case that restored marriage equality to California, because of his experience in youth government programs during his adolescence.
“Sometimes I got the opportunity to travel across the country and meet others with different views on LGBT rights,” Perry says. “More often than not, I found myself even just in conversations casually, advocating for my parents and advocating for the family that we have and families just like theirs. I really felt proud of myself doing that. It was a good feeling and I wanted to keep pursuing it.”
After growing up in Berkeley, Calif., which he calls a “bubble” in terms of support for LGBT people, Spencer enrolled at GWU, where he double majors in political science and economics. Shortly after enrolling, he was elected freshman representative for Allied in Pride and was appointed as a board member of GWU’s LGBT Health Graduate Certificate Program.
He moved to D.C., where he lives on campus at Thurston Hall, at the same time his parents relocated to the area after Kris Perry accepted a job as executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a non-profit that seeks early childhood education for disadvantaged children.
Spencer says his focus at Allied in Pride is getting the culture at GWU “to be more embracing of LGBT individuals” on campus.
The next big task? Preparing for the second annual amateur drag show set for Feb. 13 called “Allied in Greek” — a collaboration between the Allied in Pride and Greek life in which members of GWU’s fraternities and sororities dress up in drag. The goal for the event, which will take place at 7 p.m. at Lisner Auditorium, is to show support for fellow LGBT students and benefit The Trevor Project, which seeks to help LGBT youth considering suicide.
Nick Gumas, who’s gay and president of Allied in Pride, praised Perry.
“Spencer has been an important part of Allied in Pride since he joined at the start of last semester,” Gumas says. “He always brings his creativity and positive energy to all of our meetings and events. It has been an absolute pleasure getting to know Spencer and I know he is going to continue to do great things in the future.”
Spencer knows firsthand the feeling of having the rights of his family taken from him. On Election Day in 2008 — the same day that President Obama was elected to office — voters in California approved Prop 8, rescinding the marriage rights that gay couples already enjoyed in the state.
“Anyone will tell you who lived in California and is part of the LGBT community, that was a very embarrassing moment because No. 1, we elected a phenomenal president, the first black president, which was a terrific feeling to be part of that, but at the same time, Proposition 8 was passed, too,” he says.
The day the California Supreme Court upheld Prop 8, Kris Perry and Stier — along with Los Angeles couple Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo — filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to overturn Prop 8. They were represented by the legal dream team of Ted Olson and David Boies, who were hired by the then newly formed American Foundation for Equal Rights.
The lawsuit wasn’t filed before Kris Perry, his birth mother, and Stier, who became his stepmother after a previous relationship Kris Perry had with another woman, asked their four children, including Spencer and his twin brother Elliott, whether it was OK.
“I remember one day after school right before dinner around that time, Kris and Sandy sat us down,” Spencer says. “They said, ‘Listen, we’ve been approached by this group called AFER and they’re interested in pursuing a lawsuit to overturn Proposition 8 as unconstitutional. We’re very interested, but we want to make a collective decision as a family. So they asked us if Elliott and I would be OK with that.”
It didn’t take much to convince Spencer to be willing to come on board.
“Elliott and I jumped at the opportunity,” he says.
At first, Spencer says his parents “did their darndest to keep us kind of protected” from the public interest surrounding the case. But as the case proceeded through the district court, to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and to the Supreme Court, and Spencer grew older and more interested in public affairs, he was able to speak out and talked to media outlets.
“I really did enjoy it,” Spencer says. “Not to be someone who’s devoted to attention, but it really was a good feeling to voice my opinion and to make sure people understand there are kids who have gay parents all across America.”
In addition to speaking at various news conferences, Spencer gave interviews to the San Francisco Chronicle, People magazine, the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, among others
One of the views against same-sex marriage that Spencer had to address — and one that he was living proof to counter — was the often-used argument that children of same-sex parents don’t fare as well as those raised by their opposite-sex biological parents.
“I’ve heard the argument a million and one times, but if anything, my gut reaction is that it’s kind of hurtful to hear that because my parents love each other, I’m worse off for it,” Spencer says. “I can’t tell you how loving and proud, and just absolutely supportive, my parents are of me. And how much better I am for them being my parents.”
After years of litigation, the case ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices ruled 5-4 that proponents of Prop 8 had no standing to defend the lawsuit, leaving in place a U.S. District Court decision from Judge Vaughn Walker that overturned the amendment on the grounds that it violated the equal protection rights of gay couples in the state.
But before that momentous decision, the justices scheduled oral arguments on March 26 to hear both sides in the case. Although Spencer wasn’t initially expecting to attend that day, an AFER board member was kind enough to give seats to allow him and Elliott to attend.
Spencer found himself sweating and uncomfortable as he observed Olson, anti-gay attorney Charles Cooper and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli makes their arguments before the justices, but for reasons other than the historic nature of the occasion.
“I caught food poisoning the night before,” Spencer says. “I never had food poisoning before, so I didn’t know what was happening, but I was just clenching the arms in my chair and sweating a little bit. I thought it was just nerves or something.”
Still, Spencer says he was inspired by what he saw, especially the comments from U.S. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy.
“It was absolutely fantastic, especially listening to Justice Kennedy, it really touched my heart when he spoke about the kids who were involved in these cases, the children who belong to these families and feel disenfranchised by their government,” Spencer says.
Decision day came on June 28. This time Spencer wasn’t in D.C. — even though his parents were there to celebrate along with Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin on the steps of the Supreme Court — and instead was in North Carolina with other students involved in the debate team.
“The entire period when I was doing that, I was checking my phone, checking my Twitter, Instagram, everything I could get my hands on, every media outlet if it was going to happen,” Spencer says.
Despite the ups and downs as the case went through the courts, Spencer says the experience as a whole was positive and brought him closer to his family.
“Looking back on it, I feel immensely proud of my moms,” Spencer says. “I never felt closer to them than when I saw Kris and Sandy testifying in front of a federal judge. Even now, I still feel proud to know that they changed the lives of so many people for the better.”
Peter Rosenstein, a gay Democratic activist and friend of Spencer’s, calls him “a great kid” and says the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in terms of the pursuit of activism shared by his parents.
“I enjoyed his response when I was first introduced to him and asked if he was gay or straight,” Rosenstein says. “He said, ‘straight, my mom’s didn’t rub off on me’ to which I responded my parents didn’t rub off on me either. I think his being at GW will be great for the school and great for all the kids that meet him.”
What should the national LGBT movement focus on next? Spencer says it should be winning state battles on marriage equality throughout the country, so when the issue returns to the Supreme Court, justices will make a favorable ruling for gay couples throughout the country.
“There’s going to be political ideology in any ruling, and there’s going to be influence in public opinion, but I think the way that public opinion has absolutely shifted in the past four years in support of marriage equality and LGBT rights, it really does speak to the fact that there’s an opportunity for a national precedent on marriage equality in the Supreme Court,” Spencer says.
McAuliffe: School boards should make ‘own decisions’ on trans students policy
Former Va. governor debated Republican challenger on Thursday
Terry McAuliffe on Thursday hotly debated Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin at the Appalachian School of Law in southwestern Virginia on a variety of issues that include vaccine mandates, economic development, abortion access and policing. The former Virginia governor’s support for a law that protects transgender students, however, seemed less clear.
When the moderator asked if local school boards should be allowed to reject Virginia Department of Education “model policies” developed as part of a state law passed last year to protect trans and non-binary students from discrimination, McAuliffe said school boards “should be making their own decisions.”
This soft support for the law that Gov. Ralph Northam signed is in contrast to the Human Rights Campaign’s endorsement this week for his work as governor that includes signing an executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ state employees and vetoing anti-LGBTQ bills.
HRC called out Youngkin, a former business executive and vocal Trump supporter, for “anti-LGBTQ and transphobic language” during his campaign. (HRC in 2019 named the Carlyle Group, the private equity company that Youngkin previously ran, as a “Best Place to Work for LGBTQ Equality” in its annual Corporate Equality Index.)
“Once again, we are proud to have achieved a perfect score on the @HRC’s Corporate Equality Index. We know there is much work to be done and look forward to continuing the progress for our LGBTQ colleagues.” – Carlyle Co-CEOs, Kewsong Lee & Glenn Youngkin https://t.co/lwm53kZiKY pic.twitter.com/xatLs2WmOk
— The Carlyle Group (@OneCarlyle) March 28, 2019
Younkin has supported Tanner Cross, a Loudoun County elementary school teacher who was suspended in June after he spoke against the Virginia Department of Education policy known as Policy 8040. The Virginia Supreme Court last month supported Cross’ reinstatement on First Amendment grounds.
“As governor, I will stand up for teachers like Tanner Cross,” the Republican candidate tweeted.
Youngkin also told Fox News the school board was trying to “cancel” Cross “simply for expressing his views that are in the best interests of the children and expressing his faith.”
But state Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William County), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told the Washington Blade in an earlier interview that the 2020 law passed with bipartisan support and most school boards are acting in accordance with the nondiscrimination law.
“Loudoun is catching headlines, but look at all of the other school districts who have adopted this without controversy,” said Roem, who in 2018 became the first openly trans person seated in a state legislature in the U.S. “They are acting in compliance with Department of Education best practices for how to humanely treat transgender kids in schools.”
McAuliffe, after stating that decisions regarding implementing trans student protections should be left to local school boards, said he hated seeing all of the “divisiveness” and “children being demonized.” He then pivoted to his talking points about increasing both teacher pay and broadband access for students.
Early in-person voting in Virginia is underway and lasts until Oct. 30. Election day is Nov. 2.
Black gay man hopes to ‘shatter lavender ceiling’ in Annapolis
Keanuú Smith-Brown is running to unseat Ward 3 incumbent
Keanuú Smith-Brown, who is affectionately called KSB by his friends, is running to unseat incumbent Annapolis Alderwoman Rhonda Pindell Charles (D-Ward 3) and become the first out LGBTQ elected official in the city.
“Keanuú is on-track to shatter a lavender ceiling in Annapolis, becoming the first out LGBTQ person ever elected in the city,” Victory Fund Vice President of Communications Elliot Imse told the Washington Blade.
Smith-Brown, a 26-year-old substitute teacher, announced in February that he was challenging Pindell Charles, who has represented his ward since 2013. They will face off in a Democratic primary on Sept. 21, then the winner advances to the general election on Nov. 2.
The Annapolis native is the eldest of six siblings, raised by a single mother and a first-generation college graduate who describes himself as a proud Black gay man. His opponent, also a Democrat, stated on an Annapolis Pride survey that she supports the LGBTQ community, just “not overtly.”
“But his candidacy is about more than just making history,” Imse said. “When in office, Keanuú will ensure the interests of the LGBTQ community are considered in every policy discussion and every piece of legislation that comes before the council.”
Smith-Brown told the Blade he is running to represent “those who have been left out,” emphasizing that “there is an urgent need for change in our ward.”
The Annapolis native first came out as gay while still a senior in high school, the same year Pindell Charles was first elected as his Ward 3 representative.
“I grew up surrounded by drug addiction and witnessed domestic violence both in my family and in my community,” he told the Blade, sharing he was raised by a single mom while his father was incarcerated during most of his life.
He still lives in the home in which he grew up, and within five minutes of his partner’s house “if you’re driving fast.”
After graduating from the University of Baltimore in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in government and public policy, Smith-Brown began working with legislators and advocating for LGBTQ bills in Maryland.
As president of the District 30 Democratic Club, Smith-Brown advocated for House Bill 1147 and its companion Senate Bill 401, which were both similar to neighboring D.C.’s requirement for single-occupancy bathrooms to be marked gender-neutral.
Both bills died in committee during the General Assembly’s pandemic-shortened session in 2020, but Smith-Brown’s advocacy continued.
He marched during the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and he continued to be a public advocate for LGBTQ rights and visibility as a member of Annapolis Pride.
“I have led and joined LGBTQ+ marches, rallies and events, even hosting a campaign ‘Love with Pride and Unity’ Drag Brunch,” Smith-Brown wrote in response to Annapolis Pride’s first LGBTQ-issues survey. “I helped organize for Maryland’s Health Care Decisions Act which would extend the rights of partners when making medical or funeral decisions.”
Pindell Charles, by contrast, in her survey response stated she did not consider her advocacy for the LGBTQ community to be “overt.”
“My support for the LGBTQ+ community, and even other communities, usually revolves around me working with persons individually, which I prefer,” she wrote. “One-on-one, rather than as a group, or public displays.”
FreeState Justice, Maryland’s statewide LGBTQ rights organization supports public advocacy.
“It’s extremely important for LGBTQ community members to participate in civic engagement — especially as elected officials,” Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster told the Blade in an email.
FreeState Justice has encouraged LGBTQ Marylanders to speak out at public hearings in support of legislation such as the state’s “panic defense” ban, waiving the publication of name change petitions and the establishment of a state commission on LGBTQ affairs. All of these measures passed during the 2021 legislative session.
“There is such immense power for our community that can be built at the grassroots level. From leading neighborhood associations to sitting on city councils, or representing the community in the General Assembly,” said Smith-Brown. “As the world changes, so do the ways in which issues disproportionately or uniquely impact the LGBTQ community, especially for our youth, elders, trans and Black siblings.”
Pindell Charles, who did not respond to the Blade’s requests for comment prior to publication, is a retired Baltimore City prosecutor and chairs the Annapolis City Council’s Public Safety Standing Committee.
During her time in public service, her advocacy included a variety of “groups and communities considered to be ‘underrepresented,’” according to her Annapolis Pride survey response.
Smith-Brown said Ward 3 deserves better.
“She is saying this is in a position of power, that she’s not willing to get out of her comfort zone,” he told the Blade. “You may not be okay with seeing two men or two women together, but when you don’t allow yourself in your position to be inclusive of all people you are now failing in your position.”
“If someone said that about the Black community, it would not be taken in the same way,” he added. “Admit that you don’t need to be here in this way. We can all do our best to do better.”
The Capital Gazette in February reported Pindell Charles intends to run for a third term and welcomes Smith-Brown’s challenge.
“We need to win this,” Smith-Brown said, encouraging LGBTQ and all voters to get out and vote. “My being at that seat at the table means that we are all in that seat. What is it they say? If I eat, we eat. That is the impact on our future, and I’m in it to win it.”
LGBTQ Democrats briefed on D.C. ranked choice voting bill
Council may already have enough votes to pass it
Members of D.C.’s Capital Stonewall Democrats, the city’s largest local LGBTQ political group, received a briefing Monday night from the chief of staff for D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) on a bill she introduced in July calling for a “ranked choice” voting system for D.C. elections.
The bill, called the Voter Ownership, Integrity, Choice, and Equity (VOICE) Amendment Act of 2021, calls for D.C. to join about 50 other jurisdictions across the country, including New York City and San Francisco, in giving voters the option of ranking up to five candidates for a particular office in the order of their preference.
Under the ranked choice voting system, if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the “first choice” votes, the candidate is declared the winner. But if no candidate receives greater than 50 percent of the first-choice votes in a race where there are three or more candidates, the system provides an instant runoff.
“The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate will have their votes count for their next choice,” according to a statement released by Henderson at the time she introduced the legislation. “This process continues in rounds until there’s a majority winner,” the statement says.
T.J. Maloney, Henderson’s chief of staff, told Capital Stonewall Democrats members during a virtual Zoom meeting that studies of the ranked choice voting system in jurisdictions where it has been adopted show that overall voter turnout has increased and, following a voter education process, voters appear to adjust and support the system.
Six other D.C. Council members joined Henderson in co-introducing the VOICE ranked choice voting bill, indicating it may already have a seven-vote majority in its favor on the 13-member Council. However, Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) does not support the current version of the bill, according to spokesperson Lindsay Walton.
Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the chair of the Council’s Judiciary Committee where the bill was sent and one of the bill’s co-introducers, has scheduled a public hearing on the bill for on Nov. 18. The hearing, which will be virtual, will be broadcast live on the Council’s website.
Last week, the D.C. Democratic State Committee, which is the governing body of the D.C. Democratic Party and of which the Capital Stonewall Democrats is an affiliated member, voted to oppose the VOICE Act legislation. Some of its members said they believe a ranked choice voting system would be beneficial to the city’s smaller political party candidates, including Republicans and Statehood Green Party candidates, and would place Democratic Party candidates at a disadvantage.
Gay Democratic activist John Fanning, who was an unsuccessful candidate for the Ward 2 D.C. Council seat in the 2020 D.C. Democratic primary, said he favors a simple runoff election system over a ranked choice voting system in cases where multiple candidates run, and none receive at least 50 percent of the vote.
Among the ranked choice bill’s supporters is gay Democratic activist Austin Naughton, who serves as chair of the Ward 2 Democratic Committee. Naughton told the Washington Blade he is not an expert on the ranked choice voting system but his initial research into the system leads him to believe the system has the potential for providing a greater electoral voice for minority communities, including possibly the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ candidates who run for public office.
Capital Stonewall Democrats President Jatarious Frazier said the group was in the process of learning more about the ranked file voting system. No one raised the issue of the group taking a position on the legislation at Monday night’s meeting.
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