On a cool Valentine's Day afternoon in Beverly Hills, Robin Tyler paces the front steps of the Beverly Hills Courthouse, cell phone in one hand and wedding cake in the other, anxiously waiting to be denied a marriage license. Dressed up for the occasion in a throwback, '70s-style beige suit and brown turtleneck, she shoots a glance at her phone over the top of her dark aviators before turning to check on her old friend and fellow gay-rights activist Troy Perry. A retired Pentecostal minister and the founder of the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church in West Hollywood, Perry, tall and energetic with closely trimmed hair and a full, coarse silver goatee, stands a few yards away, holding court before a circle of television cameras. No stranger to media attention, Perry chats away, doing a nice job of keeping the press occupied while they wait for the real festivities to begin.
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Never a bride . . . or a groom: Robin Tyler, right, and her partner, Diane Olson
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Just not married: Troy Perry, center, with partner Phillip De Bliek and attorney Gloria Allred on the steps of the Beverly Hills Courthouse, Valentine's Day 2008
Tyler, though, still looks concerned. After another minute of pacing and balancing her precariously perched bakery box, she puts down the cake to make a call: “Has the plane touched down yet?” she asks the voice on the other end of the line.
“Great!” she says, when she gets her answer. Tyler hangs up and walks over to Diane Olson, her fiancee and partner of 14 years. “Gloria is on the way.”
“Gloria” is notorious legal pit bull Gloria Allred. Every Valentine's Day since 2004, Allred has accompanied Olson and Tyler, along with Perry and his partner, Phillip De Bliek, as the two couples try to get married at the Beverly Hills Courthouse. And every Valentine's Day, they get turned away. The ritual has become pretty predictable. Says Olson: “We go inside, we get denied, we make a speech, and then we go home.”
This year promises more of the same. Thanks to Proposition 22, the statewide referendum outlawing gay marriage passed by California voters in 2000, there isn't a courthouse in the state that will marry a couple of the same gender. The California Supreme Court reinforced statewide compliance with Proposition 22 in March of 2004, when it struck down attempts by San Francisco's then Mayor Gavin Newsom to unilaterally legalize gay marriage within his city's limits, and denied the possibility of other rogue courthouses in California doing the same. Even so, neither Olson, Tyler nor any of the three dozen fellow gays and lesbians who have shown up to get hitched seem bothered by the pallor of fatalism hanging over the day's endeavor. In fact, most are downright giddy to be participating — and it isn't the prospect of wedding cake that's making them that way.
On March 4, the California Supreme Court will hear arguments over the constitutionality of Proposition 22's denial of same-sex couples' right to marry. In less than three months' time, if the Supreme Court responds to the arguments by saying “I do,” California could have legalized same-sex marriage — joining Massachusetts as the only other state to offer gay couples equal standing with their heterosexual counterparts under the law.
While San Francisco gets most of the credit for pushing the gay-rights agenda statewide, the legal effort to strike down Proposition 22 actually began right here on the steps of the Beverly Hills Courthouse. The Supreme Court hearing stems from a lawsuit, Tyler v. Los Angeles County, filed nearly four years ago by Allred on behalf of Tyler, Olson, Perry and De Bliek.
“I'm nervous,” says De Bliek, when asked about the lawsuit. “Good nervous, though. We're on the verge of making history. It's exciting.”
If all goes according to plan, this will be the last Valentine's Day for gay couples to be denied the right to marry in California.
In late 1971, Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell, a gay couple, walked into a courthouse in Blue Earth County, Minnesota, and applied for a license to marry. There were no explicit laws against gay marriage at the time, and so the license was granted — facilitating the first legally sanctioned gay marriage in the United States. Baker and McConnell remain married today.
“A lot of people think same-sex marriage is a relatively new issue,” says Tyler. “It's not. This is something we've been struggling in favor of for decades.”
Tyler should know — she's been a gay-rights advocate since coming out in 1958 at the age of 16. As a teenager growing up in Winnipeg, Canada, Tyler boldly participated in a makeshift gay-rights protest at a time when homosexuality wasn't just stigmatized in Canada but was actually illegal. “I stood on the side of the road one day holding up a sign that said, 'Gay is good,'” she says. “I didn't even know I was protesting. I was celebrating.”
Tyler, perhaps saved by her naivete, was lucky. A full seven years after her public protest, George Klippert, a gay man living in Canada's Northwest Territories, was deemed “incurably homosexual” by Canadian authorities and sentenced to life in prison.
When Tyler was 19, she fled provincial Winnipeg for what she thought would be the more open atmosphere of Manhattan. But rumors of New York's laissez-faire attitude toward gays and lesbians proved ill-informed. At the time, it was illegal for men and women of the same sex to dance with each other — and being out of the closet was a de facto criminal offense.
One night, while checking out a gay drag club, Tyler was rounded up in a massive police raid and charged with impersonating a woman. Sitting in jail, unable to convince the police that she actually was a woman — she was wearing pants and had short hair — Tyler did the only thing she could think of that would get her out of jail: She called the New York Post.
A reporter was sent to the station to interview her, and the next day's headline read: “Cops grab 44 men and a real girl in slacks.”
Tyler was set free.
The incident, though terrifying, actually proved fortuitous for Tyler, helping her to land a gig at the 82 Club, the legendary drag cabaret — as a female impersonator.
Thus began a life of show business — which eventually brought her to Hollywood in 1970. Tyler and her then comedy partner and lover, Patti Harrison, landed their first gig almost immediately — in war-torn Vietnam as part of the USO tour.
“We didn't actually have an act,” says Tyler. “The military just couldn't find anyone else to go over there.”
Witnessing the horrors of war firsthand, Tyler became radicalized, and when she returned to America after eight weeks abroad, she launched her career in Hollywood as both a full-time gay-and-lesbian advocate and one of America's few openly lesbian performers. She attached herself to any and every meaningful cause she could find.
In 1973, Tyler read a story in the L.A. Times about a gay church that had been burned to the ground by an arsonist. Though an atheist of Jewish descent, she decided to attend the first service after the fire in a show of solidarity. The church was the Metropolitan Community Church, and it was there that she met the Reverend Troy Perry — preaching from the ashes.
Tyler and Perry became immediate friends and colleagues in the gay-civil-rights struggle. “We both have a sense of humor,” says Perry, “so we got along great. But we also shared a deep concern for achieving our equal rights. No matter how dangerous things got, Robin was always on the frontlines. She was not afraid.”
In 1975, the duo collaborated to raise legal funds for Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams, a gay Angeleno couple who had legally wed in Boulder, Colorado, earlier that year. It was the first in a series of major gay-civil-rights collaborations between Tyler and Perry, as well as Tyler's first formal foray into the gay-marriage debate.
It was a theme that would linger in her life and career.
In 1978, Tyler cut her first solo comedy album, Always a Bridesmaid Never a Groom — a prophetic title that referred as much to being unlucky in love as to the government bureaucracy that denied her the right to marry.
Nearly two decades later, Tyler would remedy the former problem, if not the latter, when she began spending time with an old friend, Diane Olson, who had just gotten out of a long-term relationship. At the time, however, Tyler was involved in a cross-continental affair with a woman in Australia.
“Robin and I would get together and watch Murder She Wrote, trying as hard as we could not to sleep with each other,” remembers Olson, laughing. “It was the least-sexy thing we could think of to do together.”
Their efforts at self-denial lasted about three months. Tyler eventually flew to Australia to give her lover the bad news. “I told her I couldn't do this anymore, I was madly in love with someone else.”
Tyler returned to Los Angeles, and she and Olson have been together ever since — for more than 14 years. Olson, a Beverly Hills native with long, bleached-blond hair and a quiet, confident air, isn't the political force her partner is, and prefers to spend her time focusing on her electrolysis business while Tyler battles the powers that be. Still, she's supportive of Tyler's various political crusades, and has no lack of political conviction herself.
“I come from a long line of people committed to the separation of church and state,” says Olson, the granddaughter of former California Governor Culbert Levy Olson, a radical atheist who refused to say “So help me God” during his inaugural address. The issue of same-gender marriage awakens a latent, genetic, political outrage in Olson.
“There's a great picture of my grandfather being sworn in as governor with one hand on the Bible and his fingers crossed,” says Olson. “Same-gender marriage is something my grandfather would have fought for. There's no reason to deny us the right to marry, other than religious intolerance. And so I'm deeply committed to it on principle — not just for my own benefit.”
That said, marriage isn't without its perks. There are “over a thousand” legal incentives for marriage, according to Tyler — from inheritance laws to hospital visitation rights to tax breaks. “We don't need a piece of paper from the government to validate our relationship,” says Tyler, “but the legal rights of marriage are invaluable.”
Though it denies the full rights of marriage to gay couples, California does allow civil unions, and in 2001, Tyler and Olson applied for and received a Los Angeles domestic-partnership license. Then in 2006, they acquired California domestic-partnership status, the many benefits of which are virtually equal to those enjoyed by married heterosexual couples, and which even allows gay couples to file jointly on their state tax returns. However, there are some rights that even California's progressive domestic-partnership benefits don't match.
On February 10, 2004, with Tyler's retirement creeping up, a representative of her union, AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), informed her that although medical benefits were offered to same-sex domestic partners of members who were still working, after retirement these benefits would cease, even though Tyler was otherwise “vested” or qualified to receive full retirement benefits. This meant that Olson, 11 years Tyler's junior, would be ineligible to receive health coverage from the union after Tyler's retirement at 65 — a privilege granted to the spouses who are under 65 of vested heterosexual union members.
“When I asked the union rep why that was,” remembers Tyler, “she told me, 'You have to be married. That's just the way it is, hon.'”
In June 2006, AFTRA reversed its stance, approving full health benefits for the partners of its eligible gay retirees. (AFTRA also agreed to provide COBRA benefits for the partners of vested gay members, the first entertainment union to do so.) But at the time, the union rep's answer did not sit well with Tyler, and she just happened to know a lawyer who agreed with her.
Gloria Allred had met Tyler in Houston in 1977 at the first and only federally sponsored National Women's Conference. The two have been close friends ever since.
“Actual friends,” says Tyler, “not Hollywood friends. We know each other's families and see each other socially.”
If Tyler had to be married to earn her benefits, then married she would be. Allred agreed to take her case pro bono, and on the morning of February 12, 2004, hours before Gavin Newsom temporarily legalized gay marriage in San Francisco, Tyler and Olson, along with Perry and De Bliek (who were married in Canada in 2003, and sued for the right to have their marriage legally recognized in the U.S.) gathered with Allred on the steps of the Beverly Hills Courthouse to announce their intention to sue Los Angeles County for the right to marry.
In the fall of 1968, Troy Perry sat in the bathtub of his Los Angeles apartment, watching the blood flow from his wrists into the warm water around him. No one loved him, he imagined, not even God. He was a preacher without a congregation.
For as long as he could remember, Perry had been preaching. As a boy growing up in Tallahassee, Florida, in the '40s and early '50s, he would preside over funerals for all the dead bugs and critters he and his siblings could find. A licensed Baptist minister by the age of 15, Perry married his own minister's daughter in 1959 and, three years later, moved to Santa Ana, California, to become pastor of the Church of God of Prophecy. Though he loved his work and cared for his family, he knew that there was something inside him that was different.
“Back then, there really was no 'gay,'” explains Perry, with a lingering Southern lilt. “To engage in a homosexual act was considered the sin of a heterosexual man. A 'queer' was someone who was a sissy, and I knew I wasn't that. So I would sin, then come back to ask God for forgiveness and then sin again.”
After an affair with a Marine became public, however, church officials stripped Perry of his pastorship. Perry and his wife divorced, and she took off with the couple's two sons. He wouldn't see them again for 17 years.
Perry was subsequently drafted into the military — an ironic twist now, in the “don't ask, don't tell” era — and spent the next two years serving in Germany.
Upon his return to Los Angeles, Perry met a man — and fell in love for the very first time. But the relationship ended badly after only six months. “I treated him like the little wifey,” says Perry, “but he was a man. He didn't like that at all. Back then, I didn't know any better.”
The heartache was too much. Everything he cared about had been taken away — his congregation, his family, his new love: “In my mind, I had nothing to live for.”
It was then that Perry climbed into the bathtub with a razorblade and slit his own wrists. Just as he began to lose consciousness, two of his friends burst through the door to save his life. At the hospital, dizzy from blood loss, Perry suddenly began to pray to God. He received a response.
“God talked to me,” remembers Perry. “He told me, 'I don't have stepsons and stepdaughters.' I knew then that I was a Christian and an openly gay male, and that it was going to be okay.”
Weeks later, after he had recovered, Perry contacted the Advocate about running an advertisement for a gay church service. “They didn't want to run the ad at first,” he says. “But then I went down to their office and started preaching the Gospel, and I convinced them that I was for real.”
Twelve people showed up that first week. By the next service, that number doubled, and soon tripled. Thus the Metropolitan Community Church was born in Los Angeles, and Perry has never looked back, giving religious guidance to the gay community while using his pulpit to advocate gay civil rights.
Perry and the MCC were the progenitors of gay marriage in America. In 1969, two years before Baker and McConnell would marry in Minnesota, Perry presided over the “holy union” of two women, Neva Heckman and Judith Belew. Though not legally recognized by the state, theirs was the first public, openly gay marriage in the history of the United States. (There are reports of black lesbian couples in 1920s Harlem covertly obtaining marriage licenses by having a butch partner pass as a man.) Perry has been performing holy unions ever since, and he has watched MCC spread to 300 congregations in 26 countries. “We have churches from Uruguay to Nigeria,” says Perry, “and each one of them performs holy unions.”
His own union, however, would have to wait more than three decades.
The “inescapable truth,” Kenneth Starr recently told the San Francisco Chronicle, is that “children need their mothers and fathers, and that society needs mothers and fathers to raise their children. We have seen at close range the enormous benefits that traditional male-female marriage imparts.”
Starr, who recently argued against same-sex marriage in a brief submitted to the California Supreme Court on behalf of a coalition of religious groups, has obviously never met Phillip De Bliek.
“I don't know who these benefactors are that folks are talking about,” says De Bliek, “because it certainly wasn't me.”
De Bliek was born to a family of Louisiana Southern Baptists in 1965 and raised in the small desert town of Joshua Tree, California. His father left home the night he was conceived.
“My father had the habit of running around with other women, and my mother wasn't the type of woman to take it. She told him, 'You can stay married to me or you can have these other girls.' So he left.”
When De Bliek was 2, his mother remarried and his stepfather adopted him. Instead of providing stability for the family, though, his stepfather abused De Bliek throughout his childhood.
After an incident with a male P.E. teacher exposed De Bliek as gay at the age of 14, he was virtually run out of the small desert community. “I was pretty much labeled a 'faggot,' and it was strongly suggested that I no longer attend the school I was going to in Twentynine Palms.”
At 16, De Bliek ran away from home and moved to Los Angeles by himself. Amazingly, he was able to put himself through high school, working nights in a restaurant. “I was incredibly lucky I never got into drugs or prostitution or what some people have to do to survive in those types of scenarios.”
De Bliek immersed himself in Los Angeles' gay scene and found the freedom liberating. Shortly after his 21st birthday, at the leather bar The Gauntlet, De Bliek saw a man with striking blue eyes looking at him from across the room. He went over and introduced himself. That man was Troy Perry, who, even more than two decades ago, was a legend in the gay community.
Perry was completely entranced by the handsome and slightly naive De Bliek. “He had absolutely no idea who I was,” Perry says, “which was the biggest turn-on.”
Perry played it cool: “I told Phillip, 'I'm going to give you my number one time, just once, and you call me in two weeks.' Then I walked out of the bar.”
De Bliek did call, and he and Perry have lived in Silver Lake together for the past 23 years.
“We have our own lives, and the life we share,” says De Bliek. “We have our own friends, and the friends we share. I think that's why we've been able to get along this well for so many years.”
Ironically, considering all the deities that are invoked in decrying his lifestyle choice, it was finding a same-sex life partner that connected him to God.
“I am a much more spiritual person because of Troy,” says De Bliek. “I have a personal relationship with God that I would have never had if Troy hadn't entered my life.”
In 2003, after the local Toronto congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church successfully sued the Canadian government to legalize gay marriage, Perry and De Bliek rushed north. “It has always been my dream to be legally married,” says Perry, “and as soon as I had that chance, Phillip and I took it. We didn't wait a second.”
When the couple returned from Canada, Perry considered suing the state of California immediately to have their marriage recognized. With the 2004 presidential election approaching, though, “A lot of gay groups felt it was too soon,” says Perry. “So I waited.”
But when Tyler and Gloria Allred came to Perry in 2004, asking him to join them in their effort to sue Los Angeles County for the right to marry or, as in his case, to have his Canadian marriage recognized, the decision was a no-brainer. “I come from a Pentecostal background, so when I heard the words 'Gloria Allred' and 'pro bono,' I said that's as close to speaking in tongues as I need.”
The lawsuit, however, though groundbreaking, garnered hardly any attention at the time.
“We announced our lawsuit the same morning Gavin Newsom legalized gay marriage in San Francisco,” Perry laughs. “We found out about what San Francisco was doing while we were giving our press conference. Our story got completely buried.”
In March 2004, after the California Supreme Court ordered the granting of gay marriage licenses in San Francisco halted and the annulment of the earlier marriages, eight San Francisco couples sued the state, and their case was consolidated with the suit Tyler and Perry had already filed.
Woo v. The State of California, as the case was called, was presided over by Judge Richard Kramer — a conservative Republican. In a shocking decision, on March 14, 2005, Judge Kramer, citing the 1948 case Perez v. Sharp, which struck down California's anti-miscegenation laws, ruled in favor of Tyler and Perry. The decision was immediately appealed, however, and a year later, the California Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in a 2-1 vote.
As the case heads to the California Supreme Court, neither side of the debate has any idea which way the judges will lean. Though the California Supreme Court is generally thought of as conservative, Judge Kramer's original ruling shows that even conservatives find the constitutional case for gay marriage compelling. Gloria Allred herself has no idea which way the decision will go.
“I know which way it should go,” she laughs. “No matter what happens, we will win eventually. Like the civil rights struggle of the '60s, we've got history on our side. Gays and lesbians refuse to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to marriage or any other issue.”
Now inside the Beverly Hills Courthouse, Tyler, Olson, Perry, De Bliek and a recently arrived Allred stand in the queue of excited Valentine's Day couples patiently waiting for the marriage clerk to return from her lunch break. At last, the light in the clerk's booth snaps on, and a resounding “Next in line” is heard throughout the waiting area. Leading the pack, Allred and her clients step to the window.
The moment of truth has arrived — but any lingering hopes of shortcutting history take about 30 seconds to deflate.
Smiling and sympathetic, but not sympathetic enough to break the law on the couples' behalf, the clerk hands each pair a form letter from Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan: “California state law permits the county clerk to issue a marriage license only to an unmarried male and an unmarried female. Changes to this law can only be approved by the State Legislature and the Governor.”
The letter goes on to suggest that parties aggrieved by the current law should contact their state representative. But even though this is the county courthouse where the current battle in the state Supreme Court began, there is no mention of the ongoing lawsuit.
Neither couple takes up the issue, however. Each politely accepts the letter and walks away in turn. If there's any anger over the swiftness of the denial, it's cooled by the recitation of a collective mantra: “March 4.”
Outside the courthouse minutes later, after the television media and most of the other couples have gone, Tyler, Olson, Perry and De Bliek linger, chatting in confident tones about the righteousness and inevitable triumph of their cause. None appears remotely discouraged by the day's temporary setback.
“Some people might call me radical,” says Perry, of his pursuit of gay marriage, “but I don't find it radical to fight for my basic constitutional right to equal treatment under the law. I consider it the patriotic duty of a good American.”