Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo remember the exact moment when they decided enough was enough.
It was 2009, and California's same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8, had passed. The National Organization for Marriage, a nonprofit formed to push for such bans, had launched an ad called “Gathering Storm.” It featured actors in front of a dark, thundery backdrop, speaking about how gay marriage would negatively affect their lives.
Katami and Zarrillo had never been terribly political. With jobs in the entertainment and fitness industries, the longtime couple were foodies at heart who spent their free time exploring L.A.'s restaurant scene, sating their voracious sweet tooths. There probably wasn't a cupcakery in the city they hadn't visited.
But the ad was an insult too far.
“I stood up off the couch and I said, 'That's it,'?” Katami says. “?'We have to do something.'?”
The ominous (and now much-parodied) message prompted Katami and Zarrillo to gather friends to film a response video. “Weathering the Storm” blasted the original video's lies and misrepresentations, striving to reinforce the message of equal rights, not special rights. It featured openly gay actor Wilson Cruz (of My So-Called Life fame), the parents of gay friends and gay-friendly religious leaders.
When the video went viral, it unexpectedly launched the pair to the forefront of California's gay-marriage movement. Along with a lesbian couple, Zarrillo, 41 and Katami, 40, became plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Proposition 8's constitutionality.
The court battle, marked by grueling testimony and a flurry of media attention, lasted four years, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before ending with cheers on the steps of L.A. City Hall, where the pair were married last June. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa officiated.
A no-show? President Obama, who'd called to congratulate them just after the ruling. (Naturally, they'd extended him an invitation.)
It was a Hollywood ending for what was initially an unlikely relationship. When they met online 13 years ago, Zarrillo was still in the closet. A New Jersey native who has worked for AMC Entertainment for 25 years, he'd never been in a same-sex relationship.
As for Katami, an entrepreneurial fitness expert and exercise video instructor who grew up in San Francisco, he'd just come out of a long-term relationship and wasn't looking to jump into another one. But over Chinese food in Studio City, the pair shared a friendly conversation and something sparked.
“I think we were both intrigued by the unknown,” Zarrillo says.
The couple sits at a Starbucks in Burbank – coincidentally, once the location of the family restaurant where Zarrillo broke the news to his parents that they'd agreed to challenge the marriage ban. They're just back from the Sundance Film Festival, where they were promoting The Case Against 8, a documentary featuring their story.
“I knew what you were thinking,” Zarrillo says to Katami. “?'Do I really want to be this guy's first relationship?' I know you had some trepidation.”
It was Katami who took Zarrillo to his first gay bar and helped him come out. And it was Zarrillo who supported Katami when he wanted to slow things down in order to deal with the aftermath of his last relationship.
“You do ask yourself those questions,” Katami explains. “But overall it didn't even matter what the answer was at the time, because it was just an overarching energy that this was the right thing.”
It wasn't long before they bought a house and moved in together. (They now live in Burbank with their two dogs.) Playful, with clear admiration for one another, they share a refreshing honesty, which has held them together for more than a decade and through all that litigation.
Having gracefully given their faces to a legal fight that affected thousands of Californians, an emotional Katami and Zarrillo became the second couple to marry in the state after the ruling.
Their activism continues. They recently teamed up with CampusPride, a national LGBT organization for students, to tour colleges and universities together as speakers.
“There's a lot of work to be done,” Zarrillo says. “We call it 'contagious courage' – it comes from generations before us and after us. We pass it on. It's like a baton.”
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