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California Supreme Court Set to Consider Gay Marriage

Meet the L.A. four who started all the trouble

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 - 10:22 am

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.

Paula Schoenwether

Never a bride . . . or a groom: Robin Tyler, right, and her partner, Diane Olson

Matthew Fleischer

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.


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