Ryan Kendall, GS ’13, sat on a hallway bench outside the courtroom on the morning of Jan. 20, 2010. Kendall was nervous, but focused. He was a man on a mission—he was about to serve as one of 19 witnesses against California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot initiative that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
On Tuesday—two years later—Kendall was finally able to celebrate a long-awaited victory: A three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found Prop 8 to be unconstitutional, bringing gay marriage one step closer to a reality in the nation’s most populous state.
“One of the arguments used to take away equal rights from gays and lesbians is that we choose our sexual orientation,” Kendall said, recalling his role in the trial two years ago. “I was presented as evidence that sexual orientation is not a choice.”
When Kendall was 15, his parents sent him to “conversion therapy” at the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality after finding out that he was gay. At NARTH, Kendall said, his life became hell, and he started to believe that suicide was the only way out.
“They were teaching me that I was a terrible person—that I was unlovable, defective, and damaged,” Kendall said. “Plus I had lost my family over this issue, and that just was incredibly emotionally painful.”
But at age 16, Kendall successfully petitioned for his own custody, and he was able to end his treatment at NARTH.
“I couldn’t keep coming to conversion therapy because I would probably have committed suicide,” Kendall said. “And aside from suicide, my only option was to go to Human Services and have my parents’ rights revoked.”
At the Prop 8 trial, Kendall used his experiences to make the case that being gay is part of his fundamental identity, arguing that he can’t be stripped of his right to have a family based on that identity.
“I testified about my conversion therapy because people say being gay is a choice and use that argument to take away our rights,” Kendall said.
Gay marriage was legal in California for several months in 2008, before voters narrowly passed Prop 8 in November of that year. Following the trial, a federal district judge struck down Prop 8, and the court of appeals upheld that finding on Tuesday.
But same-sex marriage is likely to stay banned in California while the appeals process continues. Prop 8’s backers plan to appeal the most recent ruling, either to a larger panel of Ninth Circuit judges or directly to the United States Supreme Court.
Columbia Law School professor Suzanne Goldberg has also been a part of the legal opposition to Prop 8. In October 2010, Goldberg—who is the director of Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law—filed an amicus brief in appeals court on behalf of the center, arguing against Prop 8.
Any person or organization can file an amicus brief to provide information that might assist the court in reaching a decision. The appeals court’s ruling adopted some of the arguments presented in Columbia’s amicus brief, Goldberg said, adding that many organizations filed briefs.
“In a major case like this, many organizations want to add their views for the court’s consideration, to give the court additional ideas on how to think about the case,” she said.
In her amicus brief, Goldberg argued that California doesn’t have a legitimate reason to establish different marriage rules for same-sex and opposite-sex couples, as it treats those couples identically in all other ways.
“The Ninth Circuit point was the explanation that the rights had already been granted,” Goldberg said. “Giving it out and then taking it away shows a measure only to harm the couples. They have all of the basic rights of marriage, but not the name of marriage.”
Both Goldberg and Kendall said they were thrilled by the appeals court’s decision last week.
“The fundamental issue is whether or not you’re going to let people have their own families,” Kendall said. “And that’s the most basic right anyone gets: the right to their own family.”
After the trial, Kendall was interviewed by CNN and several other news outlets. He’s also become a character in the play “8,” which tells the story of the trial.
The play had a one-night Broadway premiere last September—with a cast including Morgan Freeman and John Lithgow—and in March it will debut in Los Angeles, where George Clooney and George Takei will star, among others. Kendall is portrayed by “The Book of Mormon” actor Rory O’Malley.
Reflecting on the trial, Kendall said that seeing Prop 8 declared unconstitutional made him feel like a “full citizen.”
“It’s a powerful thing for a court to declare what you already know: that you are equal just like anybody else,” Kendall said. “And each day it happens, it’s good for all of us everywhere, because it helps us approach that better world we are trying to build.”
But Kendall is still worried that other children will be put in the situation he was in. He believes that adults must “take away the stigma of being LGBT” in order to reduce youth suicide rates.
“Unfortunately, even if we win in this case, the reality is that many kids will still be shipped off to ‘straight’ camp. It’s an ugly truth,” Kendall said. “But at least when you start normalizing people who love each other, you start to make things better.”