Paul Katami and Jeff Zarillo look forward to marriage

Paul Katami, right, and Jeff Zarillo, left, speak at a Los Angeles press conference at Vibiana's Tuesday morning after a federal appeals court struck down California's ban on same-sex marriage, clearing the way for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on gay marriage as early as next year. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Long-time partners Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo pride themselves on being informed voters, so when the Prop. 8 campaign gained momentum in 2008, the Burbank residents were disturbed by the proliferation of material that they felt cast gay marriage as an affront to American society.

“One of our neighbors — and I don’t know who it is — was on a phone bank for ‘Yes on 8’ and called me on my mobile phone on my way home one night,” said Katami, 39. “Obviously, not knowing I was gay and living in the neighborhood with Jeff, [he] tried to talk me into voting yes on 8.”

The conversation that ensued touched on everything from the separation of church and state to equal rights under the law. At the end, the caller said he appreciated Katami’s thoughtfulness.

“It took an hour of my life, but it was worth every minute,” Katami said.

Two years later, the couple would engage a much broader audience on the issues of gay marriage, joining a lesbian couple from Northern California in filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ban imposed by Prop. 8.

This week, Katami and Zarrillo were front and center at celebrations in Los Angeles and San Francisco as the case took its latest twist. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 on Tuesday that the voter-approved law is unconstitutional, upholding a 2010 lower-court decision by federal Judge Vaughn R. Walker.

“It was very emotional,” Katami said. “At every turn, it isn’t about ‘Hooray, we won,’ it is about time, that this is the right path. There is some weight to it, there is some gravity to these rulings because what is at stake is so huge.”

Their participation in the lawsuit — funded by the American Foundation for Equal Rights — has been supported by family, friends and colleagues, as well as innumerable strangers, the couple said.

“For me, one of the greatest things is when we get the Facebook messages from people we don’t even know from all over the country, all over the world,” said Zarrillo, 38.

Still, their responsibilities extended well beyond lending their names to the lawsuit and their faces to the TV cameras. In January 2010, they each took their turn on the stand in court in San Francisco.

He was more nervous than at any other point in his life, Katami said.

“It is this very strange concept to think I have to talk about my life in a way that is to almost lobby for the rights that every other American has,” Katami said. “It seems foreign because the backbone of our country is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and a part of that is equality.”

Zarrillo said he found testifying more exposing than intimidating. The pair was called on to describe the nuances of discrimination they experience on a daily basis because they are not legally married — things like not having an appropriate box to check to describe their relationship status when visiting the doctor’s office, or being asked if they want separate beds when they stay in a hotel.

“It might not seem like a big deal to an opposite-sex couple, but it is just another reminder that there is no box for me, there is nothing like that for a gay and lesbian couple,” Zarrillo said.

Allowing same-sex couples to marry is not going to affect heterosexual couples in any way, nor will it negatively impact the institution of marriage, the couple contends. In fact, it likely will strengthen marriage, as well as the communities where those married couples live, they say.

Together for nearly 11 years, Katami and Zarrillo said they look forward to the day when they can tie the knot, but they are not hiring a wedding planner just yet. The legal team defending Prop. 8 is expected to appeal Tuesday’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Still, they anticipate that gay couples will one day be able to marry just like anyone else, and that their own celebration will be a large affair.

“We always talked about having a very quiet, private wedding on an island in Hawaii,” Katami said. “Now we have a lot of friends who will be very upset with us if that actually happens.”