updated 06/26/2013 AT 2:00 PM ET
•originally published 06/26/2013 AT 2:45 PM ET
Together the women stood on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday, their hands joined and raised in victory to celebrate the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Within minutes, another court decision was announced – one that turned away the defenders of Proposition 8 and clears the way for same-sex marriage in their home state of California. And that is something in which Kris Perry and Sandy Stier have a very personal stake.
The couple of a dozen years, who both work in public service, do not claim to be activists, and yet the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry – yes, named for this very Kris Perry, who legally challenged the position of California Sen. Charles Hollingsworth in his war to keep same-marriage out of his state – is what put the issue before the Supreme Court.
The couple’s one opinion throughout the entire same-sex marriage debate has been clear: “We simply want for each other and our children the same rights as other American families.”
Now that this is a qualified reality, the two were smiling and giving an interview to MSNBC Wednesday morning when suddenly they were interrupted – by a call from Air Force One. On the phone, President Obama, on his way to Senegal but taking time to offer his congratulations to the women for a job well done.
“We’re proud of you guys, and we’re so proud to have this in California,” he said through a choppy connection. “And it’s because of your leadership things are heading the right way. So you should be very proud today. I hope you have a great celebration.”
Who They Are
Speaking to PEOPLE while the wheels of justice were still turning, the two described themselves and their life together, subjects which seem to take on deeper significance in light of the Superme Court’s precedent-making decision.
“From the moment I first met Kris I was very intrigued,” Stier, 50, who “grew up in southern Iowa on a farm,” told PEOPLE. “I went to the University of Iowa and moved to San Francisco after college. And I married a man about three years after moving here. I had two sons. We got divorced about 11 years ago. I knew Kris for about 13 or 14 years. We were colleagues at work, and close friends, and then we fell in love, 11 years ago.”
Of her sexuality, said Stier, “I didn’t have a lifetime struggle, like you would hear many people talk about. I dated men my whole life and I was reasonably happy, but never extremely happy. And when I met Kris, I can honestly it was the first time I understood what the concept of falling in love was. But it was much later in life. I was in my 30s. At the time my children were 9 and 11. I did have to talk to them about it. They were at an age where they were just becoming aware in general of different types of lives and choices, thinking about other people. And they were surprised, but not really rejecting, but surprised.”
She called the transition “relatively smooth in comparison to what it can be for people. My family was very surprised. I wouldn’t say anybody was thrilled. At the same time they weren’t upset or angry, but they were certainly very concerned. My parents were Catholic and lived in this tiny place and my siblings have very traditional lives, so my family is not very connected to a more progressive urban life.”
“I have an interesting family,” Perry, 48 and raised in Bakersfield, Calif., told PEOPLE. “My one biological sibling died when I was 21 and she was 19. I have step-siblings who both live in California who are almost the same age as I am. My dad and their mom have been married for almost 30 years. I have an adopted brother who lives in the Bay Area, as well. So I have every kind of sibling you could ever want to have. And everybody lives near by.”
As an 18-year-old in college at UC Santa Cruz, Perry said, “I started becoming conscious that I was different from other women I had known in high school or was meeting in college in terms of my interest in not being interested in men. A lot of the friends I had were dating men or in relationships, and I just didn’t have the same experience.”
A relationship with a woman changed that, and “sort of helped me understand who I was and helped me understand that I should figure out what to do about it. That took a year or two, but by the time I left college I knew who I was and I felt okay about it, and I had come out to my parents and my family and friends, so from the beginning to the end of college is when I really recognized that I was a lesbian. And I had positive experiences there, so when I left to go to grad school I was leaving as my new self, which is still the person I am today.”
She added, “My parents were very supportive. I have a really close relationship with my mom. In fact, my mom asked me if I was gay, and it was the same time I was grappling with what to do and who to tell. When you’re young, you feel like every time you tell someone it’s a very big decision. And you don’t know what kind of reaction you’re going to get, so you’re careful and you procrastinate. But in the case of my mom, I had only been gone for one year and I came home and she said, ‘Kris, do you think maybe you’re gay?’ And I remember just being shocked that she could actually ask me that question – how could she possibly know, but she obviously knows me really well.”
Blending Their Families
Perry has “two biological children, twins, and they are younger than Sandy’s children,” she said. “They are four years younger than her youngest, so they are 15. They are both boys and I had them when I was 30 years old and in a different relationship with a woman. We had been in a long-term relationship and wanted to have kids, so we did what lesbians do and got me pregnant. When Sandy and I met we joined our families and we ended up with four boys ages 15, 19 and 21. Twins are Spencer and Elliott. Sandy’s youngest is Frank, 19, and Tom is 21. Just the younger ones live at home.”
When it first came to blending their families, said Perry, “There were a lot of new challenges. Just two boys is a lot and we doubled it overnight. The kids interact really well together, so it was new and novel for them to get to know each other. Initially we lived in a really small house. We could all even fit them in one room. And they were really good about it. It was like a project. It was really just what you do when you’re a young parent. You make the most of it. We just had a lot of fun going to the park and eating spaghetti and running around and riding bikes.”
Eventually, she said, “we needed to be some place bigger as they got bigger, and we knew they were just going to get bigger and bigger, so we took every bit of resource we had to get this house and this space for them to grow up in. We’ve been here for a long time now and I’m really glad we figured that out, because the blended family part has been great. The boys now really have known each other a really long time.”