Couple start as roommates, end at the altar

  • November 13, 2011

By Sarah Adler
Chronicle Staff Writer

Even by Craigslist standards, it was a quirky listing. Wanted: Roommates for a "house-a-riffic adventure" in an eight-person San Francisco Victorian known as the Ranch. Candidates should be selfless and free-spirited alternative thinkers with an appreciation for monthly open-mike nights and weekly chores via the "wheel of clean."

In November 2004, after being selected from 300 respondents to the listing, Olivia Parriott, then 27, and Kari Jennings, then 28, became roommates. Ten months later they became a couple.

Olivia had recently moved from Los Angeles after graduating from CalArts with a degree in film and video. She had been working at the Museum of Contemporary Art bookstore and touring the United States and Europe with her queer band, Radio Vago.

"I moved to San Francisco to invite change in my life," Olivia said.

Ready for a move

Kari had been living in Oakland for three years, working as a social worker, but also wanted to live in San Francisco. She had moved to the East Bay from Albany, N.Y., after earning a bachelor's degree in social work from SUNY Albany. Having grown up in Black River, a one-stoplight town in upstate New York, she was seeking the big-city experience.

As roommates, they helped build the foundation of the group living home and formed a fast friendship, spending a lot of time together, exploring the city and slowly assessing their feelings for each other.

Olivia was not looking for a relationship, having recently ended one. She wanted to figure out a career path - trying to combine her passion for music and film by starting a local online music magazine, Wiretap Music, that promoted local bands through video content. Kari was contemplating getting an advanced degree in social work while continuing to work in community mental health.

"You're never supposed to date your roommate, and we didn't want to mess up our housing situation," Olivia said. "But love was blossoming."

And so during the June 2005 Pride weekend, their feelings took over. "We realized we were really good for each other," said Kari. "Almost effortlessly, our personalities complemented one another." But because Olivia was about to tour with her band, they decided not to date and continue their friendship. On tour, though, Olivia felt that their separation only deepened their love.

Kari recalls a defining moment. "Before she left on tour, Olivia told me I was 'nice,' a word that I have been called all my life. It's a fine word, but kind of feels like a cop-out as far as descriptive words go, and I told her that," she said.

Weeks after this discussion, Kari received a text. "It said something like: 'You are not only nice but caring, compassionate, generous, benevolent, beautiful' - the list went on." When Olivia returned from her tour, she asked Kari out on an official date - Sept. 9, 2005 - and they've been together ever since.

They continued to live at the Ranch until moving into their own apartment in December 2009 with a dog named Squid. By then, Kari had received a master's in social work from Cal State East Bay and was working as a psychiatric social worker.

Olivia, who had worked as a freelance video editor, had taken a managerial job at Rhapsody TV. In October 2010, while standing in the pantry of their Mission neighborhood apartment, Olivia knelt on one knee and asked Kari to be her wife, presenting her with a 1940s antique white gold ring in the shape of a flower.

Before Kari, Olivia said, "I didn't have the confidence that I have now, and there was a big dark cloud about my future. I haven't had to lose myself in this relationship. Her beautiful soul supports me unconditionally, and I believe in myself in ways I never thought possible."

The idea of commitment and marriage was important to both of them. Even though they couldn't get legally married in San Francisco, they wanted to hold a ceremony in front of family and friends - both as a political statement and as a declaration of their love.

"Even though we have no legal rights, we still wanted to feel legitimate as a couple and let our community know that we are proud of ourselves, our families, and the family we are becoming," Kari said.

In early August, Kari's father held a pre-ceremony potluck dinner in his backyard in Black River, N.Y.. Family and friends welcomed Kari and Olivia, who were introduced to the guests as "bride and broom."

A full-circle moment

It was a full-circle moment. Kari had come out to her father years before while preparing a pie for Thanksgiving.

"I was already identifying as queer in college, and I needed to tell my dad who I was." He responded with a simple question: "Are you happy?" With the answer "yes," acceptance came easily. The next day, she told her two brothers, who told her, "We love you. If anyone gives you trouble, we will take care of it."

Her mother had a different reaction, and they didn't speak for almost a year. But at the wedding in late August, Kari's mother and father presented their daughter, wearing a vintage dress, to Olivia, wearing a custom John Varvatos suit, in the garden of the Inn San Francisco for an intimate ceremony where vows, including promises to "remain as authentic selves" and "continue a life of adventures and silliness," were exchanged.

A reception for 120 followed at the Trocadero House in Stern Grove. Friends and family lined the wheelchair ramp and threw flower petals as the couple entered. Olivia's mother, who had helped her plan the reception, proudly walked her daughter down the makeshift aisle. Years before, sensing her 19-year old daughter's sexual orientation, she had said to her, "You can tell me anything. I will always love you."

Ann Larie Valentine, one of the tenants of the Ranch who had posted the ad on Craigslist and watched the couple's relationship unfold, served as officiant and emcee. "When I think about healthy relationships, I first think about starting with a good match," she said.

"Not starting with a difficult match and cutting and pasting our partners so that we fit - but making a wise choice from the start. That is Olivia and Kari."

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