The Icons of Marriage Equality
Compiled by Dallas Voice News Staff
The battle for marriage equality in the United States dates back some 45 years, to May 1970, when the Hennepin County District Clerk in Minnesota refused to issue a marriage license to Richard Baker and James Michael McConnell.
In the nearly half a century since, case after case has been filed, challenging laws at the local, state and federal levels. But most of the names associated with those cases have faded into the mists of history.
Today, the name perhaps most closely associated with marriage equality is that of Jim Obergefell, the man who was the named plaintiff in the combined lawsuits from the 6th Circuit through which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, on June 26, 2015, that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires all states to grant same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states.
But in Texas, especially here in North Texas, we have a whole set of names that add up to marriage equality, and this year, Dallas Voice recognizes those iconic marriage equality pioneers, as our LGBT Texans of the Year.
Couples we honor as this year as our Icons of Marriage Equality are Jack Evans and George Harris of Dallas, who after more than 50 years together were the first same-sex couple legally wed in Dallas County; Mark Phariss and Vic Holmes of Plano and Cleo De Leon and Nicole Dimentman of Austin, co-plaintiffs in the successful federal lawsuit challenging Texas’ anti-equality laws; Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant, the first same-sex couple legally married in Texas, who got their marriage license in Travis County before the Supreme Court issued its ruling; Jay Hoskins, who fought to force the state to list him as the spouse of his husband, James Stone, on Stone’s death certificate; and Jim Fritsch and Bill Parker of Arlington, who forced Tarrant County to recognize their relationship as a common-law marriage dating back to the time they actually became a couple for purposes of retirement benefits.
Jack Evans and George Harris were the first couple to legally wed in Dallas County the day of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. That wedding came more than 50 years after the two first met at the Taboo Room, a gay bar on Lomo Alto Drive off Lemmon Avenue in Oak Lawn, on Jan. 19, 1961.
Both men served in the military, but Evans didn’t come out until he was 32. Harris says he has been out since he was 6 years old, and had a boyfriend in first grade.
Together Evans and Harris founded and served on boards throughout the Dallas LGBT community including the Turtle Creek Chorale, Resource Center, Stonewall Professional and Business Association, the North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce and, most recently, The Dallas Way.
For years, their company, Evans-Harris Real Estate was one of the largest real estate companies in Oak Lawn.
So when Marriage Equality Day finally arrived, there was no question who should get the first marriage license issued to a same-sex couple in Dallas County.
“They have always been there for all of us,” said Resource Center CEO Cece Cox. “As a couple, they’ve been generous and giving. They’ve seen a lot, done a lot and made progress happen. It was only fitting for people to step aside for them.”
The couple’s wedding photos made the front page of The New York Times and other newspapers around the world as well as People magazine.
A year and a half earlier, Evans and Harris married in a religious ceremony that they described as a favor to the retired pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church where they’ve been members for 25 years.
The Rev. Bill McElvaney, who was undergoing chemotherapy for liver cancer, announced in January 2014 that he would perform same-sex weddings in response to the defrocking of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, another Methodist minister. McElvaney was well known throughout Dallas and in the Methodist Church as a social justice advocate.
Because of the ban on same-sex marriage in the Methodist Church, Evans and Harris held their ceremony at nearby Midway Hills Christian Church with McElvaney presiding. Methodist ministers from around the state filled one section of the packed church while news cameras and reporters filled the balcony.
“Jack and George are challenging the United Methodist Church to become a fully inclusive church,” McElvaney said at the reception at Northaven following the service. His only regret, he said, was not performing a same-sex wedding sooner.
Charges were filed against McElvaney, but they were resolved before he died in August 2014.
A year and a half later, on the day of the Obergefell decision, Evans and Harris had their legal wedding.
County Clerk John Warren personally issued Dallas County’s first same-sex marriage license to Evans and Harris before escorting the couple to a nearby justice of the peace courtroom in the Dallas County Records Building where they were legally wed.
Because the ban on same-sex marriage in the Methodist Church remains in place, Northaven’s minister, the Rev. Eric Folkerth, could again only look on as his wife, State District Court Judge Dennise Garcia, presided over the nuptials. After waiving the three-day waiting period on the grounds that 54 years together was long enough to wait, Garcia married the couple in a courtroom packed with TV cameras, reporters, friends and other well-wishers.
When Garcia read the line, “By the authority invested in me by the Constitution of the United States,” the crowd erupted in cheers.
After the ceremony, couples who witnessed the marriage rushed back down to the second floor marriage license bureau to get their own licenses. Evans and Harris returned to the bureau to file their now-signed and witnessed license while about 170 more couples married in Dallas that day.
Mark+Vic and Cleo+Nicole
Shortly after he and his partner, Vic Holmes, and Austin lesbian couple Cleo De Leon and Nicole Dementman filed suit — in October 2013 — challenging Texas’ anti-marriage equality laws, Plano lawyer Mark Phariss told a Texas Monthly writer that he and Holmes still weren’t sure they had done the right thing.
Holmes, a U.S. Air Force veteran, said he was worried that all the publicity that was bound to come with the lawsuit would put a target on their backs and leave them open to violence from homophobes. Phariss — who at that point wasn’t completely out at work — wotuld alienate colleagues and clients.
“The day it was filed, I literally got physically sick. Leading up to that, we definitely had moments where we looked at each other and asked, ‘Have we lost our minds?’” Phariss told reporter Christopher Kelly, whose article, “The Accidental Activists,” was published in the February 2014 issue of Texas Monthly.
Two years later, Phariss and Holmes have gotten over their reticence and their worries and are proud — and lawfully wedded — poster boys for marriage equality. The two were married on Saturday, Nov. 21, in Frisco, 18 years after they first met.
About 300 friends and family members attended, including the legal team from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld that represented Phariss and Holmes and their co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit. De Leon and Dimetman also attended.
The lawsuit — De Leon vs. Perry — originated with De Leon and Dimetman, who were legally married in Massachusetts in 2009. They decided to file suit following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in U.S. vs. Windsor, that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act.
De Leon and Dimetman have been together since 2001. Dimetman graduated from law school in 2007 and went to work for Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld in San Antonio. De Leon got a degree in applied statistics.
De Leon had given birth to the couple’s first child, a son, in June 2012, and the couple had gone through an exhaustive second-parent adoption process to ensure Dimetman’s legal relationship as the baby’s parent.
By the summer of 2013, Dimetman and De Leon had moved to Austin. De Leon was working as a statistician and Dimetman had left the legal field to work in digital marketing. When her former colleagues at Akin Gump contacted them to see if they would be plaintiffs in a lawsuit to challenge Texas’ marriage equality ban, they said yes.
They already planned to have a second child, and wanted their marriage recognized before then to help avoid another second-parent adoption.
Their second child, a daughter, was born, in March this year, just three months before the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling.
Attorneys reached out to Phariss and Holmes, convincing them to join the suit as co-plaintiffs despite the two men’s concerns.
“Someone had to step forward, and we didn’t see anyone else doing it, so we did,” Holmes told another Texas Monthly writer, Pamela Collof.
The lawsuit was filed Oct. 28, 2013, in Judge Orlando Garcia’s federal district court in San Antonio. Judge Garcia issued his ruling — in favor of marriage equality — on Feb. 26, 2014, but stayed the ruling pending appeals.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in appeals in DeLeon vs. Perry, along with Robicheaux vs. Caldwell from Louisiana and Campaign for Southern Equality vs. Bryant in Mississippi, on Jan. 9, 2015. But the 5th Circuit did not rule on the appeals before the Supreme Court ruled in June.
After 31 years together and eight years of trying to legally marry, on Feb. 19 of this year Austin couple Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant finally tied the knot. Their two children — Dawn, 18, and Ting, 13 — stood with them as they exchanged vows.
Their trailblazing ceremony came after a probate judge’s decision ordering Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to issue a marriage license to the two women.
The petition asking for the ruling was filed in response to an earlier probate court’s ruling in an estate settlement case that Texas’ same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional.
State District Court Judge David Wahlberg ordered DeBeauvoir to issue the license and then he waived the customary 72-hour waiting period, citing Goodfriend’s poor health (she is battling cancer).
Even after getting the court order, the couple wasn’t sure they’d get their license.
DeBeauvoir could have asked state Attorney General Ken Paxton, a foe of marriage equality, for an opinion in the case or found other reasons to stall. But she did not.
“She bravely said, ‘I have a court order,’ and issued the license,” Bryant told the Dallas Voice at the time.
The Travis County Clerk doesn’t allow weddings to take place in her office, so the couple went outside the building where their rabbi performed the ceremony. Anticipating swift action by Paxton, however, Goodfriend and Bryant then ran quickly back inside to get the license legally filed before Paxton could intervene.
Even then, not everyone was ready to acknowledge their marriage.
The Texas Legislature was in session at the time, and State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, and Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, both filed bills that would strip county clerks of the duty to issue marriage licenses. Other officials, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, denounced the decision as well. Ultimately both pieces of legislation failed.
Goodfriend, an advisor to openly lesbian state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, denounced the efforts to block Goodfriend’s and Bryant’s marriage. She called the bills “nasty” and said legislators like Tinderholt and Perry are “a particular segment that gets political mileage out of beating up on us.”
Bryant and Goodfriend did not see themselves as heroes. In the midst of all the emotions and tension, they both said at the time they were surprised by the attention they received.
“It’s an opportunity to put a face on this,” Goodfriend said of her marriage to Bryant.
“Young couples came up to us with tears in their eyes,” she added. “Everyone wants a picture with the certificate.”
One man’s attempt to have his name listed as surviving spouse on a death certificate forced Texas to fully implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges, including how same-sex parents would be named on their children’s birth certificates.
After New Mexico legalized same-sex marriage in 2014, Texas couple Jay Hoskins and James Stone decided to get married in Sante Fe in August of that year.
Just five months later, in January 2015, Stone died from the genetic autoimmune disorder Sjogren’s Syndrome. Because his death occurred before Obergefell, Hoskins was listed as “significant other” on the death certificate, rather than as husband.
In June, after the marriage equality ruling, Hoskins tried to have Stone’s death certificate amended to list him as husband. Texas’ vital records office refused, claiming the U.S. Supreme Court ruling wasn’t retroactive.
Hoskins contacted Neel Lane, the attorney from Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld’s San Antonio office, the law firm that argued De Leon vs. Perry, the Texas marriage equality case, in U.S. District Court and before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Rather than filing a new case that could take years to work its way through the courts, Lane filed Hoskins’ request as a motion in De Leon.
In his motion, Lane asked for an expedited ruling, revealing that Hoskins was suffering from an incurable form of cancer.
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia, who issued the De Leon ruling, was furious that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Texas State Department of Health Services Commissioner Kirk Cole were not complying fully with his ruling, which had been affirmed by the Fifth Circuit after the Obergefell decision. (The Department of Health Services is the agency that maintains death records.)
Once the U.S. Supreme Court declares a law unconstitutional, it’s as if the law never existed. So Stone and Hoskins’ wedding had to be recognized by Texas from August 2014 and Garcia ordered the death certificate changed.
In addition to ordering the change on the death certificate, Garcia asked Lane if there were other areas where married same-sex couples were not being treated equally in Texas. Lane told the court Texas wasn’t recognizing both married same-sex parents on their children’s birth certificates.
Lane even presented an example of a birth mother whose name was taken off her child’s birth certificate when her wife adopted the child. The adoptive mother’s name replaced the birth mother’s name, because Texas refused to have two parents of the same sex on a birth certificate.
Garcia was so incensed, he ordered Paxton and Cole to appear in his court on contempt of court charges.
Paxton took the contempt of court order quite seriously, Lane said. Within hours, the AG sent the court a revision of the death certificate. But Hoskins rejected the first couple of revisions as incorrect or inadequate. The document went back and forth from Paxton’s Austin office to the San Antonio court to Hoskins until Hoskins approved the final version and the revised death certificate was issued.
Paxton and Cole had their contempt hearing delayed for a month as they made changes to how birth certificates were issued. Within a few weeks, new rules were issued for birth certificates allowing both parents to be listed and Paxton and Cole avoided contempt of court.
The new rules in effect since October include a choice of how parents are listed. Attorneys still recommend same-sex parents complete a second-parent adoption or obtain a birth order from a judge to assure parental rights are backed by court order, but receiving a correct birth certificate should no longer be a problem in Texas as a result of Hoskins’ motion.
Hoskins lived to see his legal motion have a positive effect on the lives same-sex couples in Texas, but he died of cancer on Oct. 10.
Jim Fritsch and Bill Parker have been together for 23 years. But when the couple tried to file an affidavit of common-law marriage with Tarrant County following the U.S.
Supreme Court’s ruling in June legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, they were initially denied.
Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia at first rejected Fritsch and Parker’s petition for recognition of their marriage under guidance from the interim Director of State Health Services Kirk Cole.
A clerk at the Arlington Sub-Courthouse complied with Garcia’s directive and would only accept the document if the men changed the affidavit date to June 26, 2015 — the day of the Supreme Court’s ruling. But rather than apply for a currently-dated marriage license, the couple needed to prove they were married in 2009 to access city of
Dallas benefits Fritsch had earned when he retired six years before.
Fritsch and Parker faced resistance from the Dallas Employee Retirement Fund, too. While retirement fund board members agreed that same-sex marriages performed legally in other states before the June 26 ruling would be recognized for benefit purposes, they wouldn’t agree that Fritsch and Parker’s relationship was a common-law marriage that qualified them for benefits.
Councilman Lee Kleinman, who sits on the board, said all couples should be treated equally. After heated discussions, the board agreed to extend benefits to retired employees in same-sex relationships as long as they prove they were married at the time of retirement.
Texas is one of just nine states recognizing common-law marriages. The law allows a couple that present themselves as married to file a common-law claim rather than applying for a marriage license. They may be declared at any time and the affidavit filed at any time.
The couple must agree they are married, cohabit within the state and represent to others they are married. At that point, the state recognizes the marriage as legal.
The marriage is recognized from the date the couple declared they were together. An affidavit of common-law marriage may cut the amount of other legal work required to have both parents’ names placed on a Texas birth certificate.
In the case of Jim Obergefell, the U.S. Supreme Court decision made his marriage legal, even though his husband had died more than a year earlier. He sued to getes of a death certificate.
A related case was settled earlier this year recognizing the marriage of an Austin lesbian couple.
Sonemaly Phrasavath and Stella Powell had been together eight years and had a union ceremony that was not legally recognized at the time. Powell died of cancer in 2014 and her family tried to take property from the estate.
Phrasavath filed a lawsuit to have her marriage to Powell recognized by the state of Texas as a legal common-law marriage. A Travis County probate judge declared the marriage legal and Phrasavath became the legal heir in October.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 11, 2015.