Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Texas gay marriage: Two friends took opposite sides in the courtroom

HOUSTON — Mark Phariss almost didn't file the lawsuit that led a judge to overturn the Texas ban on same-sex marriage last week.

One reason: Phariss, a Dallas corporate lawyer seeking to marry his partner of several years, has long been friends with one of the conservative state officials he sued: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

The two men grew up about 50 miles apart in conservative country — Phariss in Lawton, Okla., Abbott to the south in Wichita Falls, Texas. Later, they became friends during law school and stayed in touch over the years with an occasional meeting or Christmas card.

Now, for the past several months, they have been at the opposite ends of one of the nation's most contentious issues as it played out in the Texas courts, the battle over legalization of same-sex marriage.

A federal judge found in Phariss' favor Wednesday, striking down the state's ban on same-sex marriage in a ruling that found the prohibition has no "legitimate governmental purpose."

Abbott, who is running for governor, filed an appeal a day later.

Phariss, 54, and Abbott, 56, first met in the 1980s at Vanderbilt University law school in Nashville.

Abbott was conservative, Phariss more liberal, and at that point not yet openly gay. Abbott was a year ahead of Phariss and the two talked about school and politics.

"I don't know that we agreed on much at all," Phariss recalled. Still, "It never affected our friendship."

Abbott was married at the time. Phariss met his wife, Cecilia, when the three went out for drinks or dinner.

"Cecilia and I were, indeed, friends with Mark Phariss. We remember Mark from our law school days and his early days as a lawyer in San Antonio," Abbott said last week.

They remained friends after Abbott graduated and moved in 1984 to Houston, where he began studying for the bar.

One day when Abbott was out jogging after a storm, he was struck by a falling tree limb and hospitalized.

Phariss, who was clerking in Tulsa, Okla., flew down to join Abbott's wife and mother at his bedside. Abbott was bedridden but still upbeat, Phariss said, and seemed glad to see him.

Abbott said he and his wife "remain grateful that Mark visited the hospital during the trying time after my injury."

The accident left Abbott paralyzed from the waist down and using a wheelchair. He went on to pass the bar and join one of Houston's largest law firms.

"He exhibited a great deal of personal courage to overcome what happened," Phariss said.

A year later, Abbott helped Phariss get a job offer from his law firm, although Phariss turned it down to work in San Antonio, Texas. There he met the man who would become his partner of nearly 17 years, former Air Force Maj. Victor Holmes, 44.

When Abbott later came to San Antonio while campaigning for a statewide judgeship, Phariss — by then a registered Democrat who occasionally voted Republican — drove him around, taking him to meet lawyers in his office.

Phariss was openly gay with friends, but not with business associates. It was never an issue with Abbott, he said: "We had a good relationship." They still exchanged Christmas cards.

Last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Phariss and Holmes began weighing whether to file a lawsuit of their own to push for same-sex marriage in Texas. Holmes had retired from the military and was working as a physician's assistant. He had no major reservations about a suit.

Phariss did.

"I had a whole slew of concerns. I was not openly out in my professional life. I've been the general counsel of companies. I was afraid it would hurt my career," he said, "There's a big difference between being out and being public."

He thought about Abbott, who he knew would be named in the suit. He wondered if his friend would take it personally, or see the lawsuit as a political ploy.

Phariss reasoned that he wouldn't be suing Abbott personally, but rather in his capacity as attorney general. "This wasn't brought for any political reasons at all — this was brought for us to get our rights," Phariss said.

Before he filed the lawsuit, Phariss talked himself into believing there wouldn't be much news coverage. "That was clearly wrong," he said.

The story exploded, with newspapers across the country profiling Phariss and Holmes. Phariss was careful not to mention his friendship with Abbott. He didn't feel ready to talk about it, especially with the suit pending.

Some friends sent him angry texts saying they were unhappy with him for pursuing the case.

"At first I thought they were joking," Phariss said — until they stopped talking to him.

He had alerted his boss to the suit. Phariss said he and others at work have been supportive, primarily concerned for his safety in such a deeply conservative state. Phariss said he has not received any threats.

Phariss said it's difficult to know what impact his decision to go public will have on his career, what jobs or other opportunities he may miss out on.

"Professionally, I don't know whether I've been hurt yet or not," he said.

Phariss is not sure what impact the case will ultimately have on his friendship with Abbott. He hopes it can continue.

"I have relatives who are not supportive. I have a twin sister who is not supportive. I'm going to continue to talk to them. So I really cannot treat Greg Abbott any different," Phariss said. "He will come around. I'm absolutely convinced. He and others."

Phariss still plans to send Abbott a Christmas card.

Texas gay marriage: Two friends took opposite sides in the courtroom 03/01/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 1, 2014 11:49pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Tribune News Service.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Jones: Bucs need success to get national respect


    Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones offers up his Two Cents on the world of sports.

    No respect

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter walks the field during the second day of mandatory minicamp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
  2. Hopes fade after landslide destroys Chinese village (w/video)


    Crews searching through the night in the rubble left by a landslide that buried a mountain village under tons of soil and rocks in southwestern China found 15 bodies, but more than 110 more people remained missing.

    Vehicles and people line a road leading to the site of a landslide in Xinmo village in Mao County on Saturday in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province. More than 100 people remained missing after the village was buried under tons of rocks and soil.
  3. Rookie Jake Faria dissatisfied with performance in Rays' loss to Orioles

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The rookie pitcher walked to his locker Saturday after tossing the fourth quality start in as many tries to begin his career. He held the potent Orioles bats to three runs and for six innings gave his team a chance to win.

    Orioles third baseman Manny Machado tags out the Rays’ Mallex Smith at third after a rundown in the first inning.
  4. Thousands converge in two St. Pete locations celebrating LGBT rights

    Human Interest

    ST. PETERSBURG — Tom Rockhill didn't know what to expect Saturday, but by noon people were knocking on the door of his bar Right Around the Corner in Grand Central.

    (From left to right) Emma Chalut 18, gets a rainbow sticker on her cheek from her sister Ellie, 15 both of Jacksonville before the annual St. Pete Pride parade in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday. This year the route was changed from the Grand Central and Kenwood area to Bayshore Drive.
[EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
  5. Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald dies

    TALLAHASSEE — A former Florida Supreme Court justice, who wrote a decision that prevented lawyers from excluding jurors because of their race, has died.

    Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald died Saturday, the court said in a statement. He was 93.