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Gay marriage fight pits Texas attorney general against longtime gay friend

Friday, February 28, 2014

WACO, Texas — When Greg Abbott was paralyzed by a fallen tree in 1984, Mark Phariss flew 500 miles to his friend’s bedside. They were law school pals who swapped stories over dinner, job leads and airport rides, and they still exchange Christmas cards today.

Their friendship is now at an extraordinary junction: Phariss, who is gay, filed the Texas lawsuit that a federal judge used this week to strike down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, which Abbott, Texas’ attorney general, has vowed to defend all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Eric Gay, APVictor Holmes, left, and partner Mark Phariss, right, arrive at the U.S. Federal Courthouse, in San Antonio on Feb. 12, where a federal judge heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging Texas' ban on same-sex marriage.

Eric Gay, AP
Victor Holmes, left, and partner Mark Phariss, right, arrive at the U.S. Federal Courthouse, in San Antonio on Feb. 12, where a federal judge heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage.

Rod Aydelotte, Waco Tribune Herald (AP)Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Republican candidate for governor, is introduced to supporters at a local restaurant Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, in Waco, Texas.

Rod Aydelotte, Waco Tribune Herald (AP)
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Republican candidate for governor, is introduced to supporters at a local restaurant Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, in Waco, Texas.

Both chalk it up as a remarkable coincidence. Abbott, a Republican who is running for Texas governor, said Friday he still considers Phariss a friend, even though they’ve lost touch in the past decade.

Phariss, who never told Abbott he was gay, echoed the sentiment – even as Abbott works to uphold what Phariss considers to be discrimination.

“If I was only friends with the people I agreed with, particularly in Texas, I wouldn’t have many friends,” Phariss told The Associated Press.

Texas joined Oklahoma and Utah as the latest deeply conservative states that want to take its newly quashed gay marriage bans to the Supreme Court. A federal judge in San Antonio ruled Wednesday that Texas had no “rational” reason to deny same-sex couples the right to marry, but declined to enforce his decision pending Abbott’s appeal.

Whatever the outcome, the history between Abbott and Phariss adds an intriguing backdrop to one of the most divisive social issues in the U.S.

Abbott made clear at a campaign stop Friday he doesn’t approve of Phariss’ quest to wed his longtime partner. He also expressed no sympathy at the thought of refusing his old friend the right to marry his partner of 16 years, Victor Holmes, an Air Force veteran.

“When the constitution is upheld, we’re all winners,” Abbott said.

Abbott said Friday he only realized Phariss was gay when his name appeared on the lawsuit, and said Phariss’ sexuality doesn’t change his opinion of him.

“It shows that on some of the hot-button issues of the day, we can have a civil discourse without harsh rhetoric.”

Phariss and Abbott first met at Vanderbilt Law School. Phariss described two southerners – Phariss is from Oklahoma – and ideological opposites drawn together by their enjoyment of discussing politics over breezy dinners.

After leaving Vanderbilt, Abbott was crushed by a falling tree in Houston while out jogging. He was permanently paralyzed from the waist down, and upon hearing the news, Phariss flew to the hospital and spent two days with Abbott. He bought books to help him pass the time and kept Abbott’s wife and mother company. A year later, Phariss said Abbott helped line up a job offer for him.

In the 1990s, when Abbott entered politics and was elected a state judge and later a Texas Supreme Court justice, he flew to San Antonio for a campaign stop. Phariss picked him up at the airport and drove him to meetings and a fundraiser.

Phariss, now 54 and an attorney near Dallas, said he was not openly gay at Vanderbilt. He dated girls and didn’t ask out men, and didn’t publicly reveal he was gay until his mid-30s.

Phariss said that while he and Abbott never discussed gay rights, he never detected hatred from his friend – who is now one of Texas’ most conservative political leaders.

“I don’t perceive from him any animus toward gay people,” Phariss said. “I do remember, either in law school or after, (talking) about someone we thought might have been gay – we just kind of speculated whether a certain person might be gay. He didn’t seem to have an issue with that.”

Along with other same-sex couples, Phariss and Holmes sued the state after being denied a wedding license on their anniversary last August.

Phariss said the last time he and Abbott spoke was in Austin around 2004, shortly after Abbott became attorney general. He said Abbott won’t get his vote for governor this fall because of his politics, but neither will Democrat Wendy Davis, Phariss said, because he doesn’t like the idea of voting against his friend.

Phariss compared his continued embrace of Abbott to family members, including his twin sister, who don’t support him but whom he still loves.

When Phariss and Holmes began putting a portrait of themselves on Christmas cards, Phariss said he’s made note of which friends and family send a card back the following year – and which don’t.

Abbott did.

“I secretly grinned,” he said. “I said, ‘Good. Not a problem.’”

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45 more reader comments:

  1. How to lose a friend with a stroke of an ink pen.

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 9:44pm
  2. Lol…..LOVE it!

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 9:45pm
  3. We are about to see proof that “I’m not homophobic, my best friend is gay!” is bullshit.

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 9:46pm
  4. Look at that douchebag

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 9:46pm
  5. Now it gets real….

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 9:49pm
  6. If he has balls he will refuse to defend.

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 9:50pm
  7. As civil war does

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 9:51pm
  8. Think he’ll change his mind for his best friend? I really hope Texas becomes a equal state!

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 9:52pm
  9. ‘Friend’. Good one… There’s no accounting for taste.

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:00pm
  10. Yawn! A republican who is anti equality but has a “gay friend” sounds like “I am not racist, I know a person with brown skin”

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:01pm
  11. Not much of a friend

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:07pm
  12. his fault fir defending a unfair bill

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:10pm
  13. I want to know why in hell it’s so fucken hard for people to accept same sex love and marriage the gays don’t judge the straights for marring 10 or 20 times and divorcing can’t stay faithful to their husbands or wives going out being sluts spreading STD’S , gays don’t go to court houses or the white house to go sign bills for straights to stay married and faithful to that one person they married gays just live with whats going on with the straights and thats what straights should do with the gays just live with it

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:13pm
  14. you just did

    Replied on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 2:30pm
  15. this is sad..

    Replied on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 3:31pm
  16. “When the constitution is upheld we are all winners.” Tell me Mr Abbott where is the US constitution does it say same-sex marriage is illegal?

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:14pm
  17. Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:14pm
  18. You got a lot of splainin to do!!!!!

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:24pm
  19. Mark Phariss knows now Abbott ain’t his friend!

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:27pm
  20. But Phariss won’t vote for Abbott’s opponent (Wendy Davis who supports marriage equality) because he won’t vote against his friend (Abbott)??? How f’d up is that?

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:27pm
  21. Totally fucked up!

    Replied on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:59pm
  22. Abbott thinks he’s proven we can debate hot-button issues w/o harsh rhetoric? Really? That’s what you think it proves when after such a long friendship, Phariss didn’t feel he could tell you he was gay or introduce the love of his life to you? I think it shows that Phariss was a good friend to you but the other way around? Not so much.

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:37pm
  23. I called Greg Abbott office today and said he is not fighting for me he is fighting against my civil rights.

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:38pm
  24. Not a very good friend I would say

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:48pm
  25. yeah see think about that mr your friend is gay how do you figure your friend does not deserve the same rights n respect you do?

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 10:51pm
  26. Time for Haters to grow a brain/heart or just leave the planet!!

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 11:01pm
  27. I don’t think 500 miles is really that far to fly.

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 11:07pm
  28. We’ll have equality in Texas, but some people will go kicking and screaming,, unfortunately. They’ll have to go, though.

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 11:18pm
  29. Greg Abbott is no friend to the LGTBQIA community!

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 11:50pm
  30. Putz.

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 11:54pm
  31. Betrayal is a universal issue. Everybody look.

    Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 11:55pm
  32. Choices are made every single day..some because we think they are the right thing to do..others it takes a while to understand they were not the right thing to do.

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 12:03am
  33. I would still vote for Wendy Davis.

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 12:09am
  34. Our strongest allies are our straight brothers and sisters!! Please do not take them for-granted!

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 12:19am
  35. In Australia we have a backwards practicing Catholic PM who won’t support his gay sister’s wish to get married. No marriage equality here until the Mad Monk is voted out.

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 12:28am
  36. Funny how he says……”When the constitution is upheld, we’re all winners,” Abbott said. Really? Then why appeal, because this ruling is actually upholding the constitution. Somehow I missed where freedom of religion allowed you to write constitutional ammendements banning something you claim is against your religious beliefs. Especially when those people don’t even have grasp on their own religion!

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 1:01am
  37. My response to a republican troll, it almost makes their head explode …………

    Wow! That really got to you didn’t it. Republicans are being divided and devoured by the tea baggers bye-bye Republicans you’re going to be a thing of the past not too long from now, This is great for us Democrats, what it means to you and the country is that there will be a democrat in the White House for at least 16 years, and by then the Republican Party will be a weak shell of what it once was. Hillary will be president two terms, Obama will become Secretary of State then after her Joe Biden will take the White House for two terms, the Mrs Oboma will take the White House for two terms, what was the name of that other party? Wast teapublicans? Rebagges?

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 6:33am
  38. Stop being “friends” with your oppressors you idiots. They don’t give a damn about you. They are just smiling in your face and stabbing you in your backs.

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 8:00am
  39. But by him not voting he is giving Abbott his vote.

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 9:04am
  40. Sad

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 9:39am
  41. To have to resort to this public display proves he’s a bigot, as well as an asshole!

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 10:47am
  42. with a friend like that he doesn’t need an enemy

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 11:26am
  43. Then he is no friend at all

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 2:21pm
  44. so sad and needless

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 2:29pm
  45. It must be tough for these two friends to be on opposite ends of the argument. However, if it were me and they AG was my friend who in support of discrimination, then my frustration with that would be too powerful me to consider him a friend in the future. The AG is basically saying gays are 2nd class and should be treated with less dignity.

    Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 3:58pm