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