Fighting Marriage Discrimination in Texas

Mark Phariss & Vic Holmes • Plano, TX

Mark Phariss & Vic Holmes

This story was published in April 2014, following a decision from a federal judge in Texas striking down the state's marriage ban. Mark and Vic were plaintiffs in the case, DeLeon v. Perry.

In the summer of 2013, Mark Phariss and Vic Holmes of Plano, Texas reflected with their friend on the Supreme Court ruling from just a few weeks prior in Windsor v. United States. It was an amazing step forward, they knew, but they also knew that the ruling, which struck down the core of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, didn't go all the way by establishing the freedom to marry nationwide. They knew that they still needed the freedom to marry in Texas - and, at the time, 37 other states.

Texas Plaintiffs in DeLeon v. Perry

"We were saying that someone should challenge the Texas ban, and we continued talking over a few weeks about it with one of our lawyer friends," said Mark, who also works as an attorney. "We knew that when you applied the law to amendments banning same-sex couples from marrying, you can only reach one conclusion: that the bans are unconstitutional."

When their friend came back to them saying his firm was willing to pursue a case and explore potential plaintiffs, Mark turned to his partner of 17 years, looked at his friend, and said, "How about Vic and me?"

"If everyone is saying, 'Gosh, someone really should do something about this,' and no one takes steps to do anything - then it's simply not going to get done," Vic, a 23-year Air Force veteran, explained. "You have to step forward and make that change. And as scary and nerve-wracking as this was, we decided that we needed to fight for this."

If everyone is saying, 'Gosh, someone really should do something about this,' and no one takes steps to do anything - then it's simply not going to get done. You have to step forward and make that change.

Mark Phariss, Plaintiff in DeLeon v. Perry

Eight months later, after an unprecedented period of momentum for the campaign to win marriage nationwide, Mark and Vic - as well as their co-plaintiffs Cleo DeLeon and Nicole Dimetman, who married in Massachusetts in 2009 and were seeking respect for their marriage - had a lot to celebrate: US District Court judge Orlando Garcia ruled in their favor, declaring the Texas amendment banning any legal respect for same-sex couples unconstitutional. (Read more on DeLeon v. Perry Here)

Now, the couple and their co-plaintiffs are readying their case for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which will likely hear their case this spring or summer. 

"We're very optimistic - and we're very hopeful," Mark said. "We were happy with Round 1 - now we're looking toward Round 2."

Mark and Vic are a patient couple: They've been waiting for the freedom to marry for 17 years, spending 13 years in a committed relationship while Vic served in the United States Air Force. After becoming friends in 1997, they began dating, sharing a home with each other in San Antonio for two years before Vic was transferred for his duties in the Air Force.

Texas Plaintiffs in DeLeon v. Perry

Over the next eleven years, Vic was required to move from California to Mississippi to Arkansas and, finally, back to Texas, and in that time, he and Mark continued building their life together, keeping their relationship strong despite hundreds of miles of separation. Throughout it all, they kept their love secret from Vic's co-workers: Under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' gay service members were not allowed to serve openly.

The policy presented some complications for the couple: Beyond not being able to move around together or receive all of the benefits and support that different-sex married couples received, they had to overcome logistical challenges to even express their love for each other.

"If he was in a room where there were other folks from the military, he couldn't say 'I love you,'" Mark explained. "We came up with codes: **131 meant 'I love you.' And eventually, we both learned how to say, 'I love you' in Chinese."

"Not once in that entire 11-year period that we were geographically separated did I ever think, 'Is it worth it?'" Mark added. "It was just that this is what we had to do. And we made the best of it."

"During that time, instead of dwelling on where empty space was when I got home, I focused on where home would one day be - with him," Vic explained, adding that when they were together, they loved traveling, seeing new places, and exploring the world. "That's how I got through the whole thing."

In 2011, Vic retired from the service and returned to Mark. The couple now lives in Plano, with Vic working as a college professor. Vic explained that there was at least one benefit to moving around so much with the Air Force: He saw that Texas is truly home.

We have friends here, we have relatives here, and we have jobs here. Why should we have to leave our state in order to get married?

Mark Phariss, Plaintiff in DeLeon v. Perry

"Of all the places that we've been, this is the place that's most like home," Vic said. "We have friends here, we have relatives here, and we have jobs here. Why should we have to leave our state in order to get married?"

Texas Plaintiffs in DeLeon v. Perry

So much of Vic and Mark's relationship has relied on waiting - they waited until Vic's Air Force assignment brought them together in the same city. They waited until DADT was overturned and they could finally be a public couple. They waited for the day when they could stand up in court and explain why their love should be treated no differently from any other couples. And now, they continue to wait until they have the freedom to marry where they live, in Texas. 

"It may seem like everything happened so quickly in our lawsuit," Mark explained. "But the truth is, the process isn't moving fast enough. Texas law requires that you wait 72 hours to get married after you have a license. But by the time we actually had a hearing, it was far more than 72 days from when we filed our case - and longer still from when we were formally denied a marriage license. We still could be several years away from finally getting married. And that's a really long time to say that we should have to wait."

"Now that everything is rolling," Vic added, "This process can't move fast enough."

Texas Plaintiffs in DeLeon v. Perry