Three weeks before her younger daughter’s bat mitzvah last spring, Sarah Goodfriend, 58, got startling news: She had ovarian cancer and needed emergency surgery.
For Goodfriend and her partner of 30 years, Suzanne Bryant, the diagnosis lent urgency to their eight-year battle to marry in their home state, which has a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that’s being challenged in a federal appeals court.
“Our future is uncertain,” Goodfriend said. “We just felt time was of the essence.”
On Thursday a state district judge agreed, finding Goodfriend’s “health condition strongly militates in favor of issuing immediate relief.” In other words, the women could marry, and they went off to claim this conservative state’s first same-sex marriage license.
The nuptials that followed Thursday morning rocked the Lone Star State, where voters overwhelmingly banned same-sex marriage in 2005. The governor and political and religious leaders condemned the district judge’s ruling. To some it was an abrogation of states’ rights, to others a moral failing.
The state Supreme Court almost immediately entered the fray, imposing a ban on any additional same-sex weddings. The status of Bryant’s and Goodfriend’s union was, depending on the point of view, either final or uncertain.
The day brought to mind recent legal wrangling in Alabama, where competing rulings on gay weddings plunged many county courthouses into confusion.
The whirlwind of legal action was set in motion by state District Judge David Wahlberg, who ordered the Travis County clerk not to rely on “the unconstitutional Texas prohibitions against same-sex marriage as a basis for not issuing a marriage license.”
They were married at 9:15 a.m. at the Travis County Tax Assessor Collector’s Office by their rabbi as their two daughters, ages 18 and 13, looked on. Eight years earlier, they and other gay couples had sought marriage licenses in Travis County, only to be politely refused.
Thursday’s ceremony was a last-minute affair. The Austin couple wore jackets and skirts — Bryant’s black and white, Goodfriend’s navy and white with pearls. They reused rings they had exchanged years ago and didn’t have time to compose vows.
They promised their younger daughter, Ting Goodfriend, a more elaborate ceremony later (she’s envisioning a ceremony with their standard poodle, Sammy, as ring bearer).
Bryant, 63, later described the ceremony as quick and surreal.
Goodfriend, her dark hair still short after chemotherapy, thought about other same-sex couples yearning to marry, and wished they had been able to legally “swing the door open wider.”
They know the Austin lesbian couple, also mothers, who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the Texas ban on same-sex marriage that is pending before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
“There are so many other couples in Texas like us,” Goodfriend said. “As Texans we care a lot about personal freedoms. Freedom to marry is one of the primary freedoms. It only strengthens Texas families.”
Bryant and Goodfriend, both native Texans, met as students at Duke University School of Law. Goodfriend earned her doctorate in economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
They still remember that first conversation.
“We both talked about how important it was to make a difference in the world,” Goodfriend recalled.
The couple adopted their daughters from China. Bryant became an attorney specializing in adoptions for same-sex couples, while Goodfriend works as an advisor to Democratic Texas state Rep. Celia Israel.
Goodfriend said that getting married “does change the lives of our children because of the recognition it gives us.”
“I love the idea of saying 'my wife,'" Bryant said, “because in that one word, so much is encapsulated.”
There were also legal reasons to marry in Texas, where spouses are entitled to make decisions about property, medical care and funeral home arrangements.
“If Sarah is in the hospital, the person making medical decisions for her would be her legal next of kin — not me,” Bryant said, noting that a Florida woman’s same-sex partner was forced to wait outside her hospital room as she lay dying.
On Tuesday, another Democratic judge in Travis County, Guy Herman, ruled against the same-sex marriage ban as a part of an estate fight involving a woman whose partner of eight years, Stella Powell, died of colon cancer last summer. The county clerk said they were not instructed to issue same-sex marriage licenses. That instruction came Thursday from Wahlberg.
Goodfriend said they knew Powell. “I don’t want Suzanne to go through that sort of thing.”
The couple’s daughters were with Goodfriend at the hospital after her surgery and have seen her undergo chemotherapy. She likes to brag about the elder, Dawn, a high school senior who has been accepted at three colleges and is thinking about becoming a doctor.
While Goodfriend described her daughters as “resilient,” she said, “This recognition will give them, I hope, some inward support and peace.”
“Our family is like anyone else’s,” Bryant said. “Now people respect that. Love is love, and we have the right just as much as anyone else to be married. For me, that’s the end of the story.”
But for conservatives, the story is far from over.
Just hours after the ceremony, the Texas Supreme Court stayed the order that allowed the couple to wed.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement emphasizing that the state Constitution “defines marriage as consisting ‘only of the union of one man and one woman.'" He promised he was “committed to ensuring that the Texas Constitution is upheld and the rule of law is maintained.”
Republican Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton, who had requested the stay, declared the couple’s marriage license “void.”
Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative Austin-based group Texas Values, said the marriage license was “illegal and invalid and has no force of law.”
But a spokeswoman for the Travis County clerk said it remained valid.
Asked if legal wrangling would influence the celebration of their nuptials at a party planned Thursday night, the couple responded in unison: “Not at all.”
If opponents want their marriage license, Goodfriend said, quoting a state revolutionary war slogan, “As we say in Texas: Come and take it!”