Politics & Government

2,500 same-sex couples get marriage licenses in Texas

Tracey Knight and Shannon Knight received the first same-sex marriage license in Tarrant County on June 26.
Tracey Knight and Shannon Knight received the first same-sex marriage license in Tarrant County on June 26. Star-Telegram

Just over a month ago, Terri Saad and Alice Watson were among thousands of same-sex couples waiting to get marriage licenses in Tarrant County.

Today, they’re among almost 300 same-sex couples here who have seen their dream come true since June 26, when the U.S. Supreme Court swept away bans on same-sex marriage, according to a Star-Telegram review of county records.

After 16 years together — and seven years after they exchanged vows during a commitment ceremony — Saad and Watson made their union official in Texas.

“It feels wonderful,” Saad said. “It makes us feel more secure. We felt validated.

“We don’t feel like second-class citizens anymore.”

Statewide, an estimated 2,500 same-sex couples have received marriage licenses in Texas since the ruling.

There is no exact accounting of how many same-sex marriage licenses have been issued in Texas or Tarrant County because gender is no longer listed on licenses.

This ballpark number is based on what we can assume from the applicants’ names.

Carrie Williams, director of media relations for the Texas Department of State Health Services

But the Star-Telegram’s review of marriage licenses issued in Tarrant County the past two months shows that almost 9 percent of the licenses appear to have been issued to same-sex couples. Statewide, 5.7 percent of marriage licenses appear to have been given to same-sex couples.

“There are many same-sex couples who simply waited until it was legal to seek licenses,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “As a result, there have been a number of folks who might have gotten married years ago had it been possible to do so who are taking advantage of their opportunity to gain legal recognition for their committed relationship.

“My guess is that the overall percentage will shrink over time from this initial data once the ‘pent-up demand’ has been satisfied.”

Issuing licenses to same-sex couples remains controversial nationwide, particularly since a Kentucky county clerk was jailed for refusing to do so.

Several clerks in Texas also initially refused. The most prominent of those cases — in Hood County — has been resolved.

Data review

Officials stress that state estimates of same-sex marriage licenses are just that: estimates.

“Since the application no longer has gender identifiers, this ballpark number is based on what we can assume from the applicants’ names,” said Carrie Williams, director of media relations for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which maintains vital records for the state, including marriage applications.

Overall, the state has received 43,522 marriage license applications since June 26, including the estimated 2,500 for same-sex couples, she said.

To get an idea of how many marriage licenses Tarrant County has granted to same-sex couples, the Star-Telegram reviewed a list of 3,427 applications from June 26 to Sept. 8.

The county does not keep a “breakdown of same-sex marriage license applications versus non-same-sex applications,” said Jeff Nicholson, chief deputy for Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia. “Since June 26, the forms and our software have been modified so there is no way to discern this. It simply refers to applicants.”

The review shows that at least 296 licenses — or 8.6 percent — appear to have been issued to same-sex couples.

These were issued to couples with the first names of Robert and Edward, for instance, or Christa and Wendy, Nicole and Maria, Ricky and Robert, David and Paul.

“Some LGBT folks were ready to marry immediately, and some couples choose to plan an event that takes time,” said David Mack Henderson, president of Fairness Fort Worth, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group. “My hunch is the figures over the next year will approach the LGBT proportion of our population, often estimated at 4 to 5 percent.”

Locally, the first same-sex license was issued to Tracey Knight, a Fort Worth police corporal who serves as the LGBT community liaison, and her wife, Shannon. The couple wed two years ago in California but wanted to exchange vows again in Texas.

Saad and Watson received their license a few hours later.

Last month, they had a small ceremony, which they considered a renewal of their vows, with the same minister who performed their 2008 commitment ceremony.

“There was no marriage license in 2008,” Saad said. “This time, it made it the real deal.”

There is a 72-hour waiting period after a license is issued before a wedding may take place. Marriages must occur within 90 days from the date the license was issued.

Opponents of same-sex marriage discount the data.

“We don’t know for certain how many same-sex marriage licenses have been issued in Tarrant County or any Texas county since the U.S. Supreme Court banned Texas from enforcing our marriage laws,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of Austin-based Texas Values.

“I think a lot of people would be interested in accurate statistical data on same-sex marriage, but I don’t believe we have that option in Texas right now.”

Texas controversy

The dispute over the Kentucky county clerk’s refusal to issue licenses went further than Texas cases.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis was released from jail last week after being locked up for five days because she refused to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Davis and her defiance drew national attention — and support from at least two GOP presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. A judge ordered her not to interfere with same-sex marriage licenses.

This summer in Texas, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding opinion telling officials that they could deny marriage licenses if they have religious objections. But he warned that doing so could lead to fines or lawsuits.

Hood County Clerk Katie Lang refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples, citing her religious beliefs, prompting outrage, praise and a costly court battle.

One couple who were turned away — Jim Cato and Joe Stapleton — sued to get their marriage license. They were ultimately successful, and the lawsuit, which cost the county more than $40,000 in legal fees, was settled.

Lang posted a statement on her website saying that she would “personally refrain” from issuing the licenses but that others in her office were “available and ready” to do so.

In Tarrant County, the district attorney’s office instructed county clerk workers shortly after the Supreme Court ruling to issue licenses to “all persons who qualify, regardless of their sex.”

State officials say they believe everyone is complying with the law.

“We have not heard of any county clerks not issuing licenses to same-sex couples,” said Williams, from the Department of State Health Services. “They all have the new version of the marriage license application.”

Saad said the fight for equal rights isn’t over. “But this, at least, is a done deal. There’s no going back,” she said.

Down the road

The question now is whether demand for same-sex marriage licenses will increase, decrease or stay the same.

In Tarrant County, the first same-sex marriage license was issued to Tracey Knight, a Fort Worth police corporal, and her wife, Shannon.

“Perhaps many of these couples have been with each other for some time and now they have decided to formalize their relationship by marriage,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “[It will be] interesting to see if these numbers stay this way in future years.

“[I] believe it will remain fairly high and then drop off.”

For now, Nicholson said, speaking of marriage licenses, “business is good, and unremarkable in any way.”

Henderson said he hopes it becomes even more unremarkable over time.

“Just as it’s now considered awkward or rude to refer to someone as being in an ‘interracial marriage,’ the day will soon come when we all roll our eyes upon hearing ‘gay marriage,’” he said. “All love is equal; it’s simply ‘marriage.’”

Anna M. Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley