Part one of a series.
Jeffrey Puryear and Clair Nixon form the Aggie archetype. Both earned degrees from Texas A&M and both returned to their alma mater to contribute to its academic mission. Each is devoted to his family, work, and church, owns his own house and pays taxes—conforming in every way to the image that Texas A&M markets regarding the solid citizenship and family devotion practiced by Aggies worldwide.
John Scroggs and Paul Robles are also Texas A&M former students who have remained in Aggieland as faithful university employees. Although younger and not as far advanced in their careers, they also own their own home and pay taxes, serve jury duty, vote in local elections, and donate to charity. Each has lived in College Station for almost 20 years. Their maroon blood runs thick.
Only one characteristic differentiates Scroggs and Robles from most Aggies. They are a gay couple, long-time companions who took advantage of a brief window of opportunity to be married legally in California this past summer. Although breaking up another Aggie’s marriage is definitely not an activity encouraged by the Aggie Code of Honor, it’s precisely what Puryear and Nixon—and arguably many conservative Aggies—would like to do to these one-time students, classmates and dedicated Texas A&M employees.
Is Homewrecking a New Aggie Tradition?
Jeffrey Puryear, B.S. ’78, will earn slightly more than twenty thousand dollars this year as a part-time laboratory associate for the University’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. That’s approximately half of what he made several years ago, when the need to care for an ailing mother caused him to resign his $40,248 position. Three months later, after she passed away, Texas A&M rehired Puryear–but at only half of his original salary, as the other funds had been allocated elsewhere. Despite this financial hardship, Puryear recently scraped together a one thousand dollar donation to Yes on 8, a political action committee opposed to gay marriage in California.
Clair Nixon, M.S. ’77, Ph.D. ’80, a professor of accounting in the Mays Business School, stands on the other side of Texas A&M’s salary structure. However, he also faces his share of financial challenges. As a temple recommend-holding member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Nixon tithes ten percent of both his annual $157,137 salary and any ancillary income he earns through private consulting. A devout Mormon who has served as bishop of a local “ward” (congregation), Nixon takes seriously the Old Testament admonition to multiply and replenish the earth. He and his wife Laura have ten children.
Yet, when Mormon “prophet, seer, and revelator,” Thomas S. Monson, issued a mobilization order against the California Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage last spring, Dr. Nixon managed to find three thousand dollars to fund the same PAC that successfully urged 52% of Californians to deny gay marriage rights in the Nov. 4 election.
On Dec. 19, a California organization known as the “Protect Marriage Coalition” sued to invalidate the 18,000 same-sex marriages performed in the state during the five months between the court’s invalidation in May of Proposition 22, passed by Californians in 2000 to ban gay marriage by law, and the electorate’s adoption of Proposition 8 in November, which made same-sex marriage unconstitutional. One of those endangered bonds is one performed on Aug. 26 in San Francisco’s historic city courthouse, officiated by Texas A&M history professor James Rosenheim, who joined John Scroggs and Paul Robles in legal matrimony.
The New Texas Philanthropy: Keep Gay Californians from Marrying
Altogether, conservative Texans donated $1.35 million to keep marriage in California between “one man and one woman,” included Mormon Alan Stock, owner of some 350 Cinemark theaters. The Plano-based movie magnate gave $9,999 to Yes on 8, despite the fact that his cinemas are currently profiting from showing Milk, in which Sean Penn plays gay rights hero Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s legendary city supervisor and “Mayor of Castro Street,” who became America’s first openly gay elected official in the 1970s. Despite the theological objections that Stock’s LDS faith express toward homosexual behavior, his theater chain was one of the first in Texas to show Brokeback Mountain, a controversial film about two gay cowboy lovers.
Although Texas Aggies are known for their political, religious and social conservatism—and there’s no doubt regarding how a gay marriage referendum would in fare in Aggieland—relatively few Aggies stepped forward financially to deprive their gay and lesbian siblings of marriage rights. Other than Nixon and Puryear, the only Texas-based major Aggie donor to Yes on 8 appears to have been Gregory Coleman of Cedar Park, an attorney in private practice who serves as vice-chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. Coleman, who earned his bachelor’s degree (’87) and MBA (’89] from Texas A&M, donated $10,000 to Yes on 8.
Coleman established his conservative credentials as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas after serving as Solicitor General of Texas. He also clerked for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In this context, his contribution seems less personal and more of an effort to enhance his bona fieds for future political endeavors, or perhaps his candidacy for the next GOP president’s appointment to the federal judiciary.
Gregory Coleman, unlike Jeffrey Puryear and Clair Nixon, does not walk the Texas A&M campus daily nor does he have to look his gay and lesbian students in the eye.
Although much has been written about out-of-state donations to California’s newsworthy recent ballot measure, including the estimated $22 million donated in opposition to gay marriage by Mormons, stories about individual donors tend to concentrate on a few unfortunate Latter-day Saints whose piddling contributions in support of Prop. 8 brought down the wrath of the local gay community. For example, Marjorie Christofferson, a waitress at a landmark Los Angeles coffee shop, El Coyote, tearfully apologized for hurting the feelings of gay patrons, but refused to say she was sorry for making a $100 dollar donation to Yes on 8, which her local Mormon bishop had urged. Later, in order to fend off a boycott against the restaurant, Christofferson resigned her long-time waitress position.
These tales provoke sympathy for those whose donations are seen by many as not only an exercise of their First Amendment rights of free expression, but also of religious liberty. Few in the mainstream media, however, have delved into the sorrow experienced by gay couples who see their ability to be married in a civil ceremony, an important measure of their civil rights and as statement of their equality with their heterosexual counterparts, threatened by the passage of Prop. 8. That struggle unwinds far from California. As this account of Proposition 8 battles in Aggieland attests, it pits longtime Texas residents, and Maroon-blooded Aggies, against each other.
Next: The early years of gay and lesbian history at Texas A&M unfold, framed within the lifetime of two gay Aggies who anchored their ten-year relationship by marrying in California.
(A note about sources: I obtained salary information for Clair Nixon and Jeffery Puryear, as well as the details of Puryear’s resignation and rehiring as a lab associate, through a Texas Open Records Act request. Scroggs and Robles have agreed to be interviewed for this series. Nixon and Puryear have not responded to email requests for information.)