Second in a Series.
The Century Oak‘s arching limbs form a natural grotto, a shaded refuge of tranquility on Texas A&M’s bustling campus of 48,000 students. For generations, students proposed marriage under this hallowed canopy. Thus, in April of 2002, it was only natural that John Scroggs would invite a very special fellow Aggie to accept perpetual commitment in this sacred place where so many of his classmates began their lives together. In this story, however, cherished tradition takes a hard left turn.
Scroggs’ chosen life partner was another gay man, Paul Robles, also a student and fellow university employee. Since Texas A&M’s inception in 1876, throughout its first nine decades as an all-male, military college, and after women were allowed to enroll in 1963, Aggieland love stories followed the traditional plot: boy meets girl. When John took his broken computer to Paul for repair in 1998, boy meets boy was still a hostile concept at a university that, in the penultimate decade of the twentieth century, had fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid certification of a gay student organization.
In May of 2003, almost five years after they met and one year since they proposed, John and Paul exchanged commitment vows before their parents and one hundred invited guests at Messina Hof vineyards in Bryan. In the years that followed, they bought and sold their first house, and then purchased another—as they each continued to climb the professional ladder as A&M administrative employees.
When California’s Supreme Court invalidated Proposition 22 in May of last year, the couple saw an opportunity to elevate their relationship to the same level of legality that heterosexual couples enjoy. Before Texas A&M history professor James Rosenheim, who had officiated some five years earlier, they stood on the interior staircase of San Francisco’s Beaux Arts-inspired City Hall during the early morning hours of August 26, 2008 and became legally wedded—if only by the laws of California.
As John and Paul spoke their marriage vows, a decade after they met, they were aware of millions of dollars being spent on both sides of an intense, emotional battle known as Proposition 8—a proposed constitutional amendment that would close California’s newly opened window for gay matrimony. What John and Paul didn’t know was that, back in College Station, in a campus office and a laboratory less than one mile from the Century Oak where they proposed some six years earlier, fellow Texas Aggies were donating thousands of dollars to untie their legal bond.
The Struggle for Gay Rights in Aggieland: A Lifetime Pursuit Begins in the 1970s.
John and Paul are not the only Aggies who face annulment of their marriage vows by the success of Proposition 8; they are merely the most public. Nevertheless, their willingness to be completely “out” regarding their relationship is not the sole reason they appear in this column. In many ways, their lifespan typifies the struggle for gay rights at their alma mater, an endeavor that began during their infancy and early childhood.
Paul Robles was born in 1975, in the midst of an historic era for social equality in Aggieland.
That spring, Texas A&M’s College of Business graduated one of its first female students. Merrill Mitchell Bonarrigo went on to co-found Messina Hof Winery in nearby Bryan, where Robles and Scroggs held their commitment ceremony in 2003. Women had been attending classes at A&M sporadically since the early part of the twentieth century, and regularly since 1963, but the school’s first female graduates weren’t allowed to receive their diplomas at commencement ceremonies nor wear the vaunted Aggie Ring. Bonarrigo’s 1970s generation comprised the first female Aggie graduates of whom the school did not appear ashamed.
The mid-1970s also marked the beginning of an epic, decade-long fight for recognition of basic gay rights at Texas A&M. Like the effort to admit women, it was a struggle against tradition at a university that seems to pride itself at remaining several paces behind prevailing societal change.
In April of 1976, a group of gay and lesbian Aggies petitioned for limited use of university facilities. They called themselves Gay Student Services. Wishing to protect the identity of some members, they did not pursue, at first, full university recognition as a student club. They merely wanted to use campus facilities to meet, post notices on bulletin boards, and publicize their educational efforts in the student newspaper and campus radio station.
John Koldus: No Agent of Change in Aggieland
They ran into a stone wall in the form of Texas A&M’s legendary Vice President of Student Services, John Koldus, for whom a building is named and about whom Old Ags still tell stories. Koldus said no degree of partial university recognition was available and advised them to seek full certification as an official campus organization. Then, he did everything in his power to deny that recognition.
Koldus reached into statue law and Aggie tradition to refuse certification of a gay student organization, a decision he announced one full year after that first meeting with the gay students. Referring to state law prohibiting sodomy, Koldus decried efforts that would likely “incite, promote and result” in homosexual activity. When the students maintained that theirs was not a sex club, but instead an educational and counseling organization, Koldus said teaching and guidance was the faculty’s job. Later, before the courts, the university argued that GSS was a fraternal organization, and that Texas A&M had refused to recognize sororities and fraternities for 100 years.
Gay Student Services filed suit. John Scroggs was seven years old when the federal district court received the case in 1977, which it summarily denied without explanation. After the students appealed, the Fifth Circuit Count of Appeals vacated the dismissal and remanded the case back to the trial court. Again, this time in 1982, the trial court ruled in favor of Texas A&M. For a second time, the students sought redress before the appeals court in New Orleans.
In 1984, when Paul Robles was in the third grade, the Fifth Circuit again reversed the trial court, remanding the case with instructions ordering Texas A&M to recognize a gay student organization. Simply put, the appellate court ruled that plaintiffs had been denied their First Amendment rights of free speech and association.
So definitive was the appeals court’s decision that the State of Texas refused to represent Koldus and the university in its final appeal to the Supreme Court. Texas A&M hired a private lawyer, whose petition described the gay students’ demands as “morally repulsive” and “illegal,” and said the plaintiffs “seriously threaten the health of the community.” So tradition-bound was Texas A&M that it stubbornly pursued the appeal despite the fact that several other federal courts of appeal had, by that time, ordered the recognition of homosexual student organizations.
On April 2, 1985, when John Scroggs was a high school freshman in Corpus Christi, the news came down from Washington, D. C.: The United States Supreme Court rejected Texas A&M’s appeal without comment.
Today, within Koldus’ former organization, the Division of Student Affairs, a GLBT Resource Center operates with full university funding. Its web site refers Aggies to a myriad of resources, including a link for parents whose gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered children attend Texas A&M. A speakers bureau offers spokespersons to classes and residence hall associations. A GLBT Professional Network serves as both a supplement and an alternative to the highly regarded Aggie Network, in which Aggies help other Aggies prosper professionally.
In 1993, John Koldus retired after 20 years of service to Texas A&M. For the Aggie mainstream, he was one of the most beloved student advocates; for Aggieland’s queer students, an unrelenting foe. As Koldus left the university, gay and gay-friendly faculty, staff, and graduate students were forming an Allies organization, dedicated to mentoring young LGBT Aggies who encounter problems fitting into A&M’s conservative culture. All over the campus, rainbow signs appeared on faculty office doors, signaling a gay-friendly safe harbor in an otherwise stormy environment.
For those GSS pioneers who fought official university homophobia in the 1970s and 80s, today’s presence of more than 600 Allies represents the ultimate triumph. For Koldus, who once maintained that it was indeed the faculty’s job to counsel students—ostensibly to advise them against homosexual behavior—the fact that gay students were being mentored by gay and gay-friendly faculty and staff must be a bitter pill to swallow.
A Battle Won, the War Continues
Before this narrative leaves the 1970s and 80s, two relevant events of that epoch deserve mention. As John Koldus was retiring late in the twentieth century, two more foes of Aggieland’s GLBT community were emerging.
In 1975, when Paul Robles was born and John Scroggs was five years of age, a young returned Mormon missionary graduated with a bachelor’s degree from church-sponsored Brigham Young University. Clair Nixon, a third cousin of President Richard M. Nixon, began a path that would inseparably link his professional life to Texas A&M and set him on a collision course with John Scroggs and Paul Robles’ desire to be married as gay men.
Shortly thereafter, Nixon enrolled in graduate school at Texas A&M. He received his Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics in 1980, and after a brief commercial farming stint in Idaho, returned to Aggieland to join the faculty of what later became the Mays Business College. He steadily rose in not only academic rank, but also the hierarchy of the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By the turn of the twenty-first century, Nixon was both an acclaimed professor at A&M and a bishop (pastor) of his Mormon ward.
In the mid-1980s, just prior to the arrival of John Scroggs and Paul Robles as freshmen at Texas A&M, another fellow Aggie destined for life-long Texas A&M employment, and a clash with John and Paul’s marital ambitions, completed his student career. Jeffrey Puryear earned his bachelor’s degree in horticulture in 1987, and shortly thereafter embarked upon a nondescript, modestly paying career as a lab worker in what is today the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, a merged product of the former Rangeland Ecology and Forest Science departments.
Nixon’s and Puryear’s careers diverged, both professionally and personally. Nixon authored five books, became an associate college dean, and won an endowed professorship. Puryear eschewed graduate studies and, at one point, endured a fifty percent pay cut after a family emergency forced a brief resignation from his duties. Nevertheless, these two employees forged a common bond when personal and religious prejudice propelled their intrusion into the lives of Robles and Scroggs.
As John and Paul were being married in California in the summer of 2008, Clair and Jeff were preparing to writing checks, Nixon for $3,000 and Puryear for $1,000, to “Yes on 8,” a political action committee determined not only to pass a state constitutional amendment preventing future same-sex marriages, but also to annul those 18,000 gay marriages that had already taken place.
As time and its inevitable progress swept away one impeding generation, the progeny of Aggie conservatism has arisen to challenge Texas A&M’s twenty-first century quest for social equality.
Next: Recent Aggieland LGBT history, as seen through the eyes of two gay Aggies who recently married in California. A closer look at the subborn, conservative local opposition.
(A Note Regarding Sources: In addition to the many hyperlinked Intenet documents I used, I referred to Daniel R. Pinello’s Gay Rights and American Law (Cambridge, 2003), portions of which are available on-line through Google Books. The picture of Jeffrey Puryear was provided by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences through a state open records request. I interviewed John Scroggs and Paul Robles and they graciously provided several of the pictures used. As I indicated previously, Clair Nixon and Jeff Puryear did not respond to email requests for information.)