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A Dying Man's Last Fight for Gay Marriage in Texas

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The first thing John Stone-Hoskins did after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage was call to have his husband's death certificate amended. Because instead of celebrating, he was mourning.

An employee with Texas Department of State Health Services answered the phone. As Stone-Hoskins remembers it, the state worker told him they would not be adhering to the court's ruling — in turn refusing to recognize Stone-Hoskins's marriage on his husband's death certificate. He called again the next day. Same response. His late husband, James, would remain listed as "single," as if their ten-year relationship never existed.

It was the beginning of a legal battle that, given the landmark Supreme Court case, Stone-Hoskins and countless others like him feel they shouldn't have had to fight. Especially considering that at the heart of that landmark case was a narrative nearly identical to Stone-Hoskins's: The state of Ohio refused to amend the death certificate of Jim Obergefell's husband to reflect their marriage.

Even after U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled on July 7 that, no, Texas cannot enforce any laws prohibiting same-sex marriage rights, the state had refused to recognize same-sex marriages on critical documents like birth and death certificates. 

Attorney General Ken Paxton had set the tone early for Texas's resistance to a Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. Following the ruling, Paxton wrote two statements in which he called the ruling “flawed” — three sentences in a row — and also “lawless,” “disturbing” and “a dilution of marriage as a societal institution.” In response to John Stone-Hoskins's simple request for an amended death certificate, Paxton's office has said that it is a “complex, fact-specific inquiry” that must be “resolved in subsequent legal proceedings.” Paxton even argued that it wasn't clear if the Supreme Court ruling applied to cases like that of Stone-Hoskins — despite the fact that that was exactly what Jim Obergefell had argued and won in the Supreme Court.

Finally, on August 5, the day after he turned 37, Stone-Hoskins won and received his amended death certificate. It was like a grim, belated birthday present. And it only took a court order and a contempt-of-court threat against Paxton and Interim Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services Kirk Cole to get the state to put hyphens between “Stone” and “Hoskins” and add the words “surviving partner” to a death certificate. 

Stone-Hoskins is a man of exactness who remembers dates, times, facts. It has been 206 days since James committed suicide. They had been together a total of ten years, four months, 23 days. But Stone-Hoskins is terminally ill, and the number one doctor gave him is less exact, anywhere from 45 to 60 days. He's suffering from cancer, liver disease, neuropathy from the metal rods in his back that make his legs and hands unsteady. He'll go nearly all day without eating or drinking, his body no longer urging him along with hunger pangs or thirst. “It could be two minutes from now, two months from now — who knows?” Stone-Hoskins says.

Which is why he is still fighting. Not necessarily for himself and his husband anymore, but for the untold number of married couples across the state who can't get two names for two parents on their adopted child's birth certificate, or who can't add the hyphens and “surviving partner” on a death certificate. In a court hearing on Monday, Garcia noted that he kept getting the calls and emails and letters, all from people requesting the state recognize their marriages, too, according to Neel Lane, Stone-Hoskins's attorney. (Lane is the same attorney who represented same-sex couples leading the legal fight against Texas's gay marriage ban, which Garcia ruled unconstitutional; the Supreme Court took up the issue before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Lane's case.)

So now, instead of every person fighting as Stone-Haskins has, the state must draft a policy by August 24 that acknowledges same-sex couples' rights to amend their certificates, a policy that will have to be approved by Lane. If the policy that the attorney general's office drafts is satisfactory, Paxton's contempt hearing, which was rescheduled for September 10, may be canceled. 

“Once [Stone-Hoskins] got the death certificate and saw there were others who would be in the same position,” Lane says, “he didn't want to leave them behind. He didn't want to make the next person file suit. He committed himself to making sure that the state did something that would be more durable than just issue one death certificate and walk away.”

To Stone-Hoskins, there is still much to be done. At the top of his list of things to see before he dies is the end of LGBT discrimination in all public places, something he and his husband experienced their entire lives. At James's funeral in Arkansas, where James wanted to be buried with his father, a dozen churchgoers from the Church of Christ showed up with “sympathy cards,” in which an essay about the divine origin of marriage described same-sex relationships as “evil” and “horrid.” Most of James's extended family did not attend.

As early as third and fourth grade, classmates called Stone-Hoskins “gay Jay." In the tenth grade, he faced an assault charge after he fought back against a group of several students who had jumped him. His husband, James, was not as retaliatory. James had grown up in Clark Ridge, Arkansas, where he was bullied to the point that he dropped out of high school his sophomore year and pursued a GED. “He thought he would have to go to New York or L.A. to be himself,” Stone-Hoskins says.

Instead, Stone-Hoskins drove out to Arkansas and took James back home with him to Texas, after the two met online in 2004. Stone-Hoskins was working as a police officer in northeastern Texas at the time, and decided to create an online dating profile. Of the thousands of people to connect with, he chose James, who just that night had fallen into a deep depression and attempted suicide with pills. “The message popped up on his computer,” Stone-Hoskins says, “and whatever it was distracted him, told him there was hope. I feel like it was a godsend.”

To celebrate ten years together, they got married in New Mexico on August 28, 2014, and honeymooned in Colorado. Stone-Hoskins remained a police officer until 2014, when he took a job as a senior technical analyst at a hospital company, while James, because of a disability, stayed home.

James had Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder causing chronic dry eyes and mouth, and which also left James with chronic body aches, Stone-Hoskins says. “There were a lot of bedridden days,” he says, “but then there were always the days he would feel good.” They bonded over their love of electronics and technology. When he died, James was working on a remote-controlled lawn mower.

“James changed a lot with Jay,” says Stone-Hoskins's longtime friend Barry McClung, who lives with Stone-Hoskins now in order to take care of him. “He began to trust people more. He was more open. He smiled more...Jay never gives up on nothing. And even with his own medical problems, as frustrating as it gets — I hear him say, 'I'm tired of this,' but yet he keeps fighting.”

On Stone-Hoskins's kitchen table is the large wooden memorial frame of him and his husband on their wedding day, decorated by scattered court documents and copies of the death certificate. Throughout the legal proceedings to have his marriage recognized, he's had to relive much of the pain that came with loss, and all the details of that January night 206 days ago. Last week, he passed Lupe's Tortillas along I-45, where he and James celebrated Stone-Hoskins's 36th birthday a year ago. He was on the way to San Antonio to argue for James's proper death certificate in court. 

“James always wondered what he would do to leave his mark,” Stone-Hoskins says. “I never knew it would be like this.”

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