Acceptance of gay community

SAN JUAN — Laying on the floor with her feet propped up, Chriselda Hernandez was still in her pajamas as she was serenaded with a rendition of Cher’s “Strong Enough.” Doing her best impression of the diva, Nancy Zarate, sang to Hernandez over the phone. The two spoke for more than three hours.

“It was the first time I had smiled in months,” said Hernandez who had just gone through a break-up.

They had just met that August in 2007, and they hit it off almost immediately. Almost nine years later, the two are celebrating their first wedding anniversary today.

The case that made it possible was called Obergefell v. Hodges, but most know it as the lawsuit that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

A year ago, Hernandez and Zarate hoped to be the first same-sex couple to marry in Hidalgo County but Zarate had to be in Austin on a business trip that day.

“She’s like ‘They’re not gonna pass it; they’ve been postponing it,’” Hernandez said, though Zarate said she was still nervous that it would happen while she was away.

On the day of the ruling, Hernandez had been monitoring the news online that morning.

“We were in tears; we were overjoyed,” she said.

Zarate immediately drove down in a rental car with her boss. Unfortunately, the two got into car accident that delayed them for 45 minutes.

Thinking Zarate wouldn’t make it down in time, everyone was in tears, including her boss.

“‘I’m gonna get you there,’ she kept telling me; ‘I’m gonna get you there, don’t worry’,” Zarate said of her boss.

As soon as she could, Zarate drove straight to the courthouse, arriving just as they were about to close.

They went in worried about the reaction they would receive from people at the courthouse. “It’s Texas, after all,” Hernandez said. But, fortunately, she said everyone there was very kind, including the bailiffs who congratulated them.

After receiving their license, the couple went to Mount Cavalry Christian Church in Harlingen where they and two other same-sex couples were married.

“I just never would have thought, legally, that we would be married in the state of Texas,” Hernandez said.

The following morning, they couple were still in disbelief.

“And it was kind of scary at the same time because I was thinking like, I still had that feeling of ‘It might be taken away from us,’” she said.

A year later, though, Hernandez and Zarate can still legally refer to each other as spouses and will commemorate the big day with a ceremony and celebration Sunday.

The event means even more to them in the wake of the shooting at an Orlando gay club earlier this month that left 49 victims dead.

“We’re going to pay tribute, too, because it’s something that really affected our whole community,” Hernandez said. “Even though we personally didn’t know those people, every face is so familiar to us.”

For them, Hernandez said, the tragedy was as momentous as 9/11.

“It’s going to be something like a moment where I knew exactly where I was,” she said.

Out of respect for the victims, they said they would observe a moment of silence during their ceremony.

However, the celebration was always meant to be for their community. Zarate created signs that will be displayed on Sunday, many expressing messages of love and acceptance.

One sign details their love story, including a timeline marking when they met (on MySpace in 2007) and their first date, which began at the make-up aisle of a nearby Walgreens.

Why Walgreens? It was one of the few places that Hernandez, who had just moved to the Valley, knew in the area.

Hernandez is originally from California, from a town about two hours outside of San Francisco. She had visited McAllen before because her mother lived in the Valley, and she liked that it didn’t have the gang violence her town in California did. With her sons’ safety in mind and a desire to get away, she packed up their things and moved down.

She and Zarate met just a few weeks later.

Hernandez realized just how different Texas was one evening when the couple decided to dine at Pepe’s on the River.

They walked in holding hands with their kids in tow and a waitress asked them to leave. She told them it was a family establishment, and they were making people uncomfortable.

“That was my rude awakening,” she said.

Hernandez was outraged and wanted to stand up for herself, but Zarate reminded her that she was in Texas now. They walked out and never went back.

Shortly after that evening, they began to get involved with PFLAG — Parents Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — participating in marches that their children sometimes participate in as well.

“Our kids are old souls because they are very, very supportive, open-minded, caring, just amazing,” Hernandez said.

Both women had children before they met each other. Hernandez has two boys, Ryan, 16, and Bryan, 12. Zarate, meanwhile, has a 17-year-old daughter, Natasha.

The morning of the decision, Hernandez sat down with the three of them at the breakfast table.

“I said, ‘You know how I tell you guys, you know, back in the day black people couldn’t marry white people, and you guys look at me like I’m crazy?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Well, one day you’re gonna tell your kids, our grandmas couldn’t get married and they were one of the first on this day, and they’re gonna look at you like ‘What? You’re crazy!”“