Holiday Cheer

Teddy-BearsSPREADING JOY  |  Party hosts Jason Hanna and Joe Riggs are joined by party sponsors and friends on Saturday, Dec. 17, to deliver the more than 250 teddy bears donated during Hanna’s annual Toys for Tots holiday party to Medical City Children’s Hospital. The party, held Dec. 10, also brought cash donations that went to the Theodore Roosevelt Association. Hanna started holding a holiday party at his home in 2009. But in 2010, after both his parents were diagnosed with cancer, Hanna decided to turn the party into an effort to collect toy donations for children with cancer. This year, thanks to much larger expected attendance, Hanna and new co-host Joe Riggs and added sponsors, local attorneys Steve Rahhl and Mike Richardson, to help cover the costs and effort of moving the party to The Davis Building in downtown Dallas. Use of the building was donated by its owner, The Bascom Building.

—  Kevin Thomas

Judge to rule this week in Nikki Araguz case

Nikki Araguz

Transgender widow vows appeal if she loses case

JUAN A. LOZANO  |  Associated Press

WHARTON, Texas — The transgender widow of a Texas firefighter will likely learn next week whether his family’s request to nullify their marriage and strip her of any death benefits will be granted, a judge said Friday.

State District Judge Randy Clapp made the announcement after hearing arguments in a lawsuit filed by the family of firefighter Thomas Araguz III, who was killed while battling a blaze last year. The suit argues that his widow shouldn’t get any benefits because she was born a man and Texas doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.

The widow, Nikki Araguz, said she had done everything medically and legally possible to show that she is female and was legally married under Texas law. She believes that she’s entitled to widow’s benefits.

“I believe the judge is going to rule in my favor,” Araguz said after the court hearing.

The lawsuit seeks control over death benefits and assets totaling more than $600,000, which the firefighter’s family wants to go to his two sons from a previous marriage. Voiding the marriage would prevent Nikki Araguz from receiving any insurance or death benefits or property the couple had together.

Thomas Araguz died while fighting a fire at an egg farm near Wharton, about 60 miles southwest of Houston, in July 2010. He was 30.

His mother, Simona Longoria, filed a lawsuit asking that her son’s marriage be voided. She and her family have said he learned of his wife’s gender history just prior to his death, and after he found out, he moved out of their home and planned to end the marriage.

But Nikki Araguz, 35, has insisted that her husband was aware she was born a man and that he fully supported her through the surgical process to become a woman. She underwent surgery two months after they were married in 2008.

Longoria’s attorney, Chad Ellis, argued that Texas law — specifically a 1999 appeals court ruling that stated chromosomes, not genitals, determine gender — supports his client’s efforts to void the marriage.

The ruling upheld a lower court’s decision that threw out a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a San Antonio woman, Christie Lee Cavazos Littleton, after her husband’s death. The court said that although Littleton had undergone a sex-change operation, she was actually a man, based on her original birth certificate, and therefore her marriage and wrongful death claim were invalid.

Ellis presented medical and school records that he said showed Nikki Araguz was born without female reproductive organs and that she presented herself as a male while growing up and going to school. He also said her birth certificate at the time of her marriage indicated she was a man.

“By law, two males cannot be married in this state,” Ellis told the judge.

Nikki Araguz, who was born in California, did not change her birth certificate to reflect she had become a female until after her husband’s death, said Edward Burwell, one of the attorneys for Thomas Araguz’s ex-wife, Heather Delgado, the mother of his two children.

But one of Nikki Araguz’s attorneys, Darrell Steidley, said that when his client got her marriage license, she presented the necessary legal documents to show she was a female. He also noted changes made in 2009 to the Texas Family Code that allowed people to present numerous alternatives to a birth certificate as the proof of identity needed to get a marriage license. That was an example, he argued, of the state trying to move away from the 1999 appeals court ruling.

The changes in 2009 allowed transgendered people to use proof of their sex change to get a marriage license. The Texas Legislature is currently considering a bill that would prohibit county and district clerks from using a court order recognizing a sex change as documentation to get married.

After the hearing, the firefighter’s family and attorneys for his ex-wife criticized plans by Nikki Araguz to star in a reality television dating show and implied she was only interested in money and fame that the case would bring her.

“That is absurd,” Nikki Araguz said in response. “I’m after my civil equality and the rights that I deserve as the wife of a fallen firefighter.”

If the judge rules against the firefighter’s family in their motion for a summary judgment, the case would then proceed to trial. Araguz said if the judge rules against her, she would appeal, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

—  John Wright

Corpus Christi school district says it will ban all clubs rather than allowing Gay Straight Alliance

Nikki Peet

The other day, we told you how Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi is refusing to allow 17-year-old student Nikki Peet (right) to start a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance. The school’s decision not only violates federal law, but it also signals that officials care nothing about the safety of LGBTQ students.

The federal Equal Access Act, originally designed to protect student Bible study groups, dictates that if a school allows one non-curricular club to meet on campus, it must allow any non-curricular club to meet on campus. In other words, if a school allows a chess club, it must also allow a Gay Straight Alliance.

In this case, Flour Bluff High School has been allowing the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to meet on campus. But rather than simply allowing the GSA, the district has apparently decided to kick the Fellowship of Christian Athletes off campus, and bar all other other non-curricular clubs. Wow.

The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports:

Superintendent Julie Carbajal said she has asked the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to meet off campus while the district studies the legality of allowing the club while disallowing a club supporting homosexual students. She said there is no chance the district will approve the proposed Gay-Straight Alliance, but she will make sure all other school clubs are following the district’s policy.

“We need to be fair and equitable to all,” she said.

In disallowing the Gay-Straight Alliance, the district said it didn’t have to follow a federal law mandating schools offer equal opportunities for all students to organize. The district approved a policy in 2005 that did not allow student clubs not tied to curriculum to meet on campus.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which has been meeting on campus, may not be adhering to that policy, Carbajal said. She said the district is consulting with its attorneys on the matter.

“We feel like we need to follow the policy in place,” she said. “If we’ve made any wrong judgments then we have to fix that because we are not looking at changing our policy.”

Students from the GSA at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi were tentatively planning to protest Flour Bluff’s refusal to allow the GSA on Monday. However, it’s unclear whether that protest will go forward now that the district says it plans to ban all non-curricular clubs.

In the meantime, Change.org has launched a petition calling on the school to allow the GSA. Sign it by going here. If you’d like to contact school officials directly, the info is here.

—  John Wright

FEEDBACK: Looking at District 14

Looking at District 14

This spring’s Dallas City Council District 14 race should draw our community into the voting booth in far greater numbers than any prior municipal election. Angela Hunt, the incumbent, announced Feb. 9 that she would run again for her seat. Jim Rogers had previously announced with the stipulation that he would withdraw from the race if Hunt ran.

The Feb. 4 issue of Dallas Voice announced that Erin Lasseter and Victor Franko were also running. I do not know either of them, but I do know the final announced candidate, James Nowlin.

Frankly, I think the race will be between Hunt and Nowlin. They have important commonalities: Both are experienced attorneys, highly analytical, forthright and hardworking.

Their differences are just as striking. Hunt is straight and married; Nowlin is openly gay. Hunt has served three two-year terms; Nowlin would be a fresh face. Hunt considered a run for mayor; Nowlin announced early for the council seat.

And Nowlin is a Stonewaller — a long-time member and former board member of the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas — and a neighborhood activist.

Monday, March 14 is the last day for candidates to file. April 1 is the last day to register to vote or to change your voter registration if you have moved since your card was issued.

What happens in Dallas affects us at least as much as what happens in D.C. Your voice is your vote. So is mine. Let’s speak out loud and proud to assure that our community is heard.

Phyllis Guest
Dallas

—  John Wright

BREAKING: Government seeks emergency stay of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ ruling from appeals court

The U.S. Department of Justice earlier today asked a federal appeals court for an emergency stay of a district judge’s order halting enforcement of “don’t ask don’t tell,” Politico reports.

DOJ attorneys have asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to rule on the request by tonight.

In other words, if you’re gay and you want to enlist in the military, we’d suggest you hurry up and do it.

Here’s the full text of the emergency stay request:

PPM143_101020_dadt_stay

—  John Wright

Attorneys Fight Over Injunction

DONT ASK DONT TELL DADT 201007 X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COMIn the latest legal back-and-forth over “don’t ask, don’t tell,” attorneys for the Log Cabin Republicans have urged a federal judge to reject attempts to keep the policy in place. “The government’s claimed hardship is a red herring,” they wrote.
Advocate.com: Daily News

—  John Wright

Vowels drops 31⁄2-year custody fight

Although courts finally ruled she had standing to bring custody suit, Vowels says continuing the fight would have harmed her daughter


Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

THE LAST WORD  |  Kristie Vowels, seated, watches through tears as her attorney, Michelle May O’Neil, standing left, adds her signature under Vowels’ to paperwork informing the court Vowels is dropping her lawsuit seeking joint custody of the daughter she shared with her former partner. Even though attorney Ashley Russell, standing right, had located a clause in the Texas Family Code that might have helped win, Vowels and her attorneys felt the price of victory would have been too great. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)
THE LAST WORD | Kristie Vowels, seated, watches through tears as her attorney, Michelle May O’Neil, standing left, adds her signature under Vowels’ to paperwork informing the court Vowels is dropping her lawsuit seeking joint custody of the daughter she shared with her former partner. Even though attorney Ashley Russell, standing right, had located a clause in the Texas Family Code that might have helped win, Vowels and her attorneys felt the price of victory would have been too great. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

Kristie Vowels vividly remembers the last day she saw her daughter Meghan. It was the morning of April 24, 2007.

“I took her to school that morning. She had on her khaki shorts, and her black t-shirt and her little black Crocs,” Vowels said.

Meghan was 3 years old then. And Vowels has spent the 3 ½ years since that day fighting for the right to see her daughter again — right up until Friday afternoon, Oct. 8.

That’s when Vowels signed the papers to drop her lawsuit seeking joint custody of her daughter.

“I’m doing this for Meghan,” Vowels said in an interview at her attorney’s office. “I’m doing this because I want to do what’s best for her. I love her enough not to be selfish.”

Vowels and her former partner, Tracy Scourfield, had lived together for several years, since December 1998, when they decided to have a child together.

Scourfield gave birth to their daughter on May 21, 2004, and the couple gave their baby girl both their last names — Scourfield-Vowels.

Vowels and Scourfield ended their relationship a little more than a year later, in August 2005, and Scourfield and Meghan moved out, into an apartment near Vowels’ home. For nearly two years, the two women shared custody of their daughter, with Meghan spending part of her time with Scourfield, and the rest with Vowels.

On Aug. 3, 2006, Scourfield had Meghan’s last name changed to Scourfield. And nine months later, she cut off contact between the little girl and Vowels.  Less than a month later, on May 23, 2007, Vowels filed suit seeking joint custody.

Less than a month after the suit was filed, 302nd Judicial District Court Associate Judge Christine Collie ruled in the case, saying that while Vowels had standing as a “person with substantial past contacts” to sue to adopt the child, she had no standing to sue for custody.

Judge Tena Callahan confirmed Collie’s rulings in November and then again in January 2008, and in April that year, Callahan signed the order, based on a motion by Scourfield, to dismiss the suit.

By the end of April, Vowels had appealed the ruling, but it took a little over a year for the appeals court to issue its decision, finally affirming the dismissal on Aug. 11, 2009. Vowels asked for a rehearing and an en banc review, and on Dec. 1, the appeals court handed down a new ruling, this time in Vowels favor, saying she did, in fact, have legal standing to sue for joint custody.

Scourfield’s motion for a rehearing was denied by the appeals court, as was her appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. And on July 26 this year, the appellate court issued the mandate to return the case to trial court.

Vowels was ready for the next stage of the battle. But she and her attorneys, Michelle May O’Neil and Ashley Russell, knew it would be a hard fight, thanks to legal precedent set in a 2000 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Troxel v. Granville.

In that case, a Washington couple were suing for visitation rights with their dead son’s children. But the Supreme Court ruled that a parent has the constitutional right to rear their children as they see fit, and that to abridge that right, the court had to find the parent unfit.

It is, O’Neil said, a very high standard to meet.

“It’s really hard to disprove the fitness of a parent. Look at Britney Spears and everything she went through, and she was never ruled unfit,” O’Neil said.

Still, there was a chance. In fact, Russell had found a clause in the Texas Family Code that might have even lowered the bar so that Vowels and her attorneys wouldn’t have to try to prove Scourfield unfit to win their case.

To gain standing to sue, Vowels and her attorneys had already proven that she had “actual care, control and possession” of her daughter — through the joint custody arrangement with Scourfield that lasted almost two years — within six months of the date she filed suit.

And then Russell found a clause in the code that said if a parent “relinquishes actual care, control or possession” of a child for six months, that overcomes the presumption of fitness. And the courts had already ruled that Scourfield had relinquished partial control to Vowels over the course of those two years.

It was the chink in Scourfield’s armor, and if Vowels and her attorneys could prevail, it would likely set precedent, O’Neil said.
But, the attorney added, “If we win, what would that look like?”

On Sept. 1, O’Neil met with Scourfield’s attorney to try and reach an agreement that would allow Vowels to see her daughter and end the court battle. After all, Vowels said, “For me, this was never about winning a court case. It was just about being able to see my daughter. That’s all I wanted, to see Meghan.”

But during the meeting with Scourfield’s attorney, O’Neil said, it became blisteringly clear that Scourfield would never settle.

“I tried everything to get him [Scourfield’s attorney] to make a settlement. I hoped that after 3½ years, she would soften some and agree to something. I used every persuasive argument I could think of,” O’Neil said. “But it became painfully obvious to me that no matter what her lawyer thought or said, or what I said or what Kris said, there was never, ever going to be a settlement offer.”

Vowels recalled that day and her conversation with O’Neil.

“Michelle and I walked outside after she met with Tracy’s lawyer and sat down, and I remember her telling me what took place. Then she said, ‘You know Kris, I don’t know if I can win this for you,’” Vowels said. “I was so taken aback. I said, ‘Yes, you can.’”

But O’Neil wasn’t swayed. “I asked her, if we do win, what will that look like? I really wanted her to think about that, about what it meant to keep fighting and what it would mean if we won,” she said.

“We could go through this horrible, protracted fight, and I knew that on every ruling from the judge that didn’t go her way, Tracy would appeal it, all the way to the Supreme Court. If we go through three or six or nine more years of court battles, even if we win everything, what does that really look like? Even if the court gives you custody, will Tracy support your relationship with Meghan? What will it do to Meghan?”

And that was what cemented Vowels’ decision. She and O’Neil set an appointment for later to make the final decision, but Vowels already knew what she had to do.

“I was OK that night. I was OK that next week. But not really,” Vowels said. “Grief was knocking on my heart, and it was knocking hard. I realized that I had been in some phase of grief for 3 ½ years. I hadn’t been living; I had just been functioning. I functioned at a high level, yes, but I had limited myself emotionally.”

O’Neil said Vowels had stayed positive throughout the fight, always putting up a brave front. But she knew the struggle was wearing on her client.

“Every hearing, every meeting, Kristi came to that courthouse thinking, ‘Today’s the day that I’ll get to see Meghan again.’ Every time, even when she knew that it wouldn’t actually happen, she came with that attitude. It was really affecting her ability to just live her life.”

And so Vowels decided to end the fight. With her attorneys standing behind her, as they had done for more than three years, Vowels signed her name with a shaking hand to the papers that would end the case.

It’s been a long, hard battle, but Vowels said she is ready now to move on with her life, even though she will always love her daughter and will always think of herself as Meghan’s mom.

For the two attorneys, who describe themselves as “two straight, white, Republican women with husbands and children,” this case has been life-changing.

“I had just been practicing maybe a year when Kristi came to us with this case,” Russell said. “I was just learning to navigate the family courts system and figure out where everything fit. Then this case came along and blew that all wide open. I realized that there were all these people, all these families and children who don’t fit into these neat little slots made for us by the law.

“This case really heightened the awareness for me that in reality, people are not all treated fairly under the law, and that is not right,” Russell added. “You can only do the best with what you have, but we all have to fight for what is right.”

O’Neil said that she already had an idea of the legal barriers that LGBT people face, thanks to her time as a young lawyer working in the Texas attorney general’s office.

“That was when the attorney general was defending the sodomy statute in the case that eventually went to the Supreme Court,” O’Neil said. “And as a Baylor Baptist bow-head girl, that was a real shock to my system, believe me! But through that, I got exposed to the prejudices so many people are subjected to, and I really learned compassion [LGBT people and the defendants in the case], even though I was defending the statute.

“That experience really broadened my horizons, and I have always since then made it my personal policy that I would never withhold my help from someone just because they were different from me,” O’Neil continued. “And I think it is sad that some [LGBT] people think that there aren’t any [non-gay] lawyers they can rely on. There are prejudiced people, and there are prejudiced attorneys. But that’s not us. It’s sad to think that people might judge us on our orientation.”

O’Neil said she has never had another case like Vowels, which has proven to her yet again that “a child can never have too many people to love them.”

“This case,” she said, “certainly has given us an opportunity to try and make a difference. I believe we have made a difference, and I hope that it will continue to get better for others at least in part because of what we have done.”

While Vowels said she will never close the book on her relationship with her daughter, it is time to start writing a new chapter in her own life.

“I really believe we all have a path to walk. What matters is how you choose to talk that path,” she said. “I could not have gotten through this without Michelle and Ashley, and I couldn’t have gotten through it without my faith in God. My faith is even stronger now, and I think I can be an even better Mom now. I believe that my love for Meghan is what will allow me to open my heart and my life to another child.

“What it all comes down to is that we have created change; we have created opportunities,” Vowels said. “I always say you have to be the change you want to see in the world. That’s what I am trying to do.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 15, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

BREAKING: Government to request stay of injunction halting enfocement of DADT

The U.S. Department of Justice was expected to ask a federal judge on Thursday afternoon to allow the military to continue enforcing “don’t ask don’t tell” pending the government’s appeal of a September ruling declaring the policy unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips issued an injunction Tuesday, Oct. 12 ordering the Department of Defense to halt enforcement of DADT worldwide. In September, Phillips ruled that DADT violates servicemembers’ constitutional rights to free speech and due process.

The DOJ plans to appeal Phillips’ ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and on Thursday government lawyers were expected to request a stay of the injunction pending the appeal, according to The Advocate. The appeal must be filed within 60 days.

If Phillips doesn’t grant their request for a stay, DOJ attorneys likely will ask for an emergency stay from the appeals court.

—  John Wright

Jury selection to start soon in trial of gay teen’s alleged killer

Associated Press

VENTURA, Calif. — A Ventura County judge has ruled that jurors from neighboring Santa Barbara County will be chosen for the upcoming trial of a teen accused of killing a gay classmate.

Superior Court Judge Charles Campbell said Monday, Aug. 23 that the trial of 16-year-old Brandon McInerney will remain in Ventura County. McInerney’s attorneys had been seeking a change of venue.

McInerney is charged with murdering 15-year-old Larry King in February 2008. He is being tried in adult court.

Campbell on Thursday, Aug. 26 will give more details about when jury selection will take place.

—  John Wright

Pro-gay marriage attorneys may move to recover Prop. 8 court costs

Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The lawyers who successfully sued to overturn California’s gay marriage ban are indicating they plan to recover attorney’s fees if the verdict is upheld on appeal.

In papers filed Tuesday, Aug. 17, attorneys for two same-sex couples and the city of San Francisco asked the court to extend a deadline for seeking reimbursement from the losing side. In this case, that would be the groups that put the ban on the 2008 ballot.

Sponsors of Proposition 8 defended the ban in court after California’s governor and attorney general refused to.

Lawyers familiar with scope of the case suggest the dollar amount would be in the millions.

Plaintiffs lawyer Theodore Boutrous Jr. says it makes sense to wait until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides on the Aug. 4 ruling that overturned the ban.

—  John Wright