Trans man wins first round in divorce battle

Judge declines to void marriage between Robertson, Scott in case that could set precedent, but wife’s lawyer downplays significance

Trans

WINNING ROUND 1 | Attorney Eric Gormly, right, says Judge Lori Chrisman Hockett’s decision to deny a motion to void the marriage between trans man James Allan Scott, left, and his wife Rebecca Louise Robertson is, as far as he knows, “the first time any Texas court has ruled that a transsexual man who marries a biological woman is in a legitimate marriage.” (John Wright/Dallas Voice)

JOHN WRIGHT  |  Senior Political Writer
wright@dallasvoice.com

When Rebecca Louise Robertson and James Allan Scott married in Dallas in 1998, Robertson was well aware and fully supportive of Scott’s status as a transgender man, court records indicate.

But when the couple split up after 12 years in 2010, Robertson sought to have their marriage declared void — based on the fact that Scott was born a biological female, and Texas law prohibits same-sex marriage.

Last week, a Dallas County district judge rejected Robertson’s motion for a summary judgment in the case, declining to void the marriage and allowing the matter to proceed as a divorce.

Attorney Eric Gormly, who represents Scott, said if the judge had declared the marriage void, it would have prevented his client, who’s physically disabled, from obtaining a fair division of the couple’s property.

Gormly, who specializes in LGBT law, called the ruling from Judge Lori Chrisman Hockett a significant victory for transgender equality in Texas.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time any Texas court has ruled that a transsexual man who marries a biological woman is in a legitimate marriage,” Gormly said.

Unsettled law

The issue of transgender marriage has made headlines in Texas of late, thanks in large part to the case of Nikki Araguz.

Araguz, a transgender woman, is waging a high-profile fight to receive death benefits from her late husband, Thomas Araguz III, a volunteer firefighter who was killed in the line of duty last year.

In May, a district judge in Wharton County ruled against Nikki Araguz. The judge granted summary judgment to Thomas Araguz’s family, which filed a lawsuit alleging that the couple’s 2008 marriage is void because Nikki Araguz was born a man.

Nikki Araguz has appealed the decision, and LGBT advocates believe Hockett’s ruling in the Dallas case could help the transgender widow’s cause.

In both cases, motions seeking to have the marriages declared void relied heavily on a San Antonio appeals court’s 1999 ruling in Littleton v. Prange, which found that gender is determined at birth and cannot be changed.

However, critics argue that the Littleton decision is unconstitutional and isn’t binding in other parts of Texas.

In response to the Araguz case, a bill was introduced in the Texas Legislature this year to ban transgender marriage. The bill would have removed proof of a sex change from the list of documents that can be used to obtain marriage licenses. Strongly opposed by LGBT advocates, it cleared a Senate committee but never made it to the floor.

Meanwhile, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who recently intervened in two same-sex divorce cases to try to block them, has thus far stayed out of the fray over transgender marriage.

After a transgender woman and a cisgender woman applied for a marriage license in 2010, the El Paso County clerk requested a ruling from Abbott about whether to grant it. But Abbott opted not to weigh in, with his office saying it would instead wait for court rulings in the Araguz case. The couple was later able to marry in San Antonio, where the county clerk went by Littleton v. Prange.

A spokesman for Abbott’s office didn’t return a phone call seeking comment this week about Hockett’s ruling in the Dallas case. But Gormly said he’d welcome the challenge if Abbott chooses to intervene.

“Bring it on,” Gormly said. “Let him give it his best shot. … I’ve got to think that Greg Abbott has more important issues to deal with.”

Attorney Thomas A. Nicol, a divorce specialist who represents Robertson, said he’s already notified the AG’s office about Hockett’s ruling.

“I think certainly the attorney general, if it wants, can certainly jump in and say they have standing because it appears the statute is not being followed,” Nicol said.

He called Hockett’s ruling “disappointing” but downplayed its significance.

Nicol said for his motion to be denied, Gormly needed to show only that one material fact was in dispute. Hockett provided no explanation in her one-page ruling dated Nov. 21, and Nicol said he now expects the judge to fully address the transgender marriage issue at trial.

“It’s hardly groundbreaking,” Nicols said of Hockett’s denial of summary judgment, which cannot be appealed. “It’s a non-event except for these two litigants, so I’m a little bit surprised that press releases were issued at this stage of the game, because nothing’s happened yet.”

From house-husband to activist

This coming weekend, the 57-year-old Scott will move out of a five-bedroom, 3,200-square foot house in Cedar Hill — and into a small rental cottage. Scott is being evicted after the house, which the couple built together in 2001, went into foreclosure.

Scott, who’s disabled from scoliosis, said he was a faithful “house husband” — he did the grocery shopping, took care of the dogs and provided emotional support — while Robertson worked as a radiologist at the Dallas VA Medical Center. “The only thing I didn’t do was cook,” Scott said.

Scott and Gormly allege that in July 2010, Robertson opened a personal bank account and cut him off from the couple’s funds.

“After 12 years of marriage, she basically was trying to shove him overboard without a life jacket and sail off with her new boyfriend,” Gormly said.

After Robertson filed to declare the marriage void in September 2010, Scott filed a counter petition for divorce in February. In June, Robertson filed her motion for summary judgment.

Gormly said the divorce likely would have been final six months ago if it hadn’t been for the transgender marriage issue. Instead, both parties have racked up tens of thousands of dollars worth of legal bills.

Scott said the case is about money.

“She stands to inherit a good deal of money that she doesn’t want me to get my hands on,” he said. “I didn’t marry her for money. I married her because I loved her. I just want what I would have gotten in a regular divorce.”

Scott said he’s known he was transgender since an early age. In high school he cross-dressed and dated girls. He jokes that he kept waiting for a penis to grow and was disappointed when his mother told him he needed to start wearing a shirt after he developed breasts.

In 1998, months before he married Robertson, Scott had his breasts and ovaries removed. At the time the couple had already been together for 10 years.

Scott also obtained a birth certificate from his native Iowa identifying him as male. The only transitional step Scott hasn’t undertaken is a phalloplasty — an expensive, imperfect and dangerous procedure for female-to-male transsexuals.

Scott, who sports a full beard and mustache thanks to hormone therapy, said no one except his doctor’s office knew he was transgender during the time the couple lived together in Cedar Hill. He acknowledges this will change now, but says the case is about more than just him now.

“Most importantly if it keep kids from killing themselves because they’re different — that doesn’t need to be,” Scott said.

“I’m fully aware that after this case comes out in the press, I could be threatened, but at the moment it seems minor compared to what my wife has done to me,” he added. “It’s about equality for everyone.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 2, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Charges dismissed in raid of gay bathhouse

JOHN WRIGHT  |  Online Editor
wright@dallasvoice.com

Charges have been dismissed against most of the 11 men arrested for engaging in sex acts during a Dallas Police Department raid of The Club Dallas in October.

The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office confirmed this week that it dismissed charges against at least six of the men earlier this month. Defense attorneys for the men said they expected charges to be dismissed against the others soon.

DA  Craig Watkins didn’t elaborate on why his office chose not to prosecute the cases, citing the fact that charges against at least one of the men had not yet been dismissed.

“Due to the fact that these cases are so closely related, commenting on the dismissed cases would affect the prosecution of the pending case,” Watkins said in a statement.

David Hill, a defense attorney who represents nine of the 11 men, said charges were dismissed over questions about whether The Club Dallas is defined as a public place under Texas law. Seven of the men were charged with public lewdness, three were charged with indecent exposure, and one was charged with interfering with police.

“The issue relates to whether it’s a public versus private location, so you can imagine that the decisions and the conversations I had with them [prosecutors] hinged on that element,” Hill said Wednesday, Jan. 19. “After reviewing the cases, the District Attorney’s Office made a determination that it was in the best interest of justice to dismiss the cases.”

Hill commended the District Attorney’s Office for its decision. “They were willing to take the time to look at these cases with an open mind and make a determination after having done that,” he said.

Asked whether it’s safe for people to go to the gay bathhouses, Hill said he was reluctant to offer broad legal advice. “I think everyone has to make their own decision about their own personal conduct, but I would think that the decision regarding these cases would give people some comfort about that,” Hill said. “I don’t begin to assume what DPD is going to do in the future, but I would think the fact that the cases were filed, and the result that’s come about in this case, I’m sure they have other things they’d rather spend their resources on than purusing cases that may or may not get prosecuted.”

Neither DPD Chief David Brown nor LGBT liaison officer Laura Martin responded to requests for comment.

DPD’s vice unit has said it conducted the raid in response to a citizen complaint.

A co-owner of The Club Dallas declined to comment on the dismissal of the charges.

—  John Wright

Schoolteacher arrested in 2008 shooting death of partner

Vaughn told police Judy Bell was shot by an intruder, but police say Vaughn was a suspect all along

John Wright  |  Online Editor wright@dallasvoice.com

Seidah Muhammad Vaughn

CEDAR HILL — Few details emerged this week about what may have led a woman to fatally shoot her lesbian partner in this suburb south of Dallas in 2008, or how authorities finally linked her to the crime three years later.

Seidah Muhammad Vaughn, 41, was arrested Monday, Dec. 6, on a charge of first-degree murder in the February 2007 murder of her partner, Judy Marie Bell, 34.

After being taken into custody at the high school where she teaches in Oklahoma City, Vaughn waived extradition and was brought Tuesday to the Dallas County jail, where she was being held on $500,000 bond.

Vaughn called 911 in the early morning hours of Feb. 29, 2008, and said an intruder had shot Bell in the Cedar Hill home they shared. But there were no signs of forced entry, and authorities never believed Vaughn’s story.

“She’s always been a person of interest, and our detectives have actually kept up with her location over the years because of that,” said Corky Brown, a spokesman for the city of Cedar Hill. “Recently, they came across some information that gave them what they were looking for.”

Brown declined to elaborate and said the motive for the crime remained unknown.

“We don’t typically try them [cases] in the public,” Brown said. “The idea is to get the information to the district attorney and let them try the case.”

Marshall McCallum, the assistant Dallas County district attorney assigned to the case, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons said court records contained no additional information because the case was referred by a grand jury.

According to media reports, both Vaughn and Bell taught at Permenter Middle School in Cedar Hill at the time of the murder. They’d lived together for four years.

Bell was a special education teacher and basketball coach. Vaughn taught English and language arts.

Bell’s 10-year-old son and three of Vaughn’s children — ages 11-20 — were in the home sleeping at the time of the shooting.

Vaughn began teaching in Oklahoma City in February 2009.  Bell’s son now lives with his father in Houston.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 10, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Pearland police say there’s no reason to believe murdered teen Joshua Wilkerson was gay

Hermilo Moralez

Pearland police say they have no reason to believe 18-year-old murder victim Joshua Wilkerson was gay — despite suspect Hermilo Moralez’s claim that Wilkerson made a sexual advance toward him.

Moralez, 19, is charged with murder in the death of Wilkerson, whose partially burned body was found Thursday in an overgrown field.

According to court records, Moralez told Pearland police the pair fought after Wilkerson “began to come on to him in a sexual manner.” But Lt. Oneismo Lopez, a spokesman for the Pearland Police Department, told Instant Tea on Monday that detectives have found no evidence to support Moralez’s claim.

“There’s no indication that he was anything but straight right now,” Lopez said of Wilkerson, adding that detectives have interviewed Wilkerson’s family, friends and some former girlfriends. “What it comes down to, they talked to a couple of girls that he was intimate with. … They did not get any indication that he was gay at all. He [Moralez] probably made it up to minimize his own responsibility, to try to put it off on Joshua.”

If anything, Lopez said, it’s possible that Moralez made a sexual advance toward Wilkerson, although detectives haven’t been able to confirm this.

“We’re looking at all possibilities, and that’s one of them,” Lopez said, adding that the motive for the murder is still unknown.

Services for Wilkerson were held this morning in Houston.

Moralez remains in the Brazoria County jail, charged with murder, failure to identify himself by giving false information to an officer, attempting to take a weapon from an officer and tampering with evidence.

Federal immigration officials have also placed a hold on Moralez, a native of Belize who came to the U.S. 11 years ago. Lopez said no further information was available about Moralez’s immigration status.

“I know that usually when they put a hold on someone like that, that means the person is here illegally,” Lopez said. “We’re not exactly sure what his status is.”

—  John Wright

Thanks to our gay district clerk, you can now access Dallas County court files online

Gary Fitzsimmons

Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons sends word that public access to court records is now available online.

“Until now, only docket information has been available to the public on the Dallas County website,” said Fitzsimmons. “Now, pending documents in seven District Civil courts, eight Felony courts, all Family court documents from 2003 to present, and one County Court at Law can be viewed. Documents from the remaining courts will be available by the end of the year.”

“We now have now one digital County Court at Law,” said County Clerk John Warren.

Fitzsimmons has made technological innovation a priority in his administration. He began by implementing an e-filing system that delivers original petitions, motions and other court documents electronically.

He said his office ensured that sensitive information, especially documents involving children, remains secure.

“Other types of information may also be limited through the use of a redaction request form consistent with the law we have provided on our website,” Fitzsimmons said.

—  David Taffet