Araguz booking raises questions about Harris County jail’s treatment of transgender inmates

Judge Vanessa Valasquez

Judge Vanessa Valasquez

According to the Houston Chronicle, Nikki Araguz has been booked into the Harris County Jain after arriving 40 minutes late for a scheduled court appearance on Friday. The court date was to allow Araguz to plead guilty to charges that she stole a watch from an acquaintance last year. Under the proposed plea bargain Araguz would have paid $2,600 in restitution and served 15 days in county jail. State District Judge Vanessa Velasquez, a Republican first appointed to the bench by Gov. Rick Perry, responded to Araguz’ apologies for her tardiness with “It’s too late for sorry,” ordering bailiffs to escort her to a hold cell next to the courtroom.

Araguz is the widow of firefighter Capt. Thomas Araguz who died in the line of duty last year. Capt. Araguz’s ex-wife and mother have sued to claim the portion of his survivor’s benefits reserved for the spouses of slain firefighters, claiming that since Nikki Araguz was identified as male at birth the marriage was invalid under Texas’ laws prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriage. Mrs. Araguz’s birth certificate identifies her as female, as does her state issued identification.

Araguz’s booking has raised questions about the Harris County’s treatment of transgender detainees. The Sheriff Department’s Public Information Inquiry System listed Araguz using her male birth name on Friday. They have since removed the name from the site’s searchable database but have retained the record, listing it under the department’s “special person number” (SPN) filing system. The SPN record includes Araguz’s birth name. The Sheriff’s office has not returned calls from Houstini asking why the department is not using Araguz’s legal name and if this is common practice.

According to a friend who has visited Araguz at the jail her identity bracelet correctly identifies her gender as “F” – but reflects Araguz’s birth name, not her legal name. Araguz is segregated from the general jail population, but can receive visitors during regular visiting hours.

Araguz will remain in the Harris County Jail until Jan 25 when she is scheduled to appear again before Judge Velasquez.

—  admin

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

Hearing today on bill aimed at preventing transgender people in Texas from marrying

dead firefighter's transgender wife
Nikki Araguz

A bill that would prevent some transgender people in Texas from obtaining marriage licenses will be heard by a Senate committee this afternoon.

The bill is an apparent response to the case of Nikki Araguz, the transgender widow from Wharton County. Araguz was sued by the family of her husband, a firefighter who was killed in the line of duty, to prevent her from obtaining death benefits.

Senate Bill 723, by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, would remove a court order of sex change from the list of identifitying documents that can be presented to obtain marriage licenses in Texas.

The Transgender Education Network of Texas sent out an alert this morning asking people to call the members of the Senate Committee on Jurisprudence and urge them to kill the bill in committee. The committee members can be reached at 512-463-4630. The hearing begins at 1:30 p.m. and can be viewed live here. Here are instructions for calling from TENT:

IDENTIFY: yourself by name, any organization you represent, and town from which you are calling
EXPLAIN: “I am calling to oppose Senate Bill: SB 723 as it is an injustice to trans identified people in the state of Texas” Be polite and concise, concentrate on 1 or 2 talking points you wish to make.
REQUEST: A written response to your phone call.
THANK: the person who took the phone call for their time and consideration.
Repeat for each member of the committee
In the Austin area: Go by the Senate Committee on Jurisprudence meeting on Tuesday, March 22, 2011 at 1:30 pm room 2E.20 (Betty King Cmte. Rm.) of the Capitol and submit a testimony card AGAINST SB 723.

 

—  John Wright

Texas Transgender Summit attendees on Nikki Araguz case: Littleton v. Prange is bunk

Dozens of individuals and organizations meeting at the Second Annual Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit in Houston issued a joint statement Thursday on the Nikki Araguz case. In case you missed it, Araguz is the transgender widow of firefighter Thomas Araguz III, who died in the line of duty earlier this month. Thomas Araguz’s is family is suing Nikki Araguz in an effort to prevent her from receiving death benefits, alleging that the marriage was invalid. Below is the full text of the statement. For a list of signatories, go here.

HOUSTON, Texas (July 22, 2010) — We, the attendees of the Second Annual Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit, issue this statement to demonstrate our support for Mrs. Nikki Araguz and to call attention to her plight and that of all transgender people in the state of Texas.

Mrs. Nikki Araguz legally married a man, and her marriage has been recognized under the laws of the state of Texas. Nikki’s husband, a fireman in Wharton County, tragically was killed in the line of duty, and now other parties are attempting to use the courts to have her marriage legally overturned in an effort to deny her inheritance and insurance.

These parties are claiming that Nikki is not legally a woman under Texas law. Nikki’s opponents are attempting to use an obscure Texas case, Littleton v. Prange (1999), to declare that her marriage should be invalid. The Littleton case says that a person’s gender is determined by chromosomes, not physical attributes. The Littleton case was decided to deny a transgender woman her right to bring a wrongful death suit on behalf of her husband — even though Littleton had legally changed her gender and had been legally married in Texas.

The Littleton case was wrongfully decided at the time, and if taken literally stands for the proposition that a transgender person cannot marry anyone, of either gender, under Texas law. Clearly, this is wrong. Denying anyone the right to marry whom they love is a violation of the most basic freedoms under our laws. To deny the validity of an existing, legal marriage, after one of the spouses has died, as justification for the redistribution of inheritance and insurance, is abhorrent to the values of common decency, fair play, and justice that most Texans hold dear.

We, the attendees of this Summit, extend our heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Araguz, and call for the swift dismissal of this lawsuit so that Mrs. Araguz may be left to mourn her loss in private without distraction or worry for her financial stability.

If necessary, we also call for the courts to consider the Littleton case superseded by the recent changes to the Texas Family Code that recognize a court ordered gender change as definitive proof of identity.

Sadly, discrimination against people because of either their gender identity or expression is common. There are few laws in the state of Texas to address this need. The purpose of our Summit is to find ways to help people confront and overcome the issues now facing all transgender people in Texas and, tragically, Mrs. Nikki Araguz.

—  John Wright