BREAKING: Texas appeals court rules in favor of trans widow Nikki Araguz

Nikki Araguz

Nikki Araguz

CORPUS CHRISTI — The 13th District Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi issued a landmark opinion Thursday in favor of Houston trans widow Nikki Araguz, ruling that Texas must recognize the marriages of trans people.

The opinion, written by Chief Justice Rogelio Valdez, reverses the 2011 ruling by Houston state district Judge Randy Clapp, who ruled that Araguz was born male and Texas’ 2005 marriage amendment doesn’t recognize her marriage to a man. Her 2008 marriage to her late husband, Thomas Araguz III, became invalid. Thomas Araguz was a volunteer firefighter in Wharton and was killed in the line of duty in 2010 and Nikki Araguz was denied his death benefits.

Clapp’s ruling hinged on the 1999 Texas Court of Appeals decision in Littleton v. Prange, which found that since a male who transitioned to female was born male, she was therefore still male. Her marriage to a male was therefore invalid because same-sex marriages are invalid under state law.

But the Texas Legislature opened the door for transgender marriage in 2009 when it added documentation of a sex change to the identification documents people can present to obtain a marriage license. Araguz’s appeal in September hinged on how the 2009 statute voids the Littleton ruling.

Houston attorney Kent Rutter, the lead attorney for the appeal, said the opinion marks the first time in Texas a court has recognized that trans people have the right to marry.

“What the decision today says is Texas law now recognizes that an individual who has had a sex change is eligible to marry a person of the opposite sex,” he said. “I think it’s a significant victory for trans people in Texas.”

Kent said that the ruling will result in further court proceedings to ensure Araguz receives her late husband’s death benefits.

 

—  Dallasvoice

WATCH: Trans widow Nikki Araguz denied marriage license

Picture 17

Transgender widow Nikki Araguz, who plans to marry her fiancé on Wednesday after an appeals court hears her case, was denied a marriage license in Harris County.

Araguz applied late last week and was accompanied by a film crew for a documentary about her story. But Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, after conferring with the Harris County attorney, denied her marriage license application because of Texas’ marriage amendment.

It’s the same argument that lost Araguz her case in 2011, leading to her appeal. A Houston judge said that because she originally identified as male on her California birth certificate, Texas still views her as a male, and recognizing her marriage to her late husband, or now her fiancé, is against Texas law.

“Unfortunately we’re not going to be able to issue this,” Stanart told Araguz.

—  Dallasvoice

Intersex widow Nikki Araguz sues city of Wharton for firefighter husband’s death benefits

This week, Nikki Araguz—the intersex widow of Thomas Araguz III, a Wharton, Texas, firefighter killed during a July 2010 fire at a Boling Maxim egg farm—filed a lawsuit against the city of Wharton so that she may receive his worker’s compensation death benefits.

Although the city of Wharton issued Araguz a legal marriage certificate when she married Thomas Araguz III in August 2008, a November 2011 hearing upheld a May 2011 decision by Judge Randy Clapp of the 329th Judicial District Court which declared Nikki’s marriage invalid because Nikki’s “male” designation on her birth certificate made her marriage to Thomas a same-sex marriage and thus, one not recognized by the state.

Clapp partially based his decision on Littleton v. Prange, a 1999 San Antonio appellate case which ruled that gender is determined at birth and unchangable. However, the 1999 ruling contradicts Section 2.005 of the Texas State Family Code which states that a person may marry anyone as long as they have opposite genders listed on any one of several government-issued documents.

Although listed as a male named Justin Graham Purdue on her birth certificate, Araguz was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS)—a condition in which a newborn “has some or all of the physical characteristics of a woman, despite having the genetic makeup of a man.” Before marrying Thomas, she legally changed her name and gender to female.

Araguz’s lawyers pledged to challenge Clapp’s decision in the Corpus Christi 13th Court of Appeals and even the Supreme Court if necessary, but Araguz’s most recent filing against Wharton is its own standalone case specifically seeking the worker’s compensation death benefits that Wharton usually issues to spouses of deceased employees.

“This isn’t about gay marriage. This is about a man being married to a woman,” Araguz’s attorney Peggy Campbell told Instant Tea. “[The Texas State Family Code] is at conflict with the 1999 ruling and the world has changed so much since 1999. It’s time for the legislature to change the laws so that all transgender people get treated as they should be.”

—  Daniel Villarreal

Araguz gets 50 days in theft case

Nikki Araguz

According to WTAW, Nikki Araguz, the transgender widow fighting for the legitimacy of her marriage in court, was sentenced in an unrelated case to 50 days in jail after pleading guilty to theft. The charge stems from the theft of a Rolex watch last year. Araguz has also paid $2,800 in restitution.

Under a previous plea agreement Araguz would have received 15 days in jail. As previously reported by Houstini, Araguz arrived late to the sentencing hearing scheduled for State District Judge Vanessa Velasquez to sign off on that deal. Velasquez responded to Araguz’s tardiness by delaying sentencing and revoking Araguz’s bond.

Due to a quirk of the Harris County Jail’s booking system Araguz was originally booked into jail under her male birth name. Jails across the country use a “special person number” (SPN) system to track inmates. SPNs are assigned for life and are linked to finger prints. According to Ray Hill, a Houston area LGBT activist who has followed the case closely, when the Harris County booking clerk entered Araguz’s finger prints into the system her SPN from a previous arrest under her male name came up. The Harris County Jail retained that information despite her legal name change. Araguz has since been assigned a new SPN number and her record now correctly identifies her legal name.

Araguz is the widow of Wharton 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. The case is proceeding through the appeals process.

Hopefully Araguz’s sentencing on the theft charge signals the end of this criminal case which has become an unwelcome distraction from the important civil case regarding her marriage. Win or lose Araguz’s fight to defend the validity of her marriage will affect every person in the state of Texas who has changed their legal gender marker. Maybe we, as a community, can now focus on the very real threat to civil rights this case presents.

—  admin

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

Wharton Widow Araguz waits for ruling on appeal

Nikki & Thomas Araguz

Capt. and Mrs. Araguz in happier times

The widow of a Wharton, TX firefighter killed in the line of duty has taken her fight to defend the validity of her marriage to a Houston court room. Nikki Araguz, whose husband Capt. Thomas Araguz died in a July 4, 2010 blaze, lost the first round of her legal battle earlier this year when Wharton Judge Randy Clapp ruled that Mrs. Araguz’s marriage invalid because her original birth certificate identified her as male.

Last week Araguz appeared before Presiding Hearing Officer Jacquelyn Coleman in Houston in hopes of having Judge Clapp’s ruling overturned. The pertinent question in the case is whether Araguz is female, as her current birth certificate, Texas issued driver’s license and other legal identity documents identify her; or male as her now amended original birth certificate identified her. If the appeals court finds that Araguz is legally male then her marriage to Capt. Araguz is invalid under Texas’ constitutional prohibition on marriage equality.

“At stake in this important case are the rights of transsexual people to be respected for who they are and to have their marriages recognized,” said Kent Rutter, the lead attorney for Araguz in the civil rights appeal.

Opposing Mrs. Araguz in court is Capt. Araguz’s ex-wife, Heather Delgado. Delgado sued to have the Araguz’s marriage declaired void so she would recieve widow’s benefits available to surviving spouses of firefighters killed in the line of duty. Delgado claims that she needs the benefits to provide for her two children with Capt. Araguz. Children of fallen firefighters receive separate benefits from surviving spouses including financial support and tuition to Texas state schools. Capt. Araguz’s children receive these benefits regardless of the outcome of Delgado’s suit against Mrs. Araguz.

I am pursuing this case to defend my marriage,” said Araguz.

The court’s ruling is expected before the end of the year.

—  admin

What’s Brewing: Gov. Perry may not speak at day of prayer; trans widow Nikki Araguz files appeal

Nikki Araguz

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. CNN reports that Texas Gov. Rick Perry may not even speak at his own day of prayer on Aug. 6 in Houston. Eric Bearse, a spokesman for the American Family Association, the anti-gay hate group that is funding Perry’s day of prayer, told CNN: “There will be a handful of speakers, in addition to a number of folks leading prayer, plus some time for praise and worship music. … Whether the governor will speak has not yet been decided at this point.” Seems like this could be another example of Perry trying to tone down the religious rhetoric and distance himself from the whackos who’ve endorsed the event.

2. Texas transgender widow Nikki Araguz has appealed a district judge’s ruling denying her death benefits to the 13th Circuit Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi. Araguz also announced that if she wins the case, she’ll deposit the death benefits into a trust fund for her deceased husband’s two children. “I am pursuing this appeal to defend my marriage, not to obtain any financial benefit,” said Araguz. Read the full press release here.

3. A group led by anti-gay El Paso pastor Tom Brown this week filed notice of its intent to recall the mayor and two council members after they voted to reinstate domestic partner benefits for city employees. The group now has 60 days to collect enough signatures — 6,100 for the mayor and 650 each for the two council members — to trigger a recall election. If they are succesful, the recall election would cost the city $150,000, in addition to the cost of holding another election to replace the three if they are recalled.

—  John Wright

Judge denies transgender widow Nikki Araguz’s motion for a new trial — after finally reading it

Judge Randy M. Clapp

Meghan Stabler reports that Wharton County District Judge Randy M. Clapp has denied transgender widow Nikki Araguz’s motion for a new trial.

Stabler, a board member for the Human Rights Campaign who’s been monitoring the case, said even though the motion was filed 10 days ago, Clapp hadn’t read it when he arrived in court for a hearing this morning. Clapp called for a recess so he could read the motion, then returned and promptly dismissed it, Stabler said.

In May, Clapp issued a summary judgment saying Araguz isn’t entitled to death benefits from her husband, fallen volunteer firefighter Thomas Araguz III. Clapp ruled the Araguzes’ marriage was invalid since she was born male.

In light of today’s decision, Araguz’s legal team plans to appeal Clapp’s decision to Texas’ 13th circuit court in Corpus Christ, Stabler said.

Araguz is now being represented jointly by Haynes & Boone, Katine & Nechman, and Frye & Associates.

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Nikki Araguz back in court; SA homeless shelter allegedly refuses gay support

Nikki Araguz

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. Transgender widow Nikki Araguz will be back in court today for a hearing on her motion for a new trial. Wharton County District Judge Randy Clapp ruled in May that Araguz isn’t entitled to death benefits from her husband, fallen firefighter Thomas Araguz III. Clapp ruled that the Araguzes’ marriage was invalid because Nikki Araguz was born male. Araguz has a new legal team and has vowed to appeal her case — which could have major implications for transgender rights — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

2. A homeless shelter in San Antonio is accused of refusing to accept donations from Pride San Antonio because it is a gay event. The shelter, Haven for Hope, also declined a public visit from recording artist Martha Wash, an advocate for the homeless who performed at Pride. In an email responding to the allegations, Haven for Hope CEO George Block told QSanAntonio that the shelter tries “to refrain from publicly aligning ourselves with any particular religious, political or special interest group.” Block added: “Like most public rallies, a Gay Pride Block Party will attract ardent supporters & equally ardent detractors. Since we serve both groups and rely on donations from both groups, it would be our preference to host Ms. Wash for a personal tour of campus, rather than participate in a public event.”

3. The Houston Chronicle gets some reaction to the release of Jon Buice, who’s been granted parole after serving 20 years for the brutal murder of gay banker Paul Broussard in 1991. The Chronicle’s headline says, “Gay community mixed over killer’s parole,” but the story identifies only one member of the community who believes Buice should be released — Ray Hill. Noel Freeman, president of the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, says the group voted to oppose Buice’s release. And Broussard’s mother says she fears Buice is still dangerous.

—  John Wright

Araguz vows to take fight to the Supreme Court

WEDDING DAY | A firefighter Thomas Araguz III and Nikki Araguz were married in 2008. After Thomas was killed in the line of duty last year, his family and ex-wife went to court to keep Nikki from getting his benefits, saying the marriage was invalid because Nikki was born a male.

Trans widow hires law firm involved with Lawrence v. Texas to appeal ruling denying her access to death benefits from her husband

JOHN WRIGHT |  Online Editor
wright@dallasvoice.com

HOUSTON — Transgender widow Nikki Araguz this week announced a new legal team and vowed to appeal a judge’s ruling denying her death benefits all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Araguz said the Houston firm of Katine & Nechman, which served as local counsel in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case that led to a Supreme Court ruling overturning Texas’ sodomy law, will represent her on appeal.

In late May, State District Judge Randy Clapp of Wharton County issued a two-page ruling saying Araguz isn’t entitled to death benefits from her husband Thomas Araguz III, a volunteer firefighter who was killed in the line of duty last year.

Clapp 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, and Texas prohibits same-sex marriage.

Nikki Araguz, who until now has been represented by Frye & Associations, said she expects Katine & Nechman will partner with national LGBT advocacy groups on the appeal.

Araguz said she chose to switch law firms because the high-profile case could have broad implications for transgender equality, possibly addressing fundamental legal questions about how gender is determined.

“I think that collaborating with multiple national organizations’ legal teams, and the Supreme Court experience of Mitchell Katine, is the better way to go for the greater good of everyone who’s going to be affected by the outcome of this case,” Araguz said this week in an interview with Dallas Voice.

Phyllis Frye, the well-known transgender attorney who heads Frye & Associates, didn’t respond to a phone message seeking comment.

A representative from Katine & Nechman confirmed that the firm is likely to take the case but said any further comment would have to come from partner Mitchell Katine, who couldn’t immediately be reached.

Ken Upton, a Dallas-based senior staff attorney for the national LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, agreed that Araguz’s case could be an important one for the transgender community.

Upton said he believes Clapp should have at least granted Araguz a trial.

“If they’ve got any evidence at all, the rule is they should get to go to trial and prove their case,” Upton said. “The judge really gave her short shrift.”

In their motion for summary judgment, Thomas Araguz’s family cited a San Antonio appellate court’s 1999 ruling in Littleton v. Prange, which found that sex is determined at birth and cannot be changed.

Araguz’s attorneys, meanwhile, argued that the Littleton decision is unconstitutional and isn’t binding on courts in other parts of Texas. They also noted that in 2009 the Legislature added a court order of sex change to the list of documents that can be used to obtain marriage licenses in Texas — effectively overturning the Littleton decision.

South Texas College of Law professor James W. Paulsen, a Harvard-educated expert in family and marriage law, submitted a written affidavit in which he argued that even if the Araguzes’ marriage was void when it was celebrated in 2008, it became valid when the 2009 law took effect.

“Proper resolution of this case does not require this court to take a position on transsexual marriage,” Paulsen wrote. “Nor would such a determination be proper. The issue has been determined by the Texas Legislature.”

Also submitting a written affidavit was Collier Cole, a licensed clinical psychologist and a professor at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston who specializes in the treatment of gender dysphoria. Cole said Araguz, now 36, began hormone therapy at 18 and, according to medical standards, completed her transition sometime in the late 1990s, even though she didn’t have surgery until 2008. Cole concluded that, “I regard her [Araguz] medically and psychologically as female.”

But Judge Clapp chose not to address any of these arguments in his order granting summary judgment. Araguz, who has a Texas driver’s license and a California birth certificate indicating that she is female, said she was born with a birth defect.

“The doctors misidentified me at birth as male, and as I grew up, I developed into a female, and by 13 I had already developed breasts,” Araguz said. “It was not until much later that I was able to medically take care of it.

“It’s a birth defect like an extra toe or an extra finger,” she said. “If you had the option to have it removed, you would.”

FIGHTING ALL THE WAY | Trans widow Nikki Araguz, pictured here with her late husband Thomas, says she will fight all the way to the Supreme Court.

—  John Wright