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

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

Transsexual widow Nikki Araguz to appeal Texas judge’s decision declaring her marriage invalid

Nikki Araguz

Transsexual widow Nikki Araguz plans to appeal a state district judge’s ruling last week declaring her marriage invalid and denying her death benefits from her husband.

Judge Randy Clapp, of the 329th Judicial District Court in Wharton County, ruled May 24 that Nikki Araguz is not entitled to death benefits from Thomas Araguz, a volunteer firefighter who was killed in the line of duty last year.

Clapp declared the Araguzes’ marriage invalid because he said Nikki Araguz was born male and Texas law prohibits same-sex marriage.

In a press release sent out this afternoon, Nikki Araguz’s attorneys, Frye and Associates, announced that they plan to appeal Clapp’s decision to the 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi “in a timely manner.”

Nikki Araguz also issued her own press release, saying she is “completely devastated” by Clapp’s ruling and providing background about her marriage and the court case.

We’ve posted both press releases in their entirety after the jump.

—  John Wright

Nikki Araguz faces theft charge

dead firefighter's transgender wife
Nikki Araguz

Nikki Araguz, the transsexual widow from Wharton who’s fighting to receive death benefits from her late husband, faces a felony theft charge for allegedly stealing a Rolex watch valued at $2,850 in February.

On Tuesday, a state district judge ruled that Araguz is not entitled to death benefits from volunteer firefighter Thomas Araguz, who was killed in the line of duty last year. In a setback for transgender equality, the judge said the Araguzes’ marriage was not valid because Nikki Araguz was born a man.

While she was awaiting the judge’s ruling in the death benefits case, Nikki Araguz was arraigned on the felony theft charges last week, according to KHOU:

According to court documents filed by the Harris County District Attorney’s office, Araguz posted $2,000 bond May 18. The allegations date back to February when a woman claims she was “drugged” shortly after meeting Araguz and another woman, and that when she woke up, her expensive Rolex watch was gone. The watch is valued at $2,850.

Prosecutors say Araguz denied being involved in theft. But the employee of a Houston pawn shop testified that on March 1, Araguz came into his store trying to pawn a Rolex watch.

A court appearance on the theft allegation is scheduled for next month.

—  John Wright

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

Trans widow Nikki Araguz is looking for a few good men — to date on her new reality show

Nikki Araguz

Cressandra Thibodeaux, a Houston-based filmmaker, sends along word that she’s partnering with transgender widow Nikki Araguz on a reality show called, Being Nikki.

Araguz, of course, made international news for her battle to receive death benefits after her husband, volunteer firefighter Thomas Araguz, died in the line of duty last year.

Thomas Araguz’s family sued Nikki Araguz in an effort to prevent her from receiving death benefits, arguing that their marriage wasn’t valid because she is transgender. And the case led to a bill in the Texas Senate aimed at barring transgender people from marrying people of the opposite sex, which sparked another round of media coverage.

But back to Being Nikki, which, according to Thibodeaux, will offer viewers “an honest, up-close and personal view at real life complexities of being a transsexual in this modern age.”

“Nikki has overcome many obstacles through her experiences, and is thoroughly comfortable with who she is,” Thibodeaux writes. “During the show you will get to see what dating is like for Nikki and getting a glimpse into her day-to-day life. As we move towards a transparent society, Nikki is looking for someone with whom to share her life, honestly, fully, and deeply.”

Specifically, the show is looking for contestants in the form of “single men willing to date the beautiful, dynamic, smart and driven woman — Nikki Araguz. We are looking for college-educated, physically fit, handsome men – a sense of humor is a must.”

The deadline for applications is July 1. For more, email info@beingnikki.com.

—  John Wright

Do e-mails, witness statement prove that Nikki Araguz’s husband knew she was transgender?

As Nikki Araguz continues her battle to receive death benefits, lawyers for the transgender widow have asked that the lawsuit against her be dismissed. On Monday, they released copies of e-mails between Nikki and Thomas Araguz written on the day of her transition surgery, Oct. 7, 2008. The e-mails appear to refute claims by Araguz’s family that Thomas Araguz didn’t know his wife was transgender.

The e-mails said:

Thomas Araguz: “What can i say to make you feel better? The only thing I known (sic) is ‘I LOVE YOU.’ Trevor and Tyler miss you dearly, they love you with all their little heats. (sic) Today has been a hell of day, would you agree? After taking (sic) to you, I called my mother and law (sic) to let her known (sic) the good news, about your opt. An (sic) you know she spead (sick) the good news all the world. HEY I TO GO I A HOUSE FIRE. ILU”

Nikki Araguz: “My sweet husband, I LOVE YOU. It has been a day heck and also God answered prayers. I love you so much. We can now move on with the rest of our livrs (sic)…I just got this thing to work somehow and the pain lady came in and gave me morphine…si I am fading fast. You are my best friend, and Praise God fro (sic) you…this is wild that little thing is gone…I think I am supposed to see it for the first timr (sic) tomorrow….Imiss my boys too…Have a great day at school tomorrow…Love you sweet wife, Mrs. Nikki Araguz”

Read more here from FoxNews.com. Also, the Houston Chronicle reports that the Transgender Foundation of America released a statement from a woman who says she saw Thomas Araguz accompany Nikki to an appointment at a transgender clinic in 2007.

The parents and ex-wife of Thomas Araguz, a volunteer firefighter in Wharton who died while battling a blaze last month, have taken Nikki to court, saying that Thomas never knew Nikki was transgender and that their marriage was not valid. They want all of his $600,000 estate to go to his parents, ex-wife and his two sons from his first marriage.

The family argues that the marriage between Thomas and Nikki was never valid, whether Thomas knew she was trans or not, because Texas law considers Nikki a man, despite the transition, and the state does not recognize same-sex marriage. Nikki’s attorney, Phyllis Frye, however, points to a change in state law that took effect last year that recognizes a sex-change as a form of identification to get a marriage license. Frye says that Thomas and Nikki had, at the very least, a legally recognized common-law marriage.

David Woods, who writes as the “Houston Libertarian Examiner” on Examiner.com, says he has a way to settle the matter. Consider the marriage a contract between Thomas and Nikki, and keep the government out of it altogether.

He writes, in part:

“When it comes down to it, ‘marriage’ is all about love, sex, and romance. What in the world is the State of Texas doing regulating love, sex, and romance? Shouldn’t that be between the partners and God (or if they don’t believe in God, then just between the partners)? Why do politicians, bureaucrats, and judges need to enter this picture?

“One might answer that a marriage partnership does have legal ramifications because it is also a legal contract involving matters such as property dissolution, survivor benefits, and medical decisions. Ok, good point. After all, the enforcement of contracts is a legitimate function of government.

“But there should be no difference between a ‘marriage’ contract, and any other kind of contract, regardless of the relationship between the parties or the reason for the contract. A contract is a contract is a contract, as far as the government is concerned. The word ‘marriage’ is irrelevant and immaterial, and should be stricken from any legal document or statute.

“So, if two (or more) people want to ‘marry,’ that’s their personal business, not the state’s. If they choose to sign a legal contract, the courts will honor it, but keep the word ‘marriage’ out of the discussion. And when we change the law to reflect this simple concept, then courtroom fights such as Mrs. Araguz’s will be history.”

Now, I would say there could still be some conflict and court cases if, as in the case, one party (the family) claims that another party (Nikki Araguz) wasn’t honest and tricked the other person into signing the contract under a false pretense. Still, I think Mr. Woods has the right idea: If marriage is “sacred” and people oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds, then take the government out of the marriage business.

—  admin