Transgender Widow of TX Firefighter Set for Historic Civil Rights Battle

Transgender widow Nikki Araguz's marriage battle is moving onward to the 13th District Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi, which will hear her marriage case today, September 18.

Araguz is attempting to have the marriage to her late husband, Thomas Araguz III, be recognized by the State of Texas. Araguz will be able to then receive her late husband's death benefits. Thomas Araguz was a volunteer firefighter in Wharton and was killed in the line of duty in 2010.

Araguz is appealing a 2011 ruling by Houston state district Judge Randy Clapp, who ruled that Araguz was born male and Texas' 2005 marriage amendment does not recognize marriages between two persons of the same-sex.

Her 2008 marriage became invalid.

Thomas Araguz's ex-wife, Heather Delgado, then sued to have the marriage declared entirely void so that she would receive widow's benefits instead. Delgado is claiming she needs the benefits to help provide for the two children she had with Thomas.

Houston attorney Kent Rutter — the lead attorney for the appeal — believes Texas law is on the side of Araguz.

Judge Randy Clapp's ruling revolved on a previous trans case, the 1999 Texas Court of Appeals decision in Littleton v. Prange. In that case, the Court found that since a male who transitioned to female was born male, she was therefore still male. Any marriage to another male was therefore invalid because same-sex marriages are not legal in Texas.

Rutter is arguing the Texas Legislature opened the door for transgender marriage in 2009, when members added documentation of a sex change to the identification documents people can present to obtain a marriage license. Rutter says the 2009 statute voids the Littleton ruling.

"It is our belief that under the law of Texas, Nikki Araguz is a woman and she had a valid marriage to a man," says Rutter.

There is also Araguz's birth certificate.

Cristan Williams, director of Houston's Transgender Center, believes the original ruling relied on Littleton and on Araguz's original birth certificate. Araguz was born in California and was originally listed as male on her birth certificate. Since California has more progressive laws on trans rights than Texas, Araguz was able to have her original birth certificate amended before her marriage to indicate that she is actually female.

Williams said Texas records keep an original birth certificate on file even when new ones are issued with changes. But California views some changes as mistakes and amends them, issuing a new original certificate. Therefore, Williams believes Judge Randy Clapp should have recognized Araguz's original California birth certificate that listed her as female. The only original certificate that exists in California, the state where Araguz was born, is one that lists her as female.

Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has declined to weigh in on transgender marriage cases.

In 2010, the El Paso County clerk requested a ruling from Attorney General Abbott about whether to grant a marriage license to a transgender woman and a cisgender woman. Abbott opted not to weigh in, stating he would wait for a final court ruling in the Araguz case.

Abbott's decision could mean good news for trans equality because of the case's wide-reaching significance.

"That means the result of the appeals court could affect the transition status of transgender people throughout the state of Texas," Williams said. "I think that this case is incredibly important not only to transgender people throughout Texas, but transgender people throughout the nation."

After the hearing tomorrow, the court doesn't have a deadline to issue a ruling. Araguz's legal team will review the decision and could appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. The ruling could come within weeks, months, or years. At the moment, the Araguz's legal team is more concerned with the Court getting making a right decision than a quick one.

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