Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Judge rules against death benefits to firefighter’s transgender widow

| »
Thomas (l) and Nikki Araguz (r)
Thomas (l) and Nikki Araguz (r)

Here’s an interesting case: A Texas court has ruled that a deceased firefighter’s widow is ineligible for his death benefits because she’s transgender. This may sound like (what ought to be) an open-and-shut case – ie. get over your bigotry and give her the damn benefits – but the details make it so that I’m actually not sure where I stand on the issue:

WHARTON, Texas – A Wharton County judge on Tuesday declared that a transgender widow’s marriage to a fallen Wharton firefighter was not valid, so she is not eligible for his death benefits.

Ever since Thomas Araguz died fighting a fire at an egg farm last year, his family has been battling his widow, Nikki Araguz, over $600,000 in death benefits.

The firefighter’s family argued that, since Nikki Araguz was born a man, her marriage to Thomas Araguz –under Texas law – was not valid.

The family said the death benefits should go to Thomas Araguz’s two children with his first wife.

But Nikki Araguz has maintained that Thomas Araguz knew about her past as a man, and that their marriage was legal.

Nikki Araguz had sexual reassignment surgery after the marriage. The couple was estranged at the time of Thomas Araguz’s death.

On Tuesday, Judge Randy Clapp said that because Nikki Araguz was born a man, Thomas Araguz was not married on the day he died, and any marriage – formal or informal – is void.

So, Nikki Araguz was legitimately married to Thomas the firefighter, but estranged at the time of his death. She’s a transgender woman, which she asserts Thomas was fully aware of, yet it’s not clear if her identity as a woman is legally recognized in Texas, given Judge Clapp’s ruling and attorney Frank Mann’s claim that “Texas does not recognize a change in gender” (I’d like for someone more knowledgeable about Texas law than I to confirm that). In addition, Nikki only had her sex change operation after marrying Thomas, which means that even if she’s legally a woman now, I presume that she was legally male at the time of the wedding, which would indeed void her union with Thomas, given Texas’s lack of same-sex marriage laws. This is certainly what the judge has seized upon as a basis for his ruling.

Forgetting the legal technicalities, even the ethics of the case can go either way. If Nikki wins, then the benefits go to the widow; but if she loses, then that $600,000 goes straight to Thomas’s kids, so it’s not exactly as if it were being seized by some obscure, non-deserving party.

In the end, I just don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out.

(via Joe. My. God.)