Nikki Araguz vs. The State

8.16.2011

By William Van Meter

Her childhood began in a welter of sexual confusion and ended when she was raped and infected with HIV. But the biggest fight of this fiesty Texan’s life is taking place in the courts, in a frontline battle for transgender rights that is reverberating through the nation.

Nikki Araguz is attending services at the same small-town Texas church where she married her husband, Thomas, and spoke at his funeral two years later. She has only been back a few times since he died on July 4, 2010. Most members of the congregation are dressed casually -- khakis with button-downs, and some T-shirts. Nikki looks radiant in a diaphanous blue and violet silk paisley sundress with dangling turquoise earrings. Her skin is tanned from a day at the pool, her chestnut hair is pulled back, and a tattooed daisy is visible on her upper back. 'I will find my strength in the shadow of your wings,' Nikki sings along, slowly swaying with her eyes closed.

The interior of Grace Community Fellowship in Needville, about an hour outside Houston, looks like a hotel conference room. The wall-to-wall carpet is hospital-scrub green. Conjoined folding chairs serve as pews. A demure wood cross and two fake potted ferns with artificial ivy sparely decorate the altar. When the song ends, Nikki motions her head at a woman and whispers, 'She was one of my best friends, but after this shit went down she doesn't speak to me.'

Projected on a large screen above the altar is John 10:1'6: 'The man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber.' As the pastor sermonizes, Nikki pulls mementos of her life with Thomas out of her Bible case. She exhales loudly as she skims a love letter he wrote on yellow legal paper and a crayon-scrawled we love nikki note from his sons. These are artifacts of a marriage that never happened, at least in the eyes of the law.

Nikki was born male 36 years ago as Justin Graham Purdue but transitioned to female. Thomas's ex-wife and the mother of his two young sons, Heather Delgado, and his mother, Simona Longoria, sued to void Thomas and Nikki's marriage, alleging that Nikki was male at the time of the ceremony. At stake were life insurance policies totaling about $600,000. Since Thomas didn't leave a will, the sum would have been divided between his sons and Nikki. Delgado and Longoria argued that all the money should go to the children. On May 26, the 329th District Court of Wharton County, Texas, voided the marriage.

The pastor's blonde wife half sings, half preaches, 'Layin' in the water, the holy spirit! Feel his presence begin to flow over you!' A woman passes out cold in rapture. Those behind her gently lower her down to the aisle floor. 'That happened to me before,' Nikki says. 'You just become released and this energy takes over your body.'

The case against Nikki Araguz has moved beyond a simple estate matter. The media circus reached national proportions last year with a 20/20 episode in October. 'The case is about the right of individuals to marry whom they wish,' says her co-counsel Mitchell Katine, 'and the transgender community's gender identity to be legitimate.' As the case climbs to the appellate level, it will have impact on the rights of gender-variant individuals in Texas. If it goes beyond the appeals courts, it could have national ramifications.

'I never imagined I wouldn't have equal rights,' Nikki says. 'I was a white girl in Texas. Nothing in my mind said I would be discriminated against.' Nikki neither wanted nor asked to be an exemplar for trans people. 'It wasn't until this year that I was owning the word 'transsexual.' I never would have described myself as transgender. I was Nikki. I was a person. I don't want anybody to have to go through this.' Nikki's life has been a series of transformations, not just her gender. The case triggered her latest metamorphosis: Today, she sees herself as a born-again activist.

After church, Nikki goes to an outdoor caf' in Houston's Montrose district, where she tells a story that is as nuanced and complex as the case against her.

When Chris and Sheri Purdue brought Justin Graham Purdue into the world on June 4, 1975, in Carmel, Calif., they already had a two-year-old son, Gary. Both children were left fatherless seven months later when Chris, an Army specialist, was killed in a car accident. Sheri moved the family to suburban Houston and met her second husband, Chuck Bockelman, a schoolteacher. The Bockelmans soon had a daughter, Vanessa.

Sheri is one of nine siblings, and there were many physical abnormalities in her family. Her mother and a sister had double reproductive systems and one kidney. A brother had four toes and a shortened foot. Another male had breasts removed as a teenager.

Sheri worked in advertising for a department store, and Justin, who was unmistakably feminine, modeled for some of its newspaper ads. She often received compliments about her 'pretty daughter,' she says. 'There was something different, and it was accepted in the household. We didn't know what to call it. We had never heard of transgender, gender dysphoria, or transsexual. It didn't matter if my child was blue with 15 arms. How could you not love your child?'

'My parents raised us with unconditional love,' says Nikki. 'I learned to be proud of myself. I wasn't treated any different, though people saw me turning into a little girl more and more every year.' The elementary school wasn't as sympathetic. 'The school counselor tried to have Nikki sit on her hands to control talking with them,' Sheri says. 'They did everything they could to change her behavior . That wasn't going to work.'

Justin attended a performing arts middle school and thrived. 'By the middle of the year, I was the most popular kid in school,' Nikki says. His look leaned toward the androgynous, with longer hair, glasses, and oversized sweaters.

'With most trans people, there is a noticeable shift,' Nikki says. 'With me, it was progression. I developed breasts by 13 with no hormones. I was told I was a boy, but I felt like a girl. Everyone thought I was a girl. And now I had breasts.'

'Her voice never changed,' Sheri says. 'She had no Adam's apple, no male characteristics.' Except, that is, for a penis, though even today Nikki still can't muster the word; instead, she refers to it as a 'birth defect.'

When Justin was 13, he was raped in the restroom at his mom's department store. 'I thought it was my fault,' Nikki says. 'I looked and acted like a girl, and I was in the boy's bathroom. He ripped me. I bled for two weeks. I didn't tell anybody.'

Justin returned to the public system for high school. 'One of the first days, I was walking down the hall and I hear these guys talking and one says, 'Damn, she has a hot ass.' I was like, Fuck, they're going to hear that I'm Justin.'

Erica Brown was part of Nikki's circle. 'I would consider us the artsy people,' she says. 'The girls we hung out with were gorgeous. We weren't the Barbies or cheerleaders or on dance team, but we were popular, into alternative music. Nikki didn't want to make a spectacle of herself.'

Outside of school was another story. Justin would leave home dressed androgynously and change in the car. There was suddenly a new girl named Britney in the Houston club scene. But the name changed every so often. 'I would say, 'OK, guys, what name should I use tonight?' ' Nikki recalls. 'My friend said, 'Be Nikki, like Madonna's backup singer.' That name stuck.'

By her senior year, Nikki was wearing makeup and women's clothing to class. 'I had this great group of friends who accepted me for who I was,' she says. 'I was being me. Fuck you if you don't like it.'

The rape that haunted Nikki turned out to have long-term physical ramifications. In 1993, Nikki had an HIV test and the results came back positive'the rape had been Nikki's only sexual encounter at that point. She told her parents, 'I have HIV and don't want to talk about it again unless I bring it up.' This was the pre-protease inhibitor cocktail era, and a diagnosis of HIV was viewed as a death sentence. It triggered a downward fugue. Until the second semester of her senior year, Nikki had been an honor-roll student. She began skipping classes, prompting the principal to suggest that she leave and take a high school equivalency exam, which she did.

'I was scared I'd be dead by 20,' Nikki admits. 'I did a lot of drugs. I had a lot of attention and immediate acceptance in gay clubs. To hook up with boys, I'd go to straight bars.' She met her first boyfriend and moved in with him. His roommates discovered Nikki's secret when they went through her purse and found her ID. But that isn't what ended their relationship. 'He cheated on me with an uglier version of me,' she says.

Nikki moved back to her parents' and was watching The Jerry Springer Show one morning. She remembers the message she left for its producers: 'I was born a little boy but am clearly a woman.' Two days later, she was in Chicago taping. Supported by two friends, she pretended that it was the first time she had revealed her secret. 'She made a total fool of herself and embarrassed the family,' Sheri says. 'It had such high ratings -- of course they wanted her to come back.'

On the next show, Sheri appeared with Nikki, who revealed she had HIV. 'They had several other transgender people,' Sheri says. 'I was the only parent.' Nikki made a third Springer appearance and rounded out the talk-show circuit with spots on The Maury Povich Show and The Sally Jessy Raphael Show.

At 19, Nikki began HIV medication and hormones. In February 1996, at 20, she legally changed her name to 'Nikki Paige Purdue,' but her driver's license still listed her as male. When Nikki visited an aunt in Kansas, she went to the DMV to switch her license. As she hoped, the employee thought there had been a mistake on the Texas ID and changed the sex to female.

Nikki worked in a shoe store in the mall and was frequently picked up by customers. Emilio Mata was 18 years her senior, an executive with a phone company and recently divorced with a four-year-old daughter. He was also a recovering drug and alcohol addict. After a few dates, Nikki told him she was born male. He didn't believe her at first, and then didn't care. 'A lot of people wanted to sleep with me for some kind of sexual experiment,' Nikki says. But Emilio was different.

The couple dated for three years and married in October 1999 -- Nikki only had to show her driver's license to receive the marriage permit. She wanted reassignment surgery but says Emilio didn't want her to'that he feared she'd leave him for another man if she went through with it.

The marriage soon fell into dysfunction. Emilio relapsed, and Nikki's substance abuse got out of control. About a year after their wedding, they moved across the street from Nikki's parents. 'We got to see the fall of their marriage,' Sheri says. 'It was devastating to watch.'

'It was self-destructive,' Nikki says. 'We loved each other but were misguided. We began to delve into a darker lifestyle and do things that were not choices we would have made sober. I was dealing with a body issue that seemed like it would never be resolved. There were periods of addiction -- benzodiazepines, cocaine, severe alcoholism.'

Nikki says she balanced addiction with being a cheerleader mom for Emilio's daughter, Maggie. 'I managed to divide my personality,' she says. 'We didn't do drugs around Maggie. On one hand, I was a wild party girl, and on the other, I'd cook dinner and take the child to school. The Girl Scouts would have freaked if they'd known they had a transsexual troop leader.' It is unclear if Nikki's former stepdaughter agrees; the two no longer speak.

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