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Nikki Araguz vs. The State


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.

Nikki's health declined, and, in 2000, she was diagnosed with AIDS and put on social security disability (Nikki now has an undetectable viral load). She was selling advertising for local magazines, but Emilio lost his job and the couple filed for bankruptcy in 2002. Their attorney was Frank Mann III, a high school friend of Emilio's who would later re-enter Nikki's life with devastating effects. The couple lost their house in Houston and moved in with Emilio's parents in the small farming town of Wharton, about 45 minutes away. They brought their vices with them.

Nikki racked up arrests for failure to identify herself to a peace officer, misdemeanor theft, felony theft, DWI, felony possession of a controlled substance, and passing bad checks. In 2000, she and Emilio went to a flea market drunk and high on pills. They put an antique chair worth $1,500 in Nikki's Jeep and drove away. Nikki, who was already on probation for a DWI, was arrested and sentenced to seven months incarceration. The problem was where to put her.

'They strip-search you,' Nikki says. 'There I was, with my birth defect and my breasts. They put me with the men. My nails had just been done and were the same color orange as the jail uniform.' When she showered, the jailers gathered and watched.

'There were straight men, gays, and drag queens on my floor,' Nikki says. 'I paid people to protect me. I'd cry all day long. It was the most traumatic experience of my life.'

Nikki was paroled after three months. Upon release, she and Emilio sought treatment and sobered up. Nikki began taking classes to be a chemical dependency counselor. One night, she woke up to find Emilio smoking crack in the living room. She left him for six months and returned to her parents' house in Houston. She reunited with Emilio and relapsed. In 2007, Nikki was arrested in Wharton for cocaine possession. This time, she was held in the women's population for two weeks. Her cell was furnished with cable TV and a bible. She credits this incarceration with turning her life around. 'I found God,' she says. 'I read the bible to inmates through the door. When I got out, I told Emilio I was leaving.' Their divorce was finalized in October 2007.

In the span of three months, Nikki was paroled, split from her husband, became a born-again Christian, and met Thomas Araguz III. She was waiting in the park to meet Emilio, and was struck by the handsome trucker and volunteer firefighter as he strolled by with his two sons. She later met Thomas at church and, after services, he asked her to lunch. Their rapport was instant.

Thomas didn't drink and had never done drugs. Nikki saw him as an escape. A few days later, she met up with Thomas for the talk. She told him about the 'birth defect.' She also told him about the HIV, which, after the bombshell of the initial revelation, never seemed to bother anyone. Afterward, they had sex.

A few weeks later, she made dinner for Thomas and his sons -- almond-crusted pork, green beans, mashed potatoes. As she was doing the dishes, Thomas whispered in her ear, 'I think I'm falling in love with you.' Nikki said, 'I'm falling in love with you, too.' They moved in together.

But Nikki saw another side of Thomas about a year into their courtship. She says he beat her. 'Every relationship has their issues,' she says. 'Over four years, there were six volatile arguments. Every time, he would seek counsel with the pastor.'

Thomas proposed to Nikki on a rented sailboat circled by dolphins in Galveston Bay. They married on August 23, 2008, and honeymooned in Galveston the week before a hurricane ravaged the Texas town. Two months later, Nikki went to Trinidad, Colo., for reassignment surgery. 'The next morning I had all of this gauze and packing,' Nikki says, 'but I was like, Wow! I was able to look into the mirror naked. This is how I should have been born.' She is glad she waited until she was 33 to have the procedure. 'If I hadn't, I would have been a real whore. I was unfaithful during my first marriage. I was willing to be committed to Thomas.' But Thomas hadn't come clean with his family. Some were told that Nikki had a hysterectomy, others that she was having treatment for blood cancer.

Thomas wanted the first time Nikki 'lost her virginity' to be special, so they had a second honeymoon at L'Auberge du Lac resort in Louisiana, where they played golf, had massages, and gambled. 'We made love, and I had orgasms all through my body. It was the first time my body matched my mind, and I was freed.'

Nikki started a magazine, Wharton County Living. She worked so that Thomas could quit his job and be a full-time fireman. As her profile in the community rose, Nikki thought the next logical move for her was to be mayor -- she was eager to improve her beloved adopted hometown.

'I said, 'Are you nuts?' ' Sheri says. 'They are going to search your background and will find everything. But there has never been a time in her life where you could tell her not to do something.'

During the election season, Heather Delagado, Thomas's first wife, wanted to adjust visitation and child support. Delgado equally split custody with Thomas and felt like Nikki was overstepping her boundaries. 'She was making appointments for the children without discussing it with me,' Delgado says. 'I tried to maintain a cordial relationship with Nikki for the sake of the children.'Nikki tried to initiate confrontations.'

Delgado had heard rumors. 'Nikki's transgender status was urban legend in Wharton,' she says.'Delgado hired Frank Mann III, the lawyer who handled Nikki and Emilio's bankruptcy case. He knew everything there was to know about Nikki. He also had a vested interest in Wharton politics'his father and grandfather served in various city positions. Mann has had a colorful relationship with the State Bar of Texas. In 1990, for professional misconduct, he was suspended for 5 years from practicing law (2 1/2 of those years an active suspension, the remaining probated). In 1997, he was actively suspended for another three years after his paralegal was caught forging signatures, with three more years on probated suspension. In 2006, he was convicted of a DWI.

On the cusp of the mayoral election, April 28, 2010, a custody deposition was held in family court. Nikki maintains that she and Thomas had agreed to lie if her transgender status was broached, fearing it would affect his visitation rights. Nikki submitted to Mann's questioning first. It was a volatile exchange. He slid a copy of Nikki's birth certificate across the table -- Delgado had obtained it and other medical records from a friend who worked at the health clinic where Nikki had been a patient. Mann discussed her gender, brought up each charge on her rap sheet, and revealed her HIV status. When Thomas was called to the stand, he denied knowing anything about Nikki's criminal history, her gender, or her HIV infection.

After the depositions, Mann sent out a mass email that read in part: 'Nikki Araguz is running for Mayor of Wharton. The General Election is this Saturday'.Nikki Purdue Araguz is the stepmother in a case of mine, and she gave testimony that she is a transgender. Her birth certificate states that she is a male. She'is HIV positive and is on probation in Wharton County for possession of a controlled substance.' (Mann didn't return messages left with his office for comment. Nikki filed an ethics complaint with the State Bar of Texas, who declined to pursue it.)

Nikki garnered 30% of the vote, but lost the election, the fallout wrecking the life she had created in Wharton. Her magazine quickly folded when advertisers backed out. Her personal relationships were in tatters -- some friends didn't want to be associated with her, while others were hurt that she kept it a secret from them. Her marriage also came under severe pressure, although she and Thomas decided to work through it and signed a lease on a new house in town.

On Thomas's 30th birthday, the couple relaxed at home and made love. The next day, they went to the courthouse for the verdict on the child custody dispute. Nikki and Thomas considered it a victory when the judge gave Delgado just one more day per week. They left the courthouse in Nikki's car with Thomas driving. He rammed into the curb so hard it popped the tire and dented the wheel. 'He told me he had three of my Klonopin,' Nikki says. 'He had no business driving.' They replaced the tire and returned home. Nikki went to the insurance office to discuss the accident. While waiting to speak to an agent she looked out the window and saw Thomas drive by. She ran out and followed him in her car -- and he turned around and rammed her car with his truck. Nikki called 911, and the police met them at their home, but Thomas knew the officers from the academy and charges weren't filed.

Nikki and Thomas needed time apart, and she took the opportunity to drive to her birthplace, California. It was time to finally change her birth certificate.

After 14 hours behind the wheel, Nikki checked into her hotel in New Mexico. She awoke at 4 a.m. to resume her trip and logged onto Facebook. There were posts on her wall that read 'My thoughts and prayers are with you.' Her friend Amanda called and told her to come home but wouldn't give a reason. Amanda eventually admitted, 'Thomas went into a fire at 11 o'clock last night and hasn't come out. They can't find him.'

'I was a fireman's wife,' Nikki says. 'I knew what that meant.' Thomas's company had responded to a four-alarm blaze at an egg production plant in Boling. (The state fire marshal would later declare that the command erred by sending him into an empty building.) When Nikki got to the Wharton Fire Department, they had found his body and had taken it to Austin for an autopsy.

On July 11, crowds lined the streets of Wharton to bid farewell to Thomas. Nikki read a poem from a card he had given her, and his father and a high school friend also gave eulogies. When Nikki sat down, the fire chief knelt in front of her and gave her Thomas's posthumous medal of valor and the folded Texas state flag that had been draped over his coffin at the viewing. Nikki says that Thomas's family ignored her and, contrary to earlier plans, took a separate car to the burial.

The day after the funeral, Nikki was served with the lawsuit to void her marriage and cut her out of the insurance payoff. Nikki received $60,000 from a policy designated to her, but the others (totaling about $600,000) didn't name a beneficiary. The money would be split between her and Thomas's sons, or it would all go to the children if the marriage was voided. Heather Delgado says that the suit was initiated by Thomas's mother. 'Ms. Longoria filed the lawsuit after Nikki began to remove valuables and personal effects from the residence,' says Delgado.

Nikki resumed her quest for an amended birth certificate. 'It seemed more important than ever,' she says. 'That was what they were attacking me on.' She called the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco and got on the next flight. The Center prepared the paperwork and escorted her to the courthouse. What might have taken six months happened in four days. Nikki was now deemed female on her birth certificate.

When she returned to the hotel, Nikki met the next man in her life in the lobby. Frank Mabry VI was a tall, handsome, and imposingly built 31-year-old going to school for solar power panel installation. 'We were drawn to each other,' Nikki says. 'I was a grieving widow in a city by myself.' Mabry became her lover and de facto bodyguard. 'The fourth day we were hanging out,' Nikki says, 'my phone rang. It was ABC, CBS, FOX, asking me to do satellite interviews. This is two weeks after my husband died. I was in shock and couldn't do it by myself. Frank went with me to each interview.'

Nikki retained Phyllis Frye -- who identifies as transgender and is a trans pioneer'as her attorney. The trial was months away, but the fight began in the press. Nikki's criminal history and HIV status were discussed. The attorneys for Thomas's family insisted that he didn't know Nikki was transgender, and that she had kept it a secret from him even after they were married. The family court deposition was cited as evidence.

Attorney Chad Ellis represented Thomas's mother, Simona Longoria. 'Nikki has been hiding this from guys for a long time,' he says. 'It's not an easy thing to do, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. Thomas knew something, but did he know the day he got married that his wife had a fully functional penis? I don't think so.'

Cristan Williams, executive director of Houston's Transgender Foundation of America, joined Nikki's fight. 'The transgender person is at a disadvantage in the media,' Williams says. 'There is the assumption that they are inherently dishonest. The idea that Thomas and Nikki lived together prior to marriage, had a wedding night, and continued to live together, but Thomas didn't know that she was preoperative is absurd. Spend 10 seconds thinking about it. The media gobbled it up. That evil tranny tricked this poor hero. That is how it was sold.'

Frank visited Nikki in Texas and escorted her to court hearings. She went to California to see him and decided to stay. 'I ran away from the nightmare in Texas,' she says. Nikki and Frank got an apartment together in Walnut Creek. By this point, she was going broke and had pawned her wedding ring and all her jewelry. 'I was taken advantage of by everyone around me,' she says of what happened to the bulk of the insurance policy she had received. Nikki says one friend stole about $9,500 from her in checks and cash. Another swindled her after pretending to channel Thomas's spirit.

On a weekend trip to Lake Tahoe, Calif., Nikki and Frank almost got married at a chapel. But Nikki decided it wasn't a good idea in the middle of litigation.

In January 2011, Frank's easygoing demeanor shifted. 'He seemed like he had multiple personalities,' Nikki says. 'He would refer to himself by other names. One was 'Bones,' a bare-knuckle boxer from Detroit. The other was a gangster named 'The Phoenix.' ' On February 8, Frank ran down the street nude into traffic. He was held by the police for 24 hours. When Nikki picked him up from the station on February 9, he was wearing a paper smock. After they got home that evening, Frank grabbed Nikki's phone and car keys from the table. Nikki chased after him, but Frank pushed her away and drove off. She went back inside and got in bed. When she awoke in the morning, Frank hadn't returned. According to eyewitnesses, at around 2:15 a.m., Frank was speeding, ran multiple red lights, and plowed into another vehicle. Nikki's car was totaled and the other driver, 57-year-old Leonid Stoliarov, was killed. Frank was charged with vehicular manslaughter.

Nikki slingshot back to Houston. 'In eight months, my husband died and my boyfriend killed somebody in my car,' she says. 'I was a hot fucking mess. I was no longer a private citizen. I was Nikki Araguz.' She couch-surfed before moving in with high school pal Erica Brown. 'Erica and her daughter gave me a family again,' Nikki says. 'The most devastating part, aside from Thomas being dead, was losing the children. I keep loving other people's kids, and they keep being taken from me.'

The case against Nikki Araguz was reduced elementally. Whether or not Thomas knew about her being transgender (as was initially alleged), her criminal history, and the highs and lows of her marriage were beside the point.

'Her criminal history is irrelevant to the validity of her relationship,' says Lisa Graybill, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

The question that remained in the eyes of the prosecution was whether Nikki was male or female at the time of her marriage -- since Texas law doesn't permit same-sex marriages. For the defense, Nikki was female, despite being preoperative at the time -- she had lived her life as a woman with hormone treatments. For the prosecution, not only was Nikki male at the time, but still is, despite reassignment surgery.

A key issue was how the judge would interpret the 2009 Texas Family Code amendment that states, 'a court order relating to the applicant's'sex change' is sufficient to merit a marriage license. Nikki's valid California birth certificate was reissued after Thomas's death. When a California birth certificate is changed, the original is void, and through constitutional full faith and credit, states must recognize each other's legal documents. But this is an era where recognition of same-sex marriages varies from state to state. As such, the copy of Nikki's voided birth certificate was allowed into evidence, as well as her legal one.

The prosecuting attorneys assert that the case was not about transgender rights. 'It's no different than if Nikki was an alleged common-law spouse trying to get the benefits,' says Heather Delgado's co-counsel, Ed Burwell. 'The fact that she's transgender from the purposes of our role in the litigation was incidental.'

'Simona Longoria is not on a crusade to end transsexuals' ability to marry the person of their choosing,' says her attorney, Chad Ellis. 'She cares about making sure her grandchildren get their dad's benefits. We were trying to litigate a probate matter. We ran into a cause.' Ellis, however, admits that his firm received a grant from right-wing organization Alliance Defense Fund to aid in the case.

On May 26, 2011, Judge Randy Clapp declared Nikki and Thomas Araguz's marriage void. Clapp cited as precedent 1999's Littleton v. Prange, which states that gender is ascribed solely chromosomally, and that, therefore, there could never be a valid sex change. That case began when male-to-female Christie Littleton sued the doctor for malpractice after her husband died in surgery. The decision made her lawsuit moot, stating that Littleton had never been married in the first place. (Littleton's attorney was Phyllis Frye.)

The Littleton opinion reads: 'Her female anatomy, however, is all man-made. The body that Christie inhabits is a male body'there are many fine metaphysical arguments lurking about here'But courts are wise not to wander too far into the misty fields of sociological philosophy. Matters of the heart do not always fit neatly within the narrowly defined perimeters of statutes, or even existing social mores.'

'Our understanding has evolved,' Graybill says. 'Gender identity is a complex matter not limited to chromosomes and biology. Nikki Araguz is a woman.'

The Littleton opinion was coupled with 2005's Article 1, Section 32 amendment to the Texas constitution, which states that marriage is between a man and a woman. But what about the amendment that allows a marriage license based on sex change documentation? The laws all say different things, and it was up to the judge to interpret them.

'When it comes to cases involving transgender people, judges don't always follow logic, or even the law, to decide the outcome,' says Paisley Currah, author of The United States of Gender and political science professor at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. 'It's not a surprise to see judges making decisions from their guts'instead of wading through lengthy scientific explanations about gender identity or the mutability of physical sex characteristics. Araguz's otherness as a transgender woman was no match for the claims of a traditional family, even if it was no longer intact.'

'The ruling,' says Nikki, 'was like a punch to the stomach.'

Later in the week, after her church visit, Nikki is eating eggs and toast at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. She is wearing glasses, sweatpants, and a baseball cap decorated with sparkling rhinestones patterned into a cross. Nikki is trying her hand at online dating. So she doesn't have to explain her existence repeatedly, she sends a link to her website. Her philosophy: If potential suitors can handle it, cool. If not, it's their loss. Nikki wants to marry again one day. 'I'm a nester like there's no tomorrow,' she says.

The day after the verdict, May 25, Nikki was brought up on charges for stealing a Rolex valued at $2,850 from a woman at a bar (the incident allegedly took place in February). According to the police report, a pawnshop owner confirmed that Nikki brought in a watch matching the description. On her Facebook page Nikki wrote that a man had given her a Rolex. 'I can't comment,' she says. 'I feel targeted. It's a load of shit.'

On June 24, a motion for a new trial was filed in the estate case. Two powerful Houston firms signed up pro bono as co-counsel, along with Phyllis Frye. 'We are fighting for the rights of Nikki Araguz and all transgender people,' says Mitchell Katine of Katine & Nechman, L.L.P. At the July 6 hearing, Judge Clapp denied Nikki's motion, saying, 'I have already made up my mind. It would be a waste of time.' When court was adjourned, Nikki yelled, 'Shame on you! My husband loved me and chose to marry me!' and stormed out.

On July 18, Nikki filed an appeal with the 13th District Court of Appeals. That same week, she announced that if she received an insurance settlement for the case, after legal fees, the proceeds would be put into a trust for Thomas's children. 'I'm tired of people saying I'm doing this for the money,' Nikki says. 'Fuck it. I took care of them when Thomas was alive, and I'll help take care of them now.'

Nikki didn't rest after the judgment. She visited Frank Mabry in jail (his charge was upped to second-degree murder), and then Christie Littleton, whose court battle echoed her own. 'Being busy distracts me from having to deal with the pain,' Nikki says. 'If I don't keep swimming, I will sink.' She went to Los Angeles for meetings about a possible book deal and a TV movie before heading back to Houston to join a float in the city's Pride parade.

'This is my new normal,' Nikki muses, 'the activism and the storytelling of my life. I don't know what kind of regular job I would do that wouldn't surround being'' Nikki pauses, smiles, and says, ' 'Nikki Araguz, the transsexual widow.' '

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