Transgender Widow of Texas Firefighter Wins Appeal

Nikki Araquz Loyd has been denied her husband's death benefits because she was born a male.

Feb. 14--SAN ANTONIO -- A transgender Texas woman who has been fighting for years in court to gain rights to her late husband's estate, counted a decision by an appeals court Thursday as a victory.

On grounds that their union was same-sex, and thus not recognized by state law, Nikki Araguz Loyd was denied benefits by the 329th District Court in Wharton County after her husband, Thomas Trevino Araguz III, a firefighter, died in the line of duty. She will now get another chance to litigate the case in a state district courtroom, the 13th Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

"The day before Valentine's Day, to have my love recognized with my late husband, but protected with my current husband, feels really good," said Loyd, who has remarried. "I couldn't be more excited. This is the first time in Texas history that Texas courts have acknowledged that trans people have a right to be married."

Ken Rutter, one of several attorneys representing Loyd, said the opinion issued by the court equated to a step in the right direction.

"Their decision recognizes a transgendered woman is a woman, and in Texas she's entitled to marry a man," he said.

Messages left for attorneys representing Heather Delgado, Araguz's ex-wife, and Simona Longoria, his mother, were not returned Thursday afternoon.

Araguz and Loyd married in August 2008. He died in July 2010, fighting a blaze at an egg farm in Wharton, a small town of about 9,000 an hour west of Houston.

Delgado and Longoria filed suit shortly after Araguz's death, seeking to void Loyd's right to his $600,000 estate on grounds that she was born a male -- making the union a direct violation of the state's ban on same-sex marriage.

Loyd had genital reassignment surgery about two months after she and Araguz were married. His ex-wife and mother argued in their suit, and publicly to media, that he was "conned" into the marriage, something Loyd has adamantly denied.

In a 26-page opinion written by Chief Justice Rogelio Valdez and released Thursday, the three-judge panel concluded that the "trial court erred in granting the summary judgment because there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding Nikki's sex and whether the marriage was a same-sex marriage."

In their filing, Delgado and Longoria cited a 1999 ruling by the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio, in which former Chief Justice Phil Hardberger wrote that Texas law doesn't recognize sex changes.

That case centered on whether Christie Lee Littleton, who was born with male genitals and later had reassignment surgery, had a valid marriage to Jonathan Mark Littleton, which would have entitled her to surviving spouse benefits under the state's wrongful death statute. The trial court declared she did not. The Fourth Court of Appeals failed to make a unanimous ruling, but two of the three agreed with the trial court.

The 13th Couth of Appeals ruling Thursday dismissed that argument, stating, "Heather (Delgado) and Simona (Longoria) relied extensively, if not exclusively, on the Littleton decision as authority for their motions for summary judgment. Yet, even if Littleton was correct at the time it was decided in 1999, it is possible that the legal landscape has changed since then. And in fact, it has."

The ruling continued, citing the 2009 amendment to the family code passed by the state legislature, that deemed "an original or certified copy of a court order related to the applicant's name change or sex change," could be used to obtain a marriage license.

The opinion concluded that, "in sum we hold that Texas law recognizes that an individual who has had a 'sex change' is eligible to marry a person of the opposite sex. For these reasons, we conclude that the trial court's summary judgment in this case cannot be affirmed based on Littleton because Littleton has been legislatively overruled."

Rutter said it's too early to know when the district court may take the issue up again, adding that he and his team still are "reading and analyzing" the opinion of the 13th Court of Appeals and strategizing how best to move forward.

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