Despite targeted challenges, time (and public opinion) is on the side of equality in Texas
Published: June 29, 2011
Who can and can’t marry in Texas? Some GOP lawmakers came to Austin this year shocked to find that, despite the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, a law they passed in 2009 actually validated transgender unions. Representative Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Senator Tommy Williams of Houston drafted proposals in the 82nd Lege that sought to end the practice, introducing bills that would have prohibited county clerks from granting marriage licenses when given a court order recognizing sex-change operations. While the attempts to invalidate transgender marriages were beaten back amid adamant protests from LGBT groups, transgender unions remain anything but certain in Texas.
The 2009 law stands in apparent contrast with a 1999 Texas appeals court ruling that says, for marriage purposes at least, you can’t change your gender — an opinion handed down by former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger, then-Chief Justice of the state’s Fourth Court of Appeals.
The El Paso County Clerk’s office last year noted the confusion after Sabrina Hill, a transgender woman born with both male and female genitalia but identified as male on her birth certificate, sought to marry another woman. When the El Paso County Attorney’s office asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to issue an opinion on the matter, he declined and instead deferred to the case of Nikki Araguz, a transgender Wharton County woman. A state district judge last month invalidated her marriage, citing the 1999 appeals court ruling that prevents Araguz from receiving death benefits from her firefighter husband who died battling a blaze last year. “This is the kind of thing that’s rough, that’s scary for the whole trans community,” Lauryn Farris, a local transgender woman, said of the Araguz case. While the proposal to change the 2009 law infuriated LGBT advocates, “Invalidating [Araguz’s marriage] was also like a devastating blow of hatred to us,” she said.
Araguz has said she’ll appeal the judge’s ruling, and a spokesman for the AG’s office said it won’t touch the issue of transgender unions while there’s ongoing litigation.
Aaron Laughner, a local transgender man, married his wife Zabrina a year and a half ago in Iowa, and said uncertainty in the law hangs over the heads of transgender couples statewide. “I’m afraid this is going to result in huge custody battles in the future,” he said. “I’m afraid you’re going to end up with families that are torn apart, kids that are taken away from parents who raised them, and more battles over pension benefits.”
Bexar County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff said that when faced with transgender couples, he relies on the 1999 appeals court ruling. “Hardberger declared that you are what you are by the Creator,” he said, “I follow that.”