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Legality of transgender widow's marriage in question.

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NIKKI ARAGUZ (a.k.a.: Justin Graham Purdue)


Texas mom challenges transgender widow's marriage


updated 7/22/2010 8:03:49 PM ET

HOUSTON — The family of a southeast Texas firefighter killed in a July 4 blaze has sued to void his marriage to his transgender widow and prevent her from getting his death benefits because she was born a man and Texas doesn't recognize same-sex marriages.

The attorney for the mother of Thomas Araguz III said Thursday that the firefighter only learned of his wife's gender history and after he found out, he moved out of their home and planned to end the marriage.

But a tearful Nikki Araguz said her marriage was not a fraud.

"I'm absolutely devastated about the loss of my husband. I'm horrified at the horrendous allegations accusing me of fraud. They are absolutely not true," Araguz, 35, told reporters during a brief statement at a news conference.

Thomas Araguz died while battling a blaze at an egg farm in Boling, about 55 miles southwest of Houston. The 11-year veteran of the Wharton Volunteer Fire Department was trapped by falling debris in a burning production building.

In a lawsuit filed July 12 in Wharton County, his mother, Simona Longoria, asked to be appointed administrator of her son's estate and that her son's marriage to Nikki Araguz be voided because the couple were members of the same sex.

According to court documents included as part of the lawsuit, Nikki Araguz was born Justin Graham Purdue and changed her name to Nikki Paige Purdue in February 1996.

Voiding the marriage would prevent Araguz from receiving any insurance or death benefits or property the couple had, with these things only going to her husband's heirs, said Chad Ellis, Longoria's attorney.

A Friday court hearing is planned to determine whether to extend a temporary restraining order granted Longoria that prevents Araguz from receiving insurance or death benefits or having access to bank accounts or property the couple had.

"Nikki is attempting to make a huge money grab," Ellis said.

But Darrell Steidley, one of Araguz's attorneys, said Thomas Araguz was aware his wife had been born a man and that the couple still was living together at the time of his death. The couple had been married for nearly two years.

"We're going to assert her rights as a spouse of a fallen firefighter," Steidley said.

Ellis said his client's efforts to void the marriage are supported by Texas law, specifically a 1999 appeals court ruling that stated chromosomes, not genitals, determine gender.

The ruling upheld a lower court's decision that threw out a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a San Antonio woman, Christie Lee Cavazos Littleton, after her husband's death. The court said that although Littleton had undergone a sex-change operation, she was actually a man, based on her original birth certificate, and therefore her marriage, as well as her wrongful death claim, was invalid.

"The law is clear, you are what you are born as," Ellis said.

While Phyllis Frye, one of Nikki Araguz's attorneys, declined to comment on what role the 1999 appellate ruling will play in her client's case, she said the decision "wrecked a lot of lives."

In April, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office was asked to give a legal opinion in a separate case on an issue connected to the 1999 ruling.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal asked for an opinion on whether the county clerk's office could issue a marriage license to two West Texas women if one of the women, who had previously undergone a sex change, presented a birth certificate that identified her as being born a man.

The West Texas couple didn't wait and went to San Antonio, where Bexar County officials granted them a marriage license, saying they relied on the 1999 ruling. Bexar County has previously issued marriage licenses in similar situations.

Abbott's office has yet to issue an opinion.


Widow was on Jerry Springer

Transgender woman regrets show, defends life


July 27, 2010, 9:43PM

The transgender widow at the center of a court battle focusing on her late firefighter husband's estate apologized Tuesday for her appearance on a tabloid talk show 15 years ago during which she surprised a man who once kissed her with the news that she was born a boy.

Nikki Araguz, 35, expressed deep regret for not telling the man the truth about her gender history upfront and for surprising him with the news during her appearance on the Jerry Springer TV show on Feb. 13, 1995, calling it a mistake she made as an inexperienced teenager. She confirmed her appearance on the show after being questioned by the Chronicle.

"It was a horrible experience for everyone involved," Araguz said Tuesday of the TV show. Of the man who appeared on the program with her, she said, "I need to publicly apologize to him for any embarrassment or any situation I put him in. I am truly sorry for any problems and pain that it caused him then. ... It was something I felt terrible about for a long time."

Araguz, who was born Justin Graham Purdue and later had sex reassignment surgery in October 2008, is fighting to keep her marriage to Wharton Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Thomas Araguz III from being declared invalid in court.

The 30-year-old firefighter died July 4 while fighting an inferno at an egg farm near Boling. Since then, his parents have filed a lawsuit seeking to void their son's marriage to Nikki Araguz and to award all benefits to his two sons, ages 6 and 9, from a prior marriage.

Firefighter's estate frozen

The lawsuit declares Thomas Araguz was unaware of his wife's gender history, though she has argued he knew the truth about her past. His estate remains frozen while the lawsuit is pending in a state district court.

The man who appeared on the Jerry Springer show with Nikki Araguz in 1995 spoke to the Chronicle only on the condition that his name not be published because he said the embarrassment could hurt his employment.

Now 39 and living in Beaumont, he said he was upset by Nikki Araguz's deception 15 years ago and speaking now only out of concern for the late firefighter's children.

The man said he was a 24-year-old University of Texas student in Austin when he came to Houston for a rock concert in November 1994. After the show, he met Nikki Araguz by chance while she was dining at a Houston restaurant.

He said they visited for several hours, kissed and exchanged phone numbers but never had sexual contact.

The man said he had no communication with her until the Jerry Springer show called him two months later, asking him to appear on the TV show in Chicago to hear some news from a woman from his past. He said the show's staff refused to identify the woman.

"I was a poor student back then," he recalled Tuesday. "I thought, 'Chicago, cool.' They flew me in."

While he was on the show, Nikki Araguz appeared and told him she was born a boy. Her demeanor "was almost like tongue in cheek, not remorseful," he recalled.

The man said he kept his cool but chastised Nikki Araguz on camera for being deceitful. The two of them never had contact again.

'It was a big lesson'

Araguz, who was 19 at the time of the incident and received $500 for her appearance on the TV show, called it a mistake.

"Just me being deceptive, appearing at all deceptive, was wrong," she said Tuesday. "It was a big lesson to be honest and upfront."

She said that error does not reflect how she has lived her life since then, insisting she was honest with her first husband of 11 years, whom she later divorced, and made full disclosure about her gender history to Thomas Araguz as well.

"Upfront honesty is the best policy," she said Tuesday. "I never ever did anything like that again. That's not my current character or moral standard."

Araguz said she appeared on four other TV talk shows — two more episodes of Jerry Springer, once on Maury Povich and once on Sally Jessy Raphael — in 1994 and 1995, all focusing on gender issues. Her mother appeared with her on two of the shows.

"I haven't hidden my gender from anybody — hello, I was on five national talk shows. I was not hiding it at all. ... Just because nobody else knew doesn't mean my husband and our close friends did not know."


"Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave."

"...for the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process."

US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D-TX)

Testimony to the House Immigration Subcommittee, February 24, 1995

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