Tuesday, July 20, 2010

when is a widow not a widow

Nikki and Thomas Araguz married in early 2008 in Wharton, a town near Houston, TX. He had been working as a volunteer firefighter and studying to become an EMT. Nikki, his wife, who was born in California but had lived in Harris County, TX for the last 10 years, owned and ran a local free newspaper. They had originally connected with each other at their church. Thomas, who was previously divorced, shared custody of his two sons who lived with him and Nikki part time. Thomas was also a long time member of the Wharton volunteer fire department and, on July 4, 2010, he and many firefighters were involved battling a huge blaze at the Maxim Egg Farm in Boling, TX. Thomas died when he was trapped inside a burning structure.

Sainted widow
The initial media coverage of his death and of his widow was, as might be expected, highly respectful of someone who perished serving his community:
The firefighter's funeral was full of loved ones finding it difficult to say goodbye, including the 30-year-old man's wife.

"I admired your commitment in what you believe is right, respect your willingness to work hard, appreciate your strength and kindness and love the fun we had together. I can't imagine wanting to share a secret, a little dream or a silly laugh with anyone as much as I do with him. Thomas your love has a home in my heart," said his widow, Nikki Araguz at the funeral.
KTRK, the Houston ABC news affiliate said the following on July 12, 2010:
Araguz was an 11-year veteran of the Wharton Fire Department. But more than that, he was a husband and father of two.
"He was first a father, a wonderful husband, son, brother, friend," said his wife, Nikki Araguz.
A change in the wind
This coverage changed when on July 17, the El Campo Leader-News, the largest paper in Wharton County, ran a story about the Araguzes:
A lawsuit filed Monday seeks to dissolve the marriage of the Wharton volunteer firefighter who died battling the Maxim Egg Farm blaze, on the grounds his wife, Nikki, used to be a man.

Simona Rodriguez Longoria, mother of the late Capt. Thomas Araguz III, and Heather Delgado, Araguz’s ex-wife, both filed court documents after his July 3 death, stating he did not know his wife was a man. Longoria filed July 12; Delgado July 14. The suit, filed in Wharton County’s 329th District Court, also sought a temporary restraining order freezing all of the couple’s assets, a request granted by District Judge Randy Clapp that same day.

According to the parent's and ex-wife's attorneys, Thomas Araguz only learned about his wife's gender history when they were together in a battle to maintain custody of the two boys in opposition with Heather Delgado, his ex wife. Delgado's attorney went looking for dirt on Nikki Araguz and found her original California birth certificate (which, evidently had not been changed, since actual gender changes in California result in a sealed certificate to which he wouldn't have access), and her 1996 name change from her male birth name to her pre-married female name. He also found out she'd had a number of arrests for theft, passing bad checks and a DUI both pre and post her name change (the last of which was in 2004).

The parents and ex-wife want to receive all the late fire fighter's death benefits (reportedly amounting to around $600K, as well as the exclusive right to sue for wrongful death (which Nikki would normally retain as his wife) which may ultimately total in the millions.

The news spread quickly and KHOU in Houston had the revised story about the widow within an hour. The two stone-faced announcers somberly proclaimed, "this story has taken a STANGE turn." Nikki Araguz was "born a man." The KTRK outlet had a long interview with Nikki (who had been in San Francisco when the El Campo News Leader story broke). The legal actions against her state that Thomas Araguz didn't know about Nikki's trans history until Heather's attorney showed him the documentation of her birth certificate and name change in April.

Are you or have you ever had a member...

In her interview, Nikki is repeatedly asked about her trans status, her genitals, her SRS and whether her husband knew about her trans history before the custodial battle with the ex-wife. Nikki stated Thomas knew about her history by their second date in 2007, he said he loved her anyway, they married in 2008 (when she was still pre-op) and she had SRS a few months later. There is also a suggestion from Nikki she was born Intersex, had under-developed genitals (and was mis-assigned male at birth). She said her husband also knew about her prior arrests.

Liar and Sinner

On July 20, 2010, the KTRK headline read:

Suit alleges firefighter's widow was born a man

The story includes some heavily edited clips from the Nikki Araguz interview, but also includes commentary from Heather Delgado's attorney and a family law attorney which both state change of sex isn't possible in Texas and, therefore, voids the marriage.

Some commentators have already mentioned the similarities to the Littleton v. Prange case where a trans woman, Christie Lee Littleton was ruled ineligible to sue for the wrongful death of her husband because she was still a male and same sex marriages aren't recognized in Texas. In a mixed opinion by the 3-judge court, they dismissed Littleton's right to sue because their marriage wasn't legal. Since then, the Texas Legislature passed an amendment. As Cristen Williams, Director of the Houston TG Center notes:

In 2009, lawmakers (in H.B. No. 3666) changed the Texas family code to permit an applicant for a marriage license to use a sex change court order to nullify the birth certificate gender.Sec. 2.002. APPLICATION FOR LICENSE. Except as provided by Section 2.006, each person applying for a license must:

(8) an original or certified copy of a court order relating to the applicant's name change or sex change;

In other words, a post-op trans woman in Texas could get legally married to a man (although it's not impossible it could be legally challenged at some point using the Littleton v. Prange decision). It's not clear whether the 2009 addendum is for trans people from out of state or whether it suggests trans people in Texas can use proof of SRS to legally change their sex. The catch in this case, is that Nikki has admitted she was pre-op at the time of their wedding, which makes it likely the marriage will be nullified (she does, however, have famed attorney, Phyllis Frye on her side, so nothing is a lost cause).

The Devil Himself

By the next day, the ABC station had a story which was headlined:

"Firefighter's widow born a man has criminal history."

The story is mostly about Nikki's arrest record and how she was booked into the Harris County jail up until 1996 as a man and after 2000 as a woman and how she was always held in a male cellblock. The reporter makes a big deal how someone who didn't have SRS until 2008 was booked as a woman (even though, again, she was held in the men's cellblock) and goes on about how the Sheriff's Department couldn't explain how she was booked as a woman other than as a "booking error." It seems fairly obvious they were actually trying to acknowledge that, apart from her still having a penis, she was extremely female looking and sounding at that time and that this wasn't a ordinary "male" prisoner. The reporter acts as if he's doing serious investigative reporting which will result in public outrage. The reporter regularly refers to Nikki with male pronouns (albeit in reference to her "male" arrests).

A zinger on the end

On July 22, 2010, the Houston Fox affiliate had a story about the Houston trans communities' intent to support Nikki at her hearing 7/23/10 and interviewed trans activist Lou Weaver. They have their own legal analyst state that while chromosomal testing is no longer used to determine gender in sports, that it is still used in the state of Texas as determined by the Texas Supreme Court. (which is actually open to question, based on the 2009 addendum, nor did the Texas Supreme Court ever hear the Littleton v. Prange case, it was the 4th District Court of Appeals). The Supreme Court did deny Littleton's appeal to hear the case but made no ruling on whether chromosomes (which would also impact a large number of Intersex people) impacting one's legal status as male or female. They end the report on the trans communities support by restating "she had an extensive arrest record" as if this verifies the evil nature of the individual in question.

Caught in our trap!

As I have previously noted in Skip the Makeup, there's few things the media loves more than outing a passable/stealthy transsexual and it usually results in an instantaneous pile-on among competing outlets. In Nikki Araguz's case, many of the media outlets instantly quoted the attorney's of Mr. Araguz's parents and Ms. Delgado, who stated Mr. Araguz didn't know about Nikki's medical history until May of this year (which would seem to be relatively easily verified by checking the date of her SRS versus the date of their wedding). The fact remains, Nikki has admitted that her and Thomas perjured themselves at the custody hearing and that they were married after she had SRS—both of which are likely to come back to haunt her case later.

Who me? Love someone like that? Never!

What isn't discussed in the reporting of how Thomas was "deceived" is how straight men commonly pretend they were shocked and traumatized at finding out their partner is trans, as a way to rebuff societal judgments about their own sexual orientation. This is the entire basis of the trans-panic defense which is still legal to use in Texas (although banned in California).

As usual, the media is focusing on her past arrest record (trans person as outsider/criminal) and, especially, as the deceiver of a hero who supposedly didn't know his pre-op wife was trans. They've already included interviews with people from Wharton saying they'd never know Nikki was 'a transsexual'... she looked 100% like a woman—encouraging the paranoia of "trans people are among you ready to deceive you and lie to get what isn't rightfully theirs." One of the attorney interviews actually suggested that even though Nikki deceived Thomas, she actually went to his funeral (as if his widow had a nerve even being there).

As so often happens in controversial rape cases, the victim (in this case a widow) is put on trial. Not only is her sexual history examined under a microscope, but she has had former mugshots of her displayed. Nikki Araguz is no saint, and she has a long uphill battle to prove the legality of her marriage. But what's ultimately more important than the money, is how she is no longer allowed to be a woman who's just suffered a painful loss of a spouse, but presented as a common criminal trying to scam her way into big money but never once questioning the motives of his ex-wife and parents.


7/22/10 FoxNews in Houston obtained a film of Nikki when she was 20 years old (and pre-hormones) which was made by a local college student who, no doubt, got paid for it by the station. In it she talks candidly about her youth and when she first began transitioning. In my opinion, this is an offensive infringement of her privacy and irrelevant to the story. She is not a criminal and this situation is about the legality of her marriage, not her personal gender issues. She has admitted she had SRS, so that point is not in question. Once again, media is treating trans people's lives as a sideshow attraction.


  1. Thank you, Gina, for your well researched story But then, that's what you always deliver!

  2. And today at her court hearing, THIS:


    As a native Texan, this makes me ballistic.

  3. Thank you. Very insightful. As a transwoman in a committed relationship, the outcome of this case is very important to me and to the rest of the trans community. Keep us updated.

  4. @E: I heard about this Tweet, but it no longer seems to be up. What she said was that when Nikki and her legal team entered the court building, there were homophobic/transphobic taunts yelled at them.

    I'd be interested in hearing more... none of today's news stories mentioned this incident.

  5. The ex and the mother are greedy evil people people waiting in the side lines waiting to everything possible to live out their hateful attitudes and greed. It is heart breaking and i hope Nikki has a good support system. The major slurs and memes in full swing in the pile on - we can count on them , and you do an excellent job once again of bringing them to the forefront in your close analysis of this tragic story many of us will be following this story very closely - thank you Gina

  6. wow. it really sucks that the law is the law in this case, huh? i wish she could've just said she was post SRS when they married but then i guess they woulda dug up the real details and she'd be branded a liar (even though it seems it would be the purest of white lies i've ever seen). heart goes out to her.

  7. I really appreciate your review of this tragedy! Please help spread the word about the TG Center Nikki Araguz Fund. Her assets are frozen and she's been ostracized. We are raising money to pay for her defense and her day-to-day needs:



  8. Hi all, I'm in Portland for the next few days and mostly without a computer, so I haven't been following some of the events from the hearing. This story is up to 384 news links and I just saw a (totally ugly) story about it on "Inside Edition". Willam, as to saying she was "post" that, unfortunately would have been extremely easy to disprove... you need to have a dated and notarized statement from your surgeon just to get the legal change of gender. Sadly, I do think this is going to sink her case. But I think, at this point, it's not about money and more about her womanhood, respect for her husband and not being branded as a crook. She went through some bad stuff in her life and has made a big effort to turn her life around in the past 6 years to have to deal with this.

  9. Excellent roundup and commentary on what is turning out to be an extremely complex case. Thank you.

  10. The following blog contains detailed information and facts about the Delgado v. Araguz case.


  11. Sadly, Bush (ex-governor) has a real issue with Trans individuals (and intersex) and tried to get into Texas law the ability to annull based on a T individual (also when President got it so a US citizen who is T marrying EITHER gender, could not get their spouse a green card, putting them into indefinate limbo). It is hard to see the tragedy of a loving relationship and a woman who was a mother of two boys, in a stable family demonized and sued by her mother in law and the ex (I mean, if he had wanted his EX to have the children, or his money, she wouldn't be called, the EX-wife).

    This illustrates one of the reasons I am against assumption of Cis, because Nikki would have been assumed Cis, though as we see, always a news story away from losing everything and being outed (which they don't seem to see as a personal choice). I really hope the boys choose to stay with her and she has strong emotional support during this time. Nikki: lover, wife, mother, widow - her life, loves and losses should not be eliminated.

  12. @Eliz: As a follow-up, the boys are still with their birth mom (but I think mostly being raised by their grandmother) and Nikki has lived in San Francisco for the last 5 months.


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