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Fireman’s Transgender Widow May Get Benefits

CORPUS CHRISTI (CN) - A transgender woman whose firefighter husband died in the line of duty may have a case for benefits, a Texas appeals court ruled

Nikki Paige Araguz, 38, who was born Justin Graham Purdue, sought judicial review in April 2012 of a finding that she is not the proper legal beneficiary of Thomas Araguz III, a Wharton County volunteer firefighter. Araquz was killed while fighting a fire in July 2010 at an egg plant.

Soon after his death, Arguz's mother, Simona Longoria, sued for a declaration that his marriage was void because it was a same-sex marriage, which is illegal in Texas. Araguz's ex-wife, Heather Delgado, later intervened in the case on behalf of her two children, agreeing the marriage was void.

A Wharton County judge later voided the marriage on summary judgment but a three-judge panel with the 13th District Court of Appeals reversed Thursday.

Ultimately there is "a genuine issue of material fact regarding Nikki's sex and whether the marriage was a same sex marriage," Chief Justice Rogelio Valdez wrote for the court.

As the case presents a matter beyond the common understanding of judges, expert testimony is required, according to the ruling.

Here, Araguz's physician, Dr. Collier Cole, said in an affidavit that Araguz suffers from gender dysphoria. This affidavit is "the only expert testimony in the summary judgment record."

"Heather and Simona failed to submit any expert testimony in support of their motions," Valdez wrote. "Although their evidence established that Nikki was born with male sex organs and had male sex organs on the date of her ceremonial marriage to Thomas, there is no evidence to controvert Dr. Cole's expert testimony regarding Nikki's medical condition (i.e., gender dysphoria), its treatment, or his expert opinion that Nikki is 'medically and psychologically' female as a result of her compliance with the standards of care adopted by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health."

An amendment to the Texas Family Code in 2009 also states that a court order for a sex change is acceptable proof to establish an applicant's identity and age to get a marriage license, according to the ruling.

Longoria, the mother-in-law, failed to show that the change does not legitimize gender reassignments under state law, the court found.

"Read in the context of the constitutional definition of the marriage relationship, the statutory term 'same sex marriage' means a marriage between two men or a marriage between two women," the opinion states. "The term 'sex change' is also used in the marriage statute, but it is not defined. Therefore, we give the term its 'ordinary meaning.' Here, the legislature has clearly used the words 'sex change' in a way that establishes that a person who has had a sex change is eligible to marry a person of the opposite sex such that the marriage is between one man and one woman, as set forth in the Texas Constitution."

Noting that Araguz's motion for summary judgment does not reference evidence, the appellate panel declined to render a judgment in her favor.

Araguz's attorney, Kent Rutter with Haynes Boone in Houston, said his client was very happy with the ruling.

"This decision recognizes that transgender Texans have the right to marry the person that they love," he told the Associated Press on Thursday.

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