Like any widow, Nikki Araguz imagined that she was laying her husband, Thomas Araguz, to rest after he was killed as a volunteer firefighter on July 4, 2010. Because Araguz is transsexual, her marriage was invalidated after being sued by Thomas’ ex-wife for her portions of death benefits.
Araguz’s story is one of four featured in “Simply Family,” a multimedia piece on how Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender families in the South, a region with the highest percetnage of LGBT couples raising children in the United States, continue to face legal and social challenges.
Nikki Araguz was identified as male at birth. Since the time she was four years old, she always felt like she was in the wrong body. Diagnosed as intersexed with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, Araguz, called Justin as a child, was born with male genitalia that never developed past her childhood. She grew breasts as a teenager and on her eighteenth birthday she asked to never be called Justin again. When she met Thomas Araguz as thirty-two-year-old Nikki, she told him about her “birth defect.” She said he loved her anyway. Thirteen months later, on Aug. 23, 2008, they got married in Wharton, Texas. Her life had come full circle. “I had a husband now, a home, two wonderful boys [and] my body was about to be corrected,” said Araguz, who describes the reassignment surgery she received two months later as the “most freeing experience” of her life. The most traumatic experience of her life came on July 4, 2010, when her firefighter husband died in the line of duty. A day after she buried Thomas, her late husband’s ex-wife sued for her portion of death benefits. Because Araguz was technically male on her wedding day, Judge Randy Clapp of the Wharton County District Court in Texas nullified their marriage. “Suddenly, I had my rights stripped from me and it was scary. It made me feel like I didn’t matter and I didn’t count,” said Araguz, whose appeal to the 13th District Court of Appeals is expected to be heard sometime within the year. “My marriage was very real and our love was very real and it should be respected and thought of as such.”
Raised as an only child by two mothers, Linda Ramos always wanted a family of her own. When she learned that a tumor on her pituitary gland would prevent her from having children, she was devastated. Years later, with her partner Yessenia Perez, Linda became both a mother and “legal stranger” to their newborn daughter. After the couple’s first attempt at pregnancy through a fertility clinic resulted in miscarriage, they were thrilled when their friend Robert Gonzales offered to be the child’s father “not on paper, but in life.” On Jan. 14, 2012, at the Austin Area Birthing Center, Sophia Perez-Ramos was welcomed into the world by her three parents. But, although Texas is one of top-five states LGBT parents call “home,” Ramos has no legal rights to her daughter until she can adopt. Ramos and Perez are one of more than 46,000 LGBT couples in Texas that are denied benefits guaranteed through traditional marriage. In addition, through the national Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, only heterosexual married couples are eligible for 1,100 federal benefits. Affecting everything from Social Security to adoption and health insurance, these laws do not recognize LGBT couples as parents, wives or husbands at state or national levels.
After losing his partner to AIDS, Jeff Lutes found solace in the camaraderie of country western dancing where he met his future husband, Gary Stein, who is deaf. In their quest to become parents, Lutes learned American Sign Language and they have since adopted three children, two of whom are deaf. Although they have ensured financial security from family members who strongly oppose their fifteen-year-long relationship, their children are not always protected from social stigma. Because they are gay, the couple’s oldest son experienced some bullying in middle school. Lutes, a psychotherapist who specializes in marriage issues, says they used it as a “teaching moment.” “We just try to instill in them, our belief, that their family loves them and cares for them,” he said.
Though they lived the quintessential “high school sweetheart” love story, Tracy Linder and Greg Stephens divorced when their daughter, Grace, was three years old. A year later, Linder fell in love with Ryan Kelsey, a woman, and “family” took a different meaning. Despite disapproval from friends and relatives, the couple had a ceremonial wedding in front of the Texas State Capitol on Oct. 16, 2011, with Grace by their side. Stephens was initially concerned for his daughter because he didn’t understand the new dynamic. “But, she fell right in. Ryan’s great and it works extremely well.” A 2011 report, “All Children Matter,” says state and federal laws that prohibit same-sex marriage can negatively impact the health, stability and economic welfare of nearly 600,000 LGBT families nationwide. Providing an in-depth look at the challenges LGBT families face, it states that “[These] laws, combined with social stigma, create obstacles [for] stable, loving homes,” and roughly 2 million children raised by LGBT couples in the United States.