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Firefighter’s Widow Denied Death Benefits After Husband Killed In Fire

by Jay Morris on May 29, 2011

in Jay Morris,Legal Issues

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When Nikki Araguz stepped into a Wharton County, Texas courtroom, she stood much more to lose than the $600,000 in death benefits which would be assigned to her if the court deemed her marriage to Thomas Araguz invalid.  She stood to lose her legal claim to marriage.

Thomas Araguz was a firefighter in Wharton, Texas. Last year, while fighting a large fire at an egg farm, Thomas and two other firefighters became trapped inside when the burning building collapsed.  Rescuers were able to locate and save Thomas’ colleagues, but Thomas remained trapped and died from the injuries.

Thereafter, Thomas’ family filed suit against his widow claiming that his marriage to Nikki was invalid under Texas Law and that Nikki should not receive any of the death benefits from her relationship with Thomas. Judge Clapp ruled in favor of Thomas’ extended family declaring his marriage to Nikki invalid.

However, before the judge even ruled on the case, society had denied Nikki her marriage.  In fact, when a service was held and Thomas’ name was added to the list of fallen firefighters at the Capitol in Austin, Texas, Nikki was not allowed to attend and be recognized as Thomas’ wife. She was not presented with the flag like so many other widows who have suffered the same loss.

But why? Why would society turn their back on the widow of a fallen hero? Why would the same society that honors so many fallen firefighters and their widows suddenly shun Nikki, ignoring her grief? Their excuse? Nikki is transsexual. Having been born intersex and declared “male,” she later conformed her body to her true gender identity. The family argued that Thomas was unaware that Nikki was transsexual; however, evidence presented in the case showed otherwise.

Texas law clearly bans marriages between two consenting and loving adults if their birth certificate gender markers match. In fact, it goes a step further to ban anything similar to marriage (which could arguably disallow persons of the same gender from entering into business partnerships or forming corporations due to the vagueness of the ban in that regard.) In a similar ruling by the 5th Circuit Court, Littleton v. Prange, 9 SW 3d 223 (Tex.App.-San Antonio, 1999), the court held that, as a matter of law, Christie Littleton, a male to female transsexual, is legally a male and therefore her marriage to another male was invalid. The irony of this ruling is that it created what is known as the “Littleton Loophole” in Texas law which allows for same-sex marriage. For example, a male to female transsexual can legally marry a biological female when Littleton is applied. The gender markers on each of their birth certificates would be opposite (presuming the birth certificate has not been amended.)

Perhaps even more interesting is the concurring opinion in the Littleton case of Justice Karen Angelini, who stated that she concurred with the opinion only in the absence of “any legislative guidelines for determining whether Texas law will recognize a marriage between a male-to-female transsexual and a male.”

However, in 2009, legislative guidelines were provided which clearly established legislative intent to allow for such marriages. Section 2.005(b)(8), Texas Family Code was amended to allow for an applicant for a marriage license to use a certificate or court order relating to the applicant’s sex change to be used as “proof” of identity. Although efforts were made by Senator Williams to amend the bill this legislative session and remove the “and sex change” language, the effort was unsuccessful.

The present case highlights the need for change in our government. Until such time as marriage equality exists, all of us are in danger of falling victim to our government’s tyranny, as did Nikki Araguz and Christie Lee Littleton. While many argue that same-sex marriage is not a transgender issue, these cases clearly evidence otherwise.

However, we cannot simply focus on the micro issues.  Our community suffers gravely due to health care and insurance barriers, discrimination in public accommodations and employment, marriage inequalities and other government sanctioned discrimination.  We must continue the fight for full federal equality in all matters governed by civil law with no excuses, no compromises and no caveats.

Equal must mean equal.


Jay Morris is a State Lead for GetEQUAL​.org, a founding member of the Direct Action Network San Antonio, a writer for Ignite San Antonio Magazine, and blogger at jaysays​.com. You can find him posting randomness on Twitter or engage him in conversation on Facebook.

Read Jay Morris’ most recent piece at The New Civil Rights Movement, “The T In Me: Living The Gender Binary,”

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miahmdparash September 19, 2011 at 3:06 pm


It's a nice article it will help my research.


richmorejohn2 November 8, 2012 at 9:49 pm

We of the fire service, stand us one and salute our fallen comrade. We support Mrs. Araguz in her plight.

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