HER CHILDHOOD BEGAN IN A WELTER OF SEXUAL CONFUSION AND ENDED WHEN SHE WAS RAPED AND INFECTED WITH HIV. HER FIRST MARRIAGE WAS DESTROYED IN A BLUR OF DRUGS AND DYSFUNCTION, HER SECOND WHEN HER FIREFIGHTER HUSBAND DIED IN THE LINE OF DUTY. BUT THE BIGGEST FIGHT OF HER LIFE IS TAKING PLACE IN THE COURTS, IN A FRONTLINE BATTLE FOR TRANSGENDER RIGHTS THAT IS REVERBERATING THROUGH THE NATION.
Nikki Araguz is attending services at the same small-town Texas church where she married her husband, Thomas, and spoke at his funeral less than two years later. She has only been back a few times since he died on July 4, 2010. Most members of the congregation are dressed casually- khakis with button-downs, and some T-shirts. Nikki looks radiant in a diaphanous blue and violet silk paisley sundress with dangling turquoise earrings. Her skin is tanned from a day at the pool, her chestnut hair is pulled back, and a tattooed daisy is visible on her upper back. "I will find my strength in the shadow of your wings," Nikki sings along, slowly swaying with her eyes closed.
The interior of Grace Community Fellowship in Needville, about an hour outside Houston, looks like a hotel conference room. The wall-to-wall carpet is hospital-scrub green. Conjoined folding chairs serve as pews. A demure wood cross and two fake potted ferns with artificial ivy sparely decorate the altar. When the song ends, Nikki motions her head at a woman and whispers, "She was one of my best friends, but after this shit went down she doesn't speak to me."
Projected on a large screen above the altar is John 10:1-6: "The man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber." As the pastor sermonizes, Nikki pulls mementos of her life with Thomas out of her Bible case. She exhales loudly as she skims a love letter he wrote on yellow legal paper and a crayon-scrawled we love nikki note from his sons. These are artifacts of a marriage that never happened, at least in the eyes of the law.
Nikki was born male 36 years ago as Justin Graham Purdue but transitioned to female. Thomas's ex-wife and the mother of his two young sons, Heather Delgado, and his mother, Simona Longoria, sued to void Thomas and Nikki's marriage, alleging that Nikki was male at the time of the ceremony. At stake were life insurance policies totaling about $600,000. Since Thomas didn't leave a will, the sum would have been divided between his sons and Nikki. Delgado and Longoria argued that all the money should go to the children. On May 26, the 329th District Court of Wharton County, Texas, voided the marriage.
The pastor's blonde wife half sings, half preaches, "Layin' in the water, the holy spirit! Feel his presence begin to flow over you!" A woman passes out cold in rapture. Those behind her gently lower her down to the aisle floor. "That happened to me before," Nikki says. "You just become released and this energy takes over your body."
The case against Nikki Araguz has moved beyond a simple estate matter. The media circus reached national proportions last year with a 20/20 episode. "The case is about the right of individuals to marry whom they wish," says her co-counsel Mitchell Ratine, "and the transgender community's gender identity to be legitimate." As the case climbs to the appellate level, it will have impact on the rights of gender-variant individuals in Texas. If it goes beyond the appeals courts, it could have national ramifications.
"I never imagined I wouldn't have equal rights," Nikki says. "I was a white girl in Texas. Nothing in my mind said I would be discriminated against." Nikki neither wanted nor asked to be an exemplar for trans people. "It wasn't until this year that I was owning the word 'transsexual.' I never would have described myself as transgender. I was Nikki. I was a person. I don't want anybody to have to go through this." Nikki's life has been a series of transformations, not just her gender. …