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On the steps of the Bexar County courthouse, the happy lesbian couple brandished their new marriage license for the TV cameras, and their lawyer, Phyllis Randolph Frye, explained once again why these two women could be legally married. Jessica Wicks, a male-to-female transsexual, had been born a man, and according to a recent decision by San Antonio's Fourth Court of Appeals, that meant she would always remain a man. According to Littleton v. Prange, it didn't matter whether Jessica had estrogen flowing in her veins, wore a bra or lived her life as an avowed lesbian. To the Fourth Court, chromosomes are destiny. And thus, Jessica (whose sex chromosomes are XY) was free to marry Robin Wicks (an XX).
Jessica and Robin, like Phyllis, are from Houston, a hotbed of transgender activists. "A transgendered person," a handout patiently explained to the reporters, "is someone whose gender identity or expression differs from conventional expectations of masculinity or femininity. Their gender identity differs from their physical sex." It was comforting simply to see a definition. Definitions offer certitude, and when you hang around the transgendered, the world can seem disconcertingly fluid and words surprisingly inadequate: A "she" can turn into a "he" and vice versa; people often have former names and former lives; a "lesbian," like Jessica, may have been born male. You find yourself humming lines from the Kinks: "Girls will be boys and boys will be girls / It's a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world."
On the courthouse steps, the Houstonians were doing their best to mix, muddle and shake up the world, starting with San Antonio. With the cameras rolling, Phyllis urged same-sex couples like the Wickses -- "transwomen" and their girlfriends, "transmen" and their boyfriends -- to fly to the sleepy, conservative city and take their vows. The Wickses' marriage license was presented as a milestone in queer history: "I pray that somehow, some way, this will open the doors for gays and lesbians everywhere," Jessica said.
But of course, not all of the transgendered are gay or lesbian. Phyllis also introduced another of her clients, Christie Lee Littleton, as in the phrase "Littleton ruling." It was Christie Lee whom the Fourth Court had ruled against; because she'd been born male, the court said, her seven-year marriage to Mark Littleton wasn't valid. Never mind that Christie Lee had lived most of her life with a vagina; never mind that her husband knew about her sex change; never mind that they'd been issued a marriage license in Kentucky and presented themselves as just another dull married couple. After Mark's death, Christie Lee wasn't allowed to sue for malpractice because the court said she had no standing in the case. In the eyes of the Fourth Court, Christie Lee was forever a man, and her marriage to Mark didn't count. Their chromosomes were all that mattered.
The blue and pink highlights in Christie Lee's blond hair glinted cheerfully in the sun. The Wickses' marriage, she said into the microphone, "makes me happy for the gay community." But she doesn't consider herself part of that community, and her face was grim.
After the TV reporters finished gathering their sound bites, Phyllis directed her troops to Tomatillo's, a Mexican restaurant, for celebratory margaritas. Down at one end of the table, the Wickses did an interview with a couple of straggling San Antonio Current reporters who said they'd received the press release too late to attend the news conference. Phyllis sat near the middle, next to her old friend Sarah DePalma, a Houston-based transgender lobbyist who works the hard ground of the Texas legislature. But Sarah, like Phyllis, used to be a male Aggie, and after surviving Texas A&M, nothing much fazes her. When a conservative legislator told her, "Lady, you got balls," Sarah took it as a compliment.
Christie Lee sat across from Phyllis, and next to Tere Prasse, a transgender activist from San Antonio. Phyllis, Tere and Christie Lee are all the same age, 48, but they offer three wildly different pictures of transgender femininity. Phyllis wears a straw fedora, sensible shoes and Chapstick instead of lipstick; she is over six feet tall and looks every inch the good-old-gal eccentric. Tere, who used to be a test pilot, is lean, blond and androgynously sexy, à la Jamie Lee Curtis. Christie Lee presents herself as a girly girl, pairing a long, swirly skirt with a camisole that shows off her breasts. They all used to be men, and now they all share a common cause. But other than that, they appear to have nothing in common.
Looking at the trio, you wonder about the same question that Phyllis and another lawyer hope to present to the Supreme Court via Christie Lee's case: What makes a person male or female? Is it genitals? Chromosomes? Hormones? Or something in the brain? A decision would directly affect the lives of the transgendered and an even larger group, the "intersexed," people whose sex chromosomes vary from the usual XX (female) or XY (male). Most of the intersexed appear either male or female, and many never even know that they're XXYs or XYYs or Xs or XXXs. But under the Littleton decision, their chromosomes would relegate them to legal limbo, unable to marry anyone, unable to put either an M or an F on a driver's license.