XX Marks the Spot

Christie Lee Littleton's chromosomes nullified her marriage, but paved the way for a groundbreaking one

Phyllis sees even broader ramifications: The basic question, she thinks, is whether you can choose your gender. Littleton, she says, could be more important than Roe v. Wade. It could open the door not just to gay marriage, but to a far more fluid conception of gender. It's the case of a lifetime, the reason she hasn't retired yet.

Over the margaritas, Phyllis and Christie Lee resurrected an old joke: Which Hollywood stars should be cast for the movie based on our story? Jennifer Lopez for me, said Christie Lee. Phyllis thought her role should go to Susan Sarandon (though Molly Ivins seems closer to her type, with the necessary Texas swagger). Sarah wanted the brassy woman who played Karla on Cheers.

They laughed; they enjoyed imagining their story with a Hollywood ending. Phyllis was in high spirits, relieved that the Wickses had their marriage license, happy to taunt the Fourth Court, ready to raise hell.

Man and wife - but not in San Antonio: Christie Lee and Mark Littleton.
Courtesy of Christie Lee Littleton
Man and wife - but not in San Antonio: Christie Lee and Mark Littleton.
Brides-to-be: Jessica and Robin Wicks display their marriage license.
Lisa Gray
Brides-to-be: Jessica and Robin Wicks display their marriage license.

But Christie Lee's mood swung from celebration to mourning. Sometimes, amid the jokes and the chatter, she looked lost in thought. The victory they were celebrating -- the Wickses' marriage license -- was the flip side of her loss.

Christie Lee always considered herself a heterosexual woman. She was born with a penis, and her birth certificate called her "Lee V. Cavazos Jr., a male," but she never felt like a boy. When she was five, she told her mother. In the late '50s in conservative San Antonio, that news constituted a medical crisis. Lee's mom consulted a doctor.

Between the ages of nine and 12, Lee took male hormones. Her shoulders broadened and her voice deepened, but still, she didn't feel like a boy. She says that when she thought about sex, she thought about having it with men -- but as a woman, not a man. "I didn't think about -- what is it that starts with an S? sodomy? -- that's gross!"

Finally, a doctor took Lee's mother aside.

She's a girl, the doctor said. We can't turn her into a boy. And when she's 18, she's going to want a sex-change operation, and you won't be able to stop her.

Lee began taking female hormones. At age 25, she changed her name to Christie Lee, and two years later, underwent genital reassignment surgery. At last, she looked like the woman she'd always known that she was.

And for a while, life was okay. Christie Lee's mother accepted her as a daughter; Christie Lee had boyfriends; she opened her own beauty salon.

But in the late '80s, a car wreck rocked her life. San Antonio surgeons repaired her face -- all the bones had been smashed -- but they failed three times to repair her bladder. Eventually they referred her to a specialist in Lexington, Kentucky.

She had to wait a month before her next round of surgery, so she checked into a motel. Lexington is a black-and-white kind of town; Christie Lee, a Latina, registered as neither one nor the other, and her exotic looks attracted significant male attention. When my nephew sees you, he's going to fall in love, a sweet old man told her in the motel's lobby. Yeah, sure, thought Christie Lee.

His nephew turned out to be Mark Littleton, a small-boned, delicate man originally from Pikeville, Kentucky, a coal-mining town. He'd lived a while in Dallas, but after a divorce, had come to Lexington seeking a job at the Toyota plant.

He struck up a friendship with Christie Lee, and was astounded to find out that her bladder surgery would leave her bedridden for six months. Who's going to take care of you? he asked.

I don't know, she said.

He volunteered. Together, they rented a two-bedroom apartment. After the surgery, Mark carried Christie Lee everywhere. He changed her catheters. He bathed her. At the end of six months, when doctors told Christie Lee she was free to return to San Antonio, Mark broke into tears. I've fallen in love with you, he said. Will you marry me?

Christie Lee was scared. I have something to tell you, she said. You sit on the other side of the room, and I'll sit next to the door. Because when I've told other men, they've wanted to hit me.

Mark promised not to hurt her. When she'd told him everything, he said, You still haven't answered my question.

After the wedding, they moved to San Antonio. Mark got a job washing high-rise windows, and Christie Lee opened a new salon, Hair & Nails by Christie Lee. In photos from that period, they look happy. She is quick to say that their marriage was consummated, that she and Mark enjoyed lots of what her lawyers call "private, intimate, heterosexual vaginal-penile sexual intercourse."

That happy period lasted until 1995, when Mark's life was threatened by blood clots. Doctors put him on a permanent regimen of blood-thinning drugs. He left the hospital too weak to work, and in constant danger of bleeding to death. This time, it was Christie Lee's turn to nurse Mark.

After almost a year, Mark grew eager to regain his strength and began taking short walks. One night he tripped on a curb and tore the tendon under his right knee.

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