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By Sean Pendergast
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By Ben DuBose
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.
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.
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.
Over the next two weeks, Christie Lee repeatedly took him to a hospital emergency room, insisting that he once again was threatened by blood clots, that she'd seen these symptoms before. Once, she waited in the hospital for eight hours, only to be told that his symptoms required nothing more than ibuprofen.
The next day, Mark died in her arms.
Christie Lee took his body back to Kentucky, to be buried in his family's mountaintop plot. Her mother-in-law urged her to sue the doctor for malpractice. Christie Lee did, sharing an attorney with her mother-in-law and the two kids from Mark's previous marriage.
According to Christie Lee, the doctor's insurance company agreed to a settlement with Mark's mother and kids. But because Christie Lee had been born a man, the insurance company claimed that she had no standing in court. Her marriage, lawyers said, wasn't valid. And San Antonio's 288th District Court agreed.
This was the first time Mark's family had heard about Christie Lee's sex change, and the news wasn't welcome. Through their shared lawyer, Mark's mother ordered Christie Lee never to call or visit the family again, and not to visit Mark's grave. "The cemetery belongs to her," Christie Lee says mournfully. "She owns the mountain. They live in the holler, and own the mountains all around it. If I were to walk into the holler, they'd probably shoot me."
Christie Lee's San Antonio lawyer appealed the court's decision, but last fall, the Fourth Court of Appeals upheld it. Christie Lee's lawyers urged her to give up.
Christie Lee's lawyer urged her not to talk to the media, but the story made the papers anyway. Tere read about Christie Lee, and wrote an appeal in the newsletter of the San Antonio Equal Rights Political Caucus, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender group: Did anyone know how to reach Christie Lee, who obviously needed help?
Christie Lee did need help. Besides her legal problems, she was too depressed to work, and her business was falling apart. She felt that she'd been exposed as a freak. And she felt that Mark, too, was being ridiculed. It had been his marriage too.
Someone forwarded a copy of the SAERPC newsletter to Christie Lee, but she wasn't sure what to think of it. She didn't have anything against gays and lesbians, but she didn't feel that she had anything in common with them, either. She had never heard of transgender activists. She asked a neighbor to drive her to a SAERPC meeting, but intentionally arrived an hour after the meeting's start. While everyone was paying attention to the speaker, Christie Lee sneaked in and sat in the back, observing the exotic creatures before deciding to risk contact.
Eventually SAERPC connected her to Phyllis Frye, who not only pursued the case vigorously but did everything she could to elevate it to a cause célèbre. And Christie Lee Littleton, who'd spent her entire life trying to be a heterosexual woman, became a gay-rights rallying cry.
Someone asked the restaurant to switch the TV to the five o'clock news, and the group flocked to the bar to watch themselves on KSAT-12. Their story came third, after reports on high school football and the heat wave. Phyllis laughed. This is Texas, after all; football always comes first.
The anchor slugged the story as a "controversial lesbian marriage," and the video footage showed Jessica and Robin kissing on the courthouse steps. "Go, Robin!" yelled a balding man at a nearby table. Robin looked embarrassed.
Christie Lee's face never appeared on the broadcast, nor did it appear later on other stations' reports. Newspaper stories sometimes mentioned the Littleton case in passing, to explain the loophole that allowed Robin and Jessica to be married, and the long version of the Associated Press wire story included a quote in which Jessica called attention to the hell Christie Lee has endured. But no story quoted Christie Lee herself or mentioned Mark's name.
Not that Christie Lee expected anyone to notice her. She had come to feel invisible. After the group returned to the table, the reporter from the San Antonio Currentintroduced herself; she'd been talking for the last hour to the Wickses. Christie Lee bristled: "Now you notice me?" But the reporter didn't have much to ask; her story was about a lesbian wedding, and Christie Lee wasn't one of the lesbians.
Around 6:30 p.m., the party broke up. Phyllis, Sarah, Jessica and Robin piled into a green Jeep for the long drive back to Houston. In the backseat, Jessica rested her head on Robin's shoulder.
Tere gave Christie Lee a ride home, and stayed with her a while. After Tere left, Christie Lee cried. Everyone else had forgotten Mark, she thought. It was her job to remember.