Eighteen years ago, Margot Kantaras was a frightened 24-year-old woman feeding quarters into a pay phone, frantically trying to track down a Texas clinic that she'd heard could change her into the man she'd always felt she truly was.
No longer a woman and no longer frightened, Michael -- who left his former Margot identity behind in Texas after surgery and hormones -- recently won the most significant legal victory to date in the newly emerging area of transgendered rights.
Ruling in a bitter divorce and child-custody dispute, a Florida judge on Feb. 21 affirmed that Michael's 1989 marriage to a woman was legal and then took the extraordinary step of granting Michael primary custody of the couple's two children.
"The case took nearly five years, but I am happy and eternally relieved for the children," says Michael, a meat department manager. "Everybody has made this such a big case. But from my perspective, we are a normal family. And now we can get on with our lives."
The breakup battle between Michael and his now ex-wife, Linda, was vicious even by the notoriously cruel standards set by so many of the estranged couples who end up in American courtrooms.
And Judge Gerard J. O'Brien deserves a hearty round of applause -- not because he happened to end up siding with the wishes of a transgendered parent but because of how sensibly he dealt both with the reality that Michael has changed his gender and that it's in the two children's best interests to have strong relationships with their father, as well as their mother.
In deciding that the children should live with Michael, the judge stressed that Michael, unlike his ex-wife, wants the children to be close to both parents. The judge pointed to a mountain of evidence indicating that Linda tried to destroy Michael's connection to their children by, for example, starting to refer to him as "he/she/it."
Linda knew Michael was transgendered when she married him, according to court documents. Nevertheless, she tried to have their marriage declared invalid after he filed for divorce. She also sought custody of both of their children -- a son, whom Michael adopted after the boy's biological father abandoned Linda during pregnancy, and a daughter, born through artificial insemination with sperm donated by Michael's brother.
Linda apparently developed an uncontrollable hatred for Michael after he told her that he'd developed "feelings" for her best friend. And Linda proceeded to tell the unsuspecting children that their father had been born biologically female.
After a televised three-week trial, the first to include extensive expert testimony about the medical and psychological aspects of being transgendered, O'Brien handed down a staggering 809-page opinion. (See: www.nclrights.org)
"When judges have the chance to understand what it is like for someone to be born in the wrong body, to understand how much people suffer and how the treatment turns them around, they will do the right thing," said co-counsel Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Before Michael's victory, marriages involving transgendered people had been upheld in California and New Jersey. But in Texas and Kansas, they were declared invalid: A transgendered widow had unsuccessfully tried to sue a doctor for medical malpractice over her husband's death; a son inherited his father's estate by having the man's marriage to a transgendered woman nullified.
"(Michael's) case will have an extraordinary impact," Minter predicts. "In addition to all the medical testimony, there was testimony about transgendered people's ability to be good parents."
Fortunately, as society's understanding grows, we can expect to see many more rulings that respect the legal rights of transgendered men and women.
Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues and is the co-author of "Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court." To find out more about Deb Price and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com .
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