Two court rulings this past week in California and Arizona allowing divorces to proceed are actually victories for transgender recognition. In both cases, transgender men were seeking divorces from their wives, but because their marriages would have only been recognized as opposite-sex marriages, the men needed the courts to recognize them as men.
In Arizona, Thomas Beatie — who was infamously known as the pregnant man — was working through a divorce from his wife, whom he had married in Hawaii in 2003. A state judge had ruled last year that Arizona could not grant them a divorce because of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, invalidating Beatie’s gender identity. That decision was based on the fact that Beatie had retained his female reproductive organs despite otherwise transitioning to live life as a man, including changing the gender on his legal documents before marrying.
A three-judge panel of the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling, allowing Beatie’s divorce to move forward. The Court focused on Beatie’s changed birth certificate, noting that Hawaii’s laws did not require him to undergo sex reassignment surgery to obtain legal classification as a man, nor did having children somehow undo that change. “There is no apparent basis in law or fact,” the panel wrote, “for the proposition that in the event Thomas gave birth after having modified his gender designation, it would have abrogated his ‘maleness,’ as reflected upon the amended birth certificate.”
In a footnote, the panel also noted that “the right to have children is a liberty interest afforded special constitutional protection.” This reflects a recent recommendation from the World Health Organization not to force transgender people to undergo surgery in order to obtain legal recognition for their gender.
A similar fight over the validity of gender identity played out in California. Jake Miller, better known by his stage name Buck Angel, was seeking a divorce from his wife Elayne. They had been married in Louisiana after Buck had obtained a California court order recognizing his male gender. Buck, however, did not officially update his birth certificate until years after they married, a point Elayne tried to use to claim that their marriage was never valid so that she would not have to pay spousal support. The Superior Court of California rejected her argument last week and ruled that Buck’s gender was valid — and thus so was their marriage, making them eligible for divorce.
Buck told the Transgender Law Center that he was “shocked that my manhood was brought into question after I had been living my authentic life as a man for over 20 years” but that he felt “incredibly validated” by the ruling.
The intersection of laws banning same-sex marriage and laws restricting transgender people’s ability to change their documentation has created complications in many states. Over the past few years in Texas, for example, there have been parts of the state where a trans individual could marry someone who identifies as the same gender and other parts of the state where a trans individual could only marry someone who identifies as the opposite gender, depending on how their gender identity was recognized. A Texas Appeals Court ruled this last February that the state must recognize transgender identities when weighing the validity of marriage licenses.
Some states, like Tennessee, offer no process for trans individuals born there to amend their birth certificates whatsoever, limiting their ability to be recognized as they travel across the country.