So a story that’s going around the news this week is about Nikki Araguz, widow of firefighter Thomas Araguz. She’s also a Texan and a trans woman.
Thanks to the Christie Lee Littleton case, there’s precedent that says trans women are not and cannot be legally female or women in the state of Texas, which can be used to deny trans women spouse benefits, although this primarily seems to come up when the spouse’s family wants a legal hook to deprive a trans woman of such benefits. This isn’t the first or the last time this will happen, and as much as it makes me sick to my stomach to see yet another trans woman’s life dragged through the mud because American (and specifically Texas in this case) law is regressive and oppressive.
But I think this story touches on somewhat larger, more encompassing issues that trans people have to deal with. Thomas’ mother, for example, insists that her son didn’t know that Nikki was trans and separated from her shortly before his death, and that Nikki herself married Thomas for the money – that she’s a gold digger. Nikki, on the other hand, says that Thomas knew all along and was fine with it.
I believe Nikki’s telling the truth. I believe Thomas’ mother, Simona Longoria, is appealing to the narrative that will ultimately purchase cis sympathy for her plight. Simona’s claim makes Nikki out to be an opportunistic predator, a stealthy deceiver, a liar who wormed her way into Thomas’ life in order to not only feast on his assets while alive, but to cackle merrily on the way to the bank after his death. It is dependent upon (in addition to the Littleton precedent), painting Nikki as someone who deceived Thomas in order to not only get into his bed, but also into his life.
This is how many cis people love to paint trans women. This is how Focus On The Family and its affiliated activist groups around the country talk about trans women – they claim we’re pedophiles and rapists just waiting to catch cis women and children alone in a restroom, or that cis men will pose as trans women to do the same. This is how murderers get light sentences after they murder trans women of color – by claiming they found out she was trans and killed her in an uncontrollable rage. Even when she’s been strangled after having slept with him for months, or when she’s been shot in the back. And then they walk free to kill again.
This is how cis columnists talk about how trans people are discreditable and dishonest if we don’t admit up front that we’re trans, or at least say so within the first few dates. This is how cis people describe that having sex with a trans person who doesn’t disclose is akin to rape or exposure to STDs. Cis people, on the contrary, are never expected to disclose their transphobia and unwillingness to date a trans person on any date. Cis people never feel the urge to say, “Oh, by the way? If you’re trans, I will bash your head in with a fire extinguisher.” And yet who takes the blame?
And as much as we talk about these things, these conversations fail to convey any amount of depth about the variety of trans people’s lives. It presumes that trans people are gendered properly a significant amount of the time. It presumes that trans people who are not gendered properly are perhaps not worth talking about quite as much. It presumes that trans people who are gendered incorrectly and recognized as trans are not often almost immediately subjected to hate speech and harassment, let alone threatened or even outright assault and violence. One of my friends on livejournal routinely talks about her encounters with cis people hurling hate speech and threats at her. To these cis people, apparently her very existence is too offensive for them to bear.
And that’s what it comes down to. It’s not about honesty, it’s not about disclosure, it’s about existence. Often, cis people see trans people as unbearable and intolerable just because of who we are, where we dare to go, who we dare to talk to, who we dare to find attractive, where we dare to work, what clothes we dare to wear, which street we dare to walk down. That we dare to breathe and speak, and be present.
So the problem is never “she lied to him” or any of that nonsense. The problem is that she’s trans and tried to live like a cis person, and that’s just not acceptable.
So, if we’re going to ever have a useful conversation about disclosure? It has to start there. It can’t be a debate about when or if trans people should tell cis people that they’re trans. It can’t focus on the needs and problems of trans people with reliable passing privilege (or who are assumed to have that passing privilege). It can’t even be about disclosure because disclosure is not the problem. It has to be about the fact that transphobia is a systematic, institutionalized force, and its primary purpose is to deny us the right to exist.
Edit: Apparently, all of Nikki’s assets have been completely frozen and she’s living off charity. If you want to donate to help with her legal fees (because this case could, if appealed far enough, change precedent in Texas), you can find the information here. Thanks to Drakyn for the link, and Charlie Butler for this link that also has more explanation.